Malaysia's Chinese voters - why the silence

For many years after the political tsunami, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was like some sort of "invisible man" in Penang.

The former chief minister has many friends and relatives in Penang where he was born and raised but he bore the brunt of the blame for the Malaysian state falling to Pakatan Rakyat in 2008, and there were many people who would pretend not to notice him or openly ignore him in public.

Not anymore. In the last one year or so, he has noticed that he is no longer invisible. Strangers smile at him and wave when they see him in the kopitiam or at the mall. They approach him to say hello and a few even thank him for his time as chief minister.

During the Chinese New Year, Gerakan politician Thor Teong Ghee, who was having lunch with his family at a hotel near Gurney Drive, noticed a steady stream of people approaching a particular table. On closer scrutiny, Dr Thor saw his former party president having lunch with his family and people were stopping by to wish him Gong Xi Fa Cai.

Dr Koh's time in purgatory seems to be over and his friends say it may also have something to do with the mood among the Chinese.

So much about Chinese politics remains the same, yet so much about it has changed.

Nobody can quite put their finger on it but the conventional opinion goes as such - the general Chinese sentiment is still highly critical of Umno, Prime Minister Najib Razak is still the lightning rod for many of them and the majority of Chinese are likely to vote for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Pakatan Harapan in the general election (GE14).

Malaysian voters using social media to track unofficial polling results outside the main vote-counting centre in Skudai, Johor, in May 2013. Political watchers are unanimous that the ground today is rather quiet, but they differ on the reasons. Some
Malaysian voters using social media to track unofficial polling results outside the main vote-counting centre in Skudai, Johor, in May 2013. Political watchers are unanimous that the ground today is rather quiet, but they differ on the reasons. Some think the voters have decided, hence there is no more need to attend gatherings to listen to what the parties have to say. PHOTO: ST FILE

They still want to change the government and many of them are convinced that it will happen in the next general election.

The odd thing is that by this time five years ago, the Chinese voters were in war mode and thronging political ceramahs (gatherings). Thousands of young people were registering to vote and volunteering with the opposition parties. People were talking politics day and night, airing their views to all and sundry. Their anger against the Malaysian government was palpable, Pakatan could do no wrong in their eyes.

Pakatan, said Chinese cultural expert Tang Ah Chai, also had a catchy slogan back then - wu ling wu, huan zhen fu (5th of May, change the government).

"This Chinese New Year, people were not interested to talk about politics. Life is back to normal," said Dr Thor.

The average person appears worn out by the non-stop politicking. This year's Chinese New Year videos by politicians have been largely straightforward, focusing on traditional themes of family and togetherness.

Political watchers are unanimous that the ground is rather quiet but they differ on the reasons. Some of them think the voters have decided, hence there is no need to attend ceramah to listen to what the political parties have to say.

Others say voters are still undecided and are waiting for confirmation of the parties and candidates in their area.

But according to Sungai Tiang assemblyman Datuk Suraya Yaakob, it is all happening on social media this time. "Facebook, mobile chat groups, people are exchanging and commenting there. The medium has changed," she said.

The deficit of interest in the coming polls is also reflected in the number of new voters. In 2011 alone, one million people signed up to vote but there have been barely one million new voters over the last five years.

There are apparently some four million unregistered voters out there and the impact will be significant because the younger, first-time voters are usually the risk-takers, the more impulsive group.

It is bad news for Pakatan because first-time voters are more likely to support the opposition. The cynical view of one DAP politician was that there will be no new supply of angry folks this election.

"There won't be another Chinese tsunami, or a Malay tsunami, or a youth tsunami. The tide - so to speak - is receding," political commentator Hafidz Baharom had said in an article.

And that brings us to another phenomenon on the political landscape - the #UndiRosak campaign of which Mr Hafidz is a central figure. This is a group that is planning to spoil their votes to send a message to both sides that voters deserve something better.

It is doubtful that they are an extensive group but those who support the campaign are people who would have otherwise voted for the opposition. The signs are there that the Chinese may not be coming out in droves like in 2013. It has become quite commonplace to hear people say that they do not feel like voting this time.

Think-tank executive Rita Sim was one of the first to notice the trend. During an interview in 2016, she had noted that there are Chinese who are planning not to vote and who tell her they want to go on holiday during the election.

Cultural expert Mr Tang said: "People I meet nowadays are not willing to share their views on politics, not like last time when they would tell you to vote this or vote that."

Some of them claim they have not decided. But the last five years have been one long political campaign, and when pressed further they admit to Mr Tang that they do not like either side.

"They are still not satisfied with BN (Barisan Nasional) and they are disappointed with Pakatan. They say both sides are the same, that's why they find it difficult to decide."

A lot of it also has to do with Pakatan's decision to collaborate with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and to make him their prime minister candidate. For some voters it is like having to choose between Umno and Umno.

Moreover, it is not easy for them to accept the man that the opposition has for decades painted as a dictator, especially with videos showing Pakatan leaders running down Dr Mahathir flooding people's WhatsApp accounts in recent months.

Only the hardcore supporters have accepted him. They understand that the end justifies the means.

"I was looking forward to voting until Mahathir joined Pakatan. For 20 years, it was Maha-korupt... and now they say he can save Malaysia," said Mr Hafidz.

According to KRA strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim, Dr Mahathir's baggage is a secondary factor for the Chinese: "The Chinese are pragmatic people, the age and health of a leader is a major concern for them because it is a factor in political stability. They want to know that the person they are voting for will have the stamina to go the distance."

Surveys by his team show that voters also find that Mr Lim Kit Siang's age - he recently turned 77 - to be an issue for the respondents. However, he said that although Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, at 70, is also considered old, those surveyed are willing to give him a chance.

Billboards declaring that Anwar will be released on June 8 have gone up in several parts of Selangor over the past month. It is also meant to assure voters that Anwar will be out soon and he will be around as an alternative pair of hands to run the show.

The air was soaked with emotive issues in 2013 but the economy is the over-riding issue this time.

What Mr Amir calls "state identity politics" has become quite prominent in states like Johor where the Bangsa Johor sentiments prevail and in Kedah where there is a Mahathir factor at play.

"Sentiments vary from state to state. There is no clear national sentiment unlike in 2013 when everything was pretty clear-cut," he said.

And that is why no think-tank or analyst is willing to go beyond predicting that BN will hold on to power.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Malaysia's Chinese voters - why the silence'. Print Edition | Subscribe