Financial hardships expose racial divide in Malaysia

Umno delegates at the party's general assembly in December. The Malay Muslim majority is expected to back the Umno-led Barisan Nasional in the coming elections.
Umno delegates at the party's general assembly in December. The Malay Muslim majority is expected to back the Umno-led Barisan Nasional in the coming elections.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Malay Muslims see govt as hardship buffer; Chinese view BN as part of economic problem

Most Malaysians worry about the state of the economy, surveys show, but how they express these concerns at the ballot box varies according to their ethnicity.

The country's Malay Muslim majority largely sees the ruling government as a buffer against financial hardship. But a substantial section of its Chinese population view the government as part of the economic problem.

Thus, despite myriad complaints about the economy, the Malays will usually vote Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition led by Malay nationalist party Umno, as they do not see anyone else shielding their interests.

"While issues show negative perception towards the government because of deep concern over the economy, there isn't a strong alternative to the ruling party when it comes to upholding Malay interests," said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, whose Merdeka Center has run national opinion surveys since 2003. "To put it in a different way, even though Malays are unhappy with the economy, the opposition isn't able to convince them they can do a better job."

According to Merdeka Center polls conducted in March, three- quarters of the respondents said the economy was the biggest problem the country was facing. Despite what firebrand politicians would have the public believe, only 3 per cent of those surveyed ranked race and religion as an issue.

When asked to pick the two biggest issues from a list, three-quarters of bumiputeras - the Malay Muslim majority and indigenous tribes - picked inflation, compared with 42 per cent of Chinese.

NO STRONG ALTERNATIVE

While issues show negative perception towards the government because of deep concern over the economy, there isn't a strong alternative to the ruling party when it comes to upholding Malay interests.

MR IBRAHIM SUFFIAN, whose Merdeka Center has run national opinion surveys since 2003.

And only 13 per cent of Chinese were anxious about employment, compared with 17 per cent of Malays.

On average, bumiputeras earn less than their countrymen, which may explain their focus on inflation.

Food-seller Mastura Hamid, 31, admits to being "indebted" to the government for its annual cash handout - commonly referred to by its Malay acronym BR1M - of up to RM1,200 (S$388) for Malaysia's poorer households and individuals.

Meanwhile, highly subsidised public healthcare is metaphorically and literally a lifesaver for Muhd Ammar Ismail, 29, who owns a small sundry shop and is the sole breadwinner of his extended family.

"I took over the shop three years ago after my father was diagnosed with a heart disease. With the rising cost of living, I can't afford to insure both my parents and three younger brothers. My family, especially my father, would just have to endure the pain and hope to pull through if it wasn't for the government," he said.

The Chinese, on the other hand, were more worried about corruption (47 per cent) than inflation. And many from Malaysia's minority ethnic groups, such as the Chinese and Indians, also see Malay- sia's pro-bumiputera policies in housing, education and government procurement as a key factor that is holding Malaysia's economy back, saying that the system leads to inefficiency and abuse.

This explains why less than a quarter of the Chinese, who make up 30 per cent of the electorate, voted for BN at the last election, and why most of them will vote for opposition parties in the coalition now known as Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the upcoming one.

At the 2013 election, nearly 62 per cent of the Malay Muslim majority backed the Umno-led coalition. The majority of the Malays are seen backing BN at the next elections too.

"Some of us are really struggling but I'm not convinced the economy would be any different if the opposition takes over. At least with BN, I know the welfare of Malays is being looked after and that is the most important thing," said Mr Shamsul Izwan, 33, who is self-employed.

The voting divide, said Mr Azrin Zizal, head of South-east Asia for data analytics firm SCL, is an expression of the cultural "hopes and motivations" ingrained in each community.

"For the Chinese, they see pro- bumiputera policies as an uneven playing field and an obstacle to wealth accumulation. For the Malays, the pillars are a job or source of income, and the mosque. You can't touch those two," he said.

Still, a slowing economy and growing faith in Islam as a panacea has seen another trend emerging - a "vote for change", according to Datuk Ti Lian Ker of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a senior BN component. The MCA has suffered from a loss of support, giving the impetus for Umno to work with opposition Islamist party PAS on Islamic issues to cement its position among the Muslim majority.

Mr Ti, MCA's religious harmony chief, said: "All Malaysians want change. The thing is, non-Muslims want to change the government, but Muslims want to change to an Islamic system."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2017, with the headline 'Financial hardships expose racial divide in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe