More than bread and butter

As Malaysia heads to the polls, what are the main issues that voters are grappling with? What issues keep cropping up, election after election, and where should we as a plural society go from here? In a Q&A with Cindy Tham, Tricia Yeoh, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies, provides some insights. The centre, part of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli), tries to foster open-minded and respectful dialogue about important issues in Malaysia.

Tricia Yeoh

What are the main issues most voters want to see addressed in this general election?
Voters will be most concerned about inflation, rising crime rates, and the overall health of the economy. To some extent they will want to see leaders’ views on addressing issues of ethnic marginalisation, but in general Malaysian voters are worried about the most basic issues affecting their livelihood directly.

Which issues resonate more with a certain demographic? For example, are voters throughout the country concerned about these issues and are some issues seen to be more crucial among a particular community – urban/rural, race, religion, class, etc?

Different issues will strike the heartstrings of different communities. Although there is no hard and fast rule differentiating between urban and rural seats, urban communities will be more concerned with the economy than those in the rural areas. This includes the rate of falling FDI (foreign direct investment), [and] lower business opportunities. Based on the recent Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research poll (December 2007), however, both urban and rural voters seem to perceive the same issues as important, most prominently the increase in prices.

The next layer to investigate is that of ethnicity. The Chinese and Indians are concerned with issues relating to religion and perceived Islamisation of the country, as well as ethnic marginalisation. The Chinese are the most critical of the government’s handling of the economy as a whole, with the Malays giving a better outlook although their rating has also dropped over recent months, especially in urban areas. The Indians have traditionally been strong supporters of the BN (Barisan Nasional) but because of the recent Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force) crackdown, ratings for the government have plummeted significantly.

The middle to upper class are concerned with the economy because it relates directly to employment opportunities and career advancement – the question seems to be whether or not the country has what it is they want in order to achieve their personal goals. If Malaysia seems to be taking a downturn, then is this the nation that can allow them to achieve their goals?

Nevertheless, despite the growing concerns on a number of fronts amongst all groups, the more crucial question is whether or not these sentiments translate into changing voting patterns. Can the Opposition offer a viable alternative to address their problems? That is what will be asked.

Have the issues changed, and in what way, compared to the previous general election? What happened in the past few years that caused such changes?

The issues are more intensely focused upon. In a way, they have augmented since the last elections. Since Pak Lah took over, of course, there was generally greater scrutiny of his administration style. The promises he made in the beginning were the reason he got such a large mandate, which people have become increasingly critical of. Since he rode on the corruption ticket, likewise he has been criticised on that very front.

The issues seem to have collided and converged in the “perfect storm” – all conditions and factors coming together – high-profile religious cases (issue of freedom of religion and apostasy), the economy doing badly in the US and hence worldwide, concerns about inflation and rising prices of petrol especially, public education on issues and greater scrutiny of corruption cases (corruption in the public and private sectors). There was also the report Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy by Asli, on the issue of equal opportunities, which was reported by the press in 2006. Greater internet penetration amongst the urban residents gives them more chance to express their views and obtain information.

How hard will the candidates and political parties have to work to address these concerns? What do they need to do to assure the voters?

Very hard. This is perhaps a reason why the campaigning period has been extended almost twice as long [compared to nine days in 1999 and eight days in 2004]. The incumbents need to assure their constituents that they have done a good job and will continue to do so. Newbies need to show they have solutions and concrete strategies to solve the problems. Depending on the constituency, the candidates need to cater the right message to the right people. The Chinese are practical voters – they want to know how the candidates will deliver in terms of Chinese schools, language and the economy. The Indians will want to know from the MIC what the party can do to represent their best interests, especially in response to the issues raised by Hindraf.

And a longer term trend is how politicians need to cater to the needs of more sophisticated voters. The electorate is becoming increasingly demanding of their representatives. With calls for public accountability, transparency and good governance, politicians must respond accordingly. In the future, we will be looking at elections that do not merely descend into arguments on race and religion.

What issues keep cropping up in elections and will continue to after the ballot papers have been counted and a new cabinet appointed? Why?

Concerns about high rime rates, the economy (rising prices, falling FDI, and maintaining a healthy and robust macroeconomic outlook for the country), and race (equal opportunity vs. affirmative action). These are the hard-hitting issues that really matter to the locals. Even in between elections, Malaysia is an extremely political nation. Representatives do what best allows them to keep their power seats – what will get them elected into power again the next round.

Because of the way our political system is structured into race-based parties within the Barisan Nasional, it is most difficult to escape the campaigning and politicking around the issue of race. Unless and until the race-based system is modified, Malaysian politics will continue to revolve around ethnicity, each party promising to cater to its respective ethnic constituencies. In an ideal world, we should move towards parties based on ideological beliefs and stands on concrete policies like the economy, health, and so on. Don’t expect that we can run away from race anytime soon, since the structure itself is that way inclined.

(Pix courtesy of Tricia Yeoh)

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