Will Malaysia’s urban Malays vote for change?

  • It is clear from past elections that there is an urban-rural dichotomy in voting behaviour in Malaysia.
  • All 11 seats in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur would fall under the category of urban constituencies, as well as places such as Alor Setar in the northern state of Kedah and Kota Baru in the state of Kelantan. Geographically, they tend to be relatively smaller despite their larger population.
  • On the other hand, rural seats tend to be physically large with a smaller population found scattered in small villages. Taken as a whole, rural seats dominate much of Malaysia’s political landscape.
  • From previous results, the Umno-led incumbent coalition has a grip on the rural seats, giving them better odds of winning the general election. But what about the looming battle for urban areas, where the opposition has traditionally done well?
  • A common feature of urban areas in Malaysia is that they have a relatively higher percentage of non-Malay voters. In some seats, ethnic Chinese make up the majority of voters.
  • This demographic mix raises a number of questions: Is it the case that the opposition won urban seats because of the large size of non-Malay voters, or did the Malays vote for them too? Is the anti-incumbent feeling in Malaysia shared across all ethnic groups or is it really just another ethnic divide?
  • First, urban Malays are loathe to openly criticise Umno and BN. At the start of almost all the interviews, they either shied away from commenting about the ruling coalition or made only positive remarks. But as soon as they became more comfortable with the discussion, they opened up. Once that stage was reached, it became obvious that not all are happy with the situation in Malaysia today and their voting intentions are not yet settled.
  • This is an important finding because it explains why almost all polls in Malaysia today suggest that Umno and BN will handily win the election.
  • Second, when airing their sources of unhappiness, urban Malay voters are very upset with the rising cost of living, while corruption and good governance only come later in their list of concerns.
  • This leads to the third point: Urban Malay voters feel that despite being ethnic Malays, who are supposed to have special privileges, they are being neglected by the Umno-led government. Many urban Malays belong in the middle 40% (M40) group. They are not wealthy enough to pay for items and services that the top 20% group can afford. But unlike the B40, these M40 Malays receive much less government assistance.
  • Fourth, they are worried that if Pakatan Harapan wins the next election, this will further chip away existing Malay privileges. They see the DAP as a Chinese party bent on removing the special status enjoyed by Malays in the country. The DAP has repeatedly denied this accusation but the distrust remains.
  • From the fieldwork that the author conducted, he thinks it is fair to say that among urban Malay voters, identity politics is still a major factor influencing how they vote.
  • What this means is that in the GE14, Pakatan Harapan faces a tall hurdle in winning over urban Malays. To gain the upper hand, all Umno and BN need to do is stoke racial insecurity among these voters. They don’t have to invest too much in the finer points of policy.
  • Pakatan Harapan has so far refused to exploit ethnic sentiments for short-term political gains, preferring to champion an agenda based on good governance.

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