GE-14: A look at the rural Malay voter

May 3, 2018

GE-14: A look at the rural Malay voter

With GE14 rapidly approaching, both sides of the political divide are trying to woo a vastly underestimated, non-homogenous rural Malay public.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is respected by the Malays. His impact on rural Malays cannot be discounted

 In the coming Malaysian general election, the grand prize seems to be the rural vote. With redelineation passed by parliament, the power of the rural voter in deciding the fate of an elected representative can be more than 10 times that of an urban voter. Both sides of the divide are trying to woo a rural Malay public that is often vastly underestimated. Based on a series of focus group discussions and informant interviews in both Johor and Kedah, as well as extensive immersion in rural, coastal and island areas over the past decade, here I examine Peninsular Malaysia’s rural voters to discern how they might vote and the issues that matter to them.

Image result for The Rural Malay Voter

Most rural folk live off the land and sea as farmers and fishermen, while others supplement family incomes with menial jobs as cleaners, security guards and factory workers. Earnings are not high and are perennially stagnant. All focus group discussants and informants that I spoke to cited rising costs of living as the issue that mattered the most. The end of petrol subsidies, implementation of goods and services tax (GST), inflation and difficulties in buying land and property means that there is a constant struggle to stretch pay cheques. Any handout is gratefully received. Benefits such as BR1M, while often cited as too little to offset increasing expenses, help to alleviate financial pressures—even if only momentarily.

Rural voters are too preoccupied with making ends meet to contemplate macro issues such as allegations of corruption. Some that I spoke to said that political scandals are beyond them; what the politicians did at their level bear no consequence on rural lives and makes no difference to their survival. In fact, many said that no matter who is in power, they hardly get any benefits or assistance—except for when elections roll around.

Rural voters are not unintelligent. They are aware that corruption is rife, but there is a fatalism to their mindset. They have a tendency to accept their position on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy and do not expect to get more than what that rank entitles them to. Many raised the issue of “cronyism” as a form of corruption that plagues the middle levels of society—where political branch heads, village and local committee leaders block their access to financial benefits, job opportunities and other forms of assistance. All focus groups mentioned that while government leaders had rural communities in mind, it was this middle level that held the purse strings and disbursed allocated aid to only friends and family.  Those in real need were often literally left stranded (such as during recent floods affecting both south and north Malaysia).

Image result for The Rural  Voter in Sabah

Hierarchy is an important component of rural Malay life. Historically feudal societies, today’s rural communities remain deeply traditional in many ways. At the top of the ladder is the king, and in place of those who would have been lords and noblemen in the past, are politicians and government heads. Respect for royalty is enshrined in the nation’s Rukun Negara (National Principles) which every child recites at morning assembly in school. The king is second only to God. Religion is a national concern and Islam is etched into the constitution as the main religion of the federation. Malay rights are inscribed into economic policy. It is to this mix of history, principle and policy that the rural Malay psyche responds, albeit in varying degrees.

Loyalty and indebtedness are characteristics that emerge from a history of feudalism. In election terms, this means that voters remain loyal to those that helped them get to where they are. A common local phrase is “kami kenangkan jasa dia” (we remember his good deeds). Older interviewees related how difficult life was before the ruling party gave them the comfort they enjoy now. This generation is quick to remind their offspring that voting for those that helped them is a family tradition and to break that practice is akin to breaking the norms of filial piety. Younger voters confessed that while they wondered about the value of their vote, they often toed the family line just to prevent tension at home.

Malay rights and Islam are undoubtedly hot button topics. Distrust of the other (usually personified by the Chinese majority Democratic Action Party [DAP]) is widespread. DAP is often demonised on religious terms as a threat to Islam as the nation’s primary faith. Anyone who engages with them (voters or other opposition parties alike) are deemed to have crossed to the dark side and are tainted with similar distrust. There is a great fear that Malays will lose everything that they believe they are entitled to, and there is also a great need to demonstrate the strength of their faith by voting for the party with the best religious credentials.

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While all of the above are common threads that surfaced from the research, there were also differences. The lack of homogeneity among rural voters cannot be overemphasized

As its birthplace, Johor has always been the bastion of UMNO. Even as he declares his political neutrality, Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar has reminded his people that the party was born on palace grounds, funded by his grandfather. A 2017 study commissioned by ISEAS—Yusof Ishak showed that the Sultan is greatly respected by Johor citizens of all ethnicities and incomes, but even more so by the rural Malay. It is likely that the Johorean rural voter will take any opinion expressed by the Sultan into consideration when deciding how to vote.

This is very different from the situation in Kedah, where rural communities seem much more detached from their king. Loyalty is instead redirected to elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad who is fondly remembered for his contribution to both nation and state. His son, Mukhriz Mahathir, was chief minister between 2013 and 2016 until he was forcibly removed after internal party disputes. Kedahans were quick to offer unsolicited examples of projects and better times under their leadership. They also expressed their exasperation at the injustice meted out to Mukhriz and the disrespect that the remaining UMNO cadres had for Mahathir. Malay mores of respect for elders and good manners are cited as principles that politicians should never cross.

Differences between north and south also surface in the attribution of blame for daily difficulties. In Johor, rising prices are attributed to either Chinese businessmen or the federal leadership. The 2017 Johor Survey revealed that the average Johorean is satisfied with UMNO state governance. Interviewees have told me explicitly that there is nothing wrong with Barisan Nasional (BN)—as long as its federal leadership is removed. At BN rallies in Johor, successes are attributed to Johor Chief Minister Khaled Nordin. No mention is made of Prime Minister Najib Razak. The poster boy for Johor BN Khaled Nordin’s tagline is “Muafakat Johor” (Johor United); he and “Team Johor” have successfully captured the state’s support.

In Kedah, however, voters sing a different tune. Younger voters were impatient to vote for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). They were vocal and adamant in wanting to give the opposition a chance to govern, especially since experienced hands such as Mahathir and Mukhriz were part of the line-up. They were less distrustful of DAP. Older voters seemed a little torn between the party that they had always voted for and the man that they knew and loved but is now standing on the other side. Adding to the confusion is the presence of PAS who was once Kedah’s most credible opposition party and who holds the most visible religious credentials. One informant mentioned that if PAS was part of the opposition team, UMNO would be done for. Many others maintained that it was hard to decide. At times they would whisper their support for the opposition, or state that you just can’t say that you disagree with UMNO (meaning that they lean towards the other side).

A lack of homogeneity also exists within states. In east Johor, FELDA voters expressed unfailing support for BN. To them, those who have left the party are ungrateful disgruntled individuals; that corruption allegations are fake news; and that they were willing to vote across ethnic lines as long as BN wins. In west Johor, voters were more doubtful; some were apathetic as they felt that they suffered no matter who is in power. Some mentioned that if there is good fishing or bad weather on polling day, they would have better things to do than vote.

In Kedah too, there are differences. While the majority seemed to be in support of Mahathir no matter the party he stood for, many are recipients of BN’s recent generosity. Gifts of land grants, new homes, double the BR1M amount and myriad other goodies go a long way in solving financial problems. The question is whether these voters can look past election bounties when they vote.

The rural voter is not a single homogenous block. While survival is their priority, overarching Malay principles of hierarchy, loyalty and the need to preserve Malay rights and religion will have an impact on their decision at the ballot box. It is the person that has always been there for them in times of need (not a parachuting politician) and the one who can alleviate immediate difficulties that will win the vote.

All photos by the author. This article is an excerpt from her recent publication, Malaysia’s General Elections 2018: Understanding the Rural Vote, published by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.


12 thoughts on “GE-14: A look at the rural Malay voter

  1. The rural Malay voter decides with his stomach not with his mind. This gives Najib and UMNO a slight edge, although we cannot discount the impact of Tun Dr. Mahathir who is known for being the champion of Malay causes throughout his political life. The fact that the doctor, known as Dr. UMNO, is not of aristocratic background enables him to connect with the rural folks since he understands their problems.–Din Merican

    • I felt insulted with your first sentence. The same feeling I had when reading comments in Malaysikini.
      If PH want our vote, then enggage and listen to our voice. If a party could provide us with our need, there is no problem for us to give our vote to them. We are kampung folks who live in the rural area but we are not stupid. Ask us what we want and you shall know. Assume what we want, well, best of luck to you.
      Another thorny issue is DAP. Nothing is being done by them to assure the kampung folks that they meant no harm. Let’s put it this way –
      DAP field a Malay candidate. MCA/MIC field a Chinese/Indian candidate. Only the Malays are voting. If you think the Malay candidate will win, you really did not know us.Come and engage us. You’ll be surprised.
      The truth must be told. We are talking about rural Malays who have been weakened by taxpayer funded handouts by UMNO so that they will remain dependent on UMNO leaders.So, today they can be bought with BR1M money and other promises from a corrupt regime.They must learn to be self reliant and have faith in themselves.–Din Merican

  2. The truth must always be told. BR1M is not a major factor (yes, there are those who vote because of BR1M, but those are the minorities and not explicitly restricted just to the Malays).
    Are we so blinded about the “corrupt regime”? No. Most of us are more worried about DAP (especially the women folks). For the rural Malays, which are the lesser devil – a corrupt regime or DAP? Umno knows this too well and that’s why they harped this all the time. It’s not enough if LKS or LGE trying to assure the Malays (especially the rural Malays) because TV3 will never ever give it the light of day. It’s the grassroot leaders responsibility to engage the Malays. Face to face. Not through any ceramah.
    That’s why I gave the example of a Malay DAP candidate vs a Chinese/Indian MCA/MIC candidate. So far, there is nothing DAP had done to change the rural Malay PERCEPTION about them. It’s not because of race but more about religion.
    I hated Najib with all my guts but to convince others to ditch him is so hard. No matter where I turn, DAP still remain the 1 stumbling block. Change this and believe me, the rural folks will be shouting with joy seeing Najib in jail. We too know about a corrupt regime and not all of us like Najib/GST.
    Come and engage us. We don’t bite.

    • //So far, there is nothing DAP had done to change the rural Malay PERCEPTION about them. It’s not because of race but more about religion.
      Do you have something specific concrete steps DAP could do that you have in mind, @Melayu Kampung?

    • DAP being as inbred and chauvinist as they are, can’t go into kampungs without running over a chicken, goat, cow or whatever. They are terrified of well-water and pit latrines. And they need ‘peony’ brand soft toilet paper.

      And they only dare insult other ethnic groups as demons, morons and other epithets, when speaking in Mandarin or one of many dialects. They are not hypocrites except when they want a Tunnel..

      Very few of them are Muslims – but can become good ones when they divorce and remarry.. Personal integrity is not political anxiety..!

      Most of all they are afraid of Rabies..

  3. ‘ All focus groups mentioned that while government leaders had rural communities in mind, it was this middle level that held the purse strings and disbursed allocated aid to only friends and family ‘.

    This apply in all government policies – the Malay middleman, in the government department or agency, will exploit the deserving ordinary people to enrich themselves.

    This explains the decades of corruption and gross mismanagement of the country. Because ordinary Malay are not empowered and independent, with majority working for the government, they feel helpless and can’t give a shit what happen to the country.

  4. I do agree that Melayu Kampung is right about the DAP issue when it comes to the Felda areas. But Melayu Kampung now has lighting speed internet, and they go to the towns when Keadilan and Harapan supporters are mainstream today, at least in Johor. All reports in Johor are except for the remote areas, BN is history. People are fed up with the impossibilities of taking care of family due to rising costs, and the absence of medical supplies in the hospitals. Johor has gone Keadlian. The last visit of Marina to Segamat and Batu Anam was BN = 0 support. The ceramah was so jammed packed that people that to park a mile away and they still did! But at the end of the day, if Melayu Kampung still wants hara kiri, what can we do? Just youtube and whatsapp in Melayu, that is all we can and must do.

    • The Rural Heartlands are won by Ceramah Kelompot. Not Mega-Ceramahs. My friend Muhyi is an expert. Ask him whether all is well?

    • I doubt the DAP can capture power in current political landscape. The rural Malays see it as “all Chinese” out to take over power from the Malays. The Chineseness has to give way to Malayness to the extent of at least some 50% with a guaranteed promise that should DAP win, the PM and Defence Minister will be Malays. Short of this, DAP winning power will just be a pipe-dream.

    • DAP ain’t dreaming bout ‘pipes’ Hawking. They only have ‘Tunnel’ vision – to be built 10 years after signing of contract. Their blaise corruption (like KleptoMo1), hypocrisy, arrogance and hubris have become their Achilles Heel. They seem to be suffering from cojone torsion eh?

  5. The British understood Malay sensitivity well. To win the support of the Malays, who worshipped their Sultans, they had to win the confidence and trust of the Sultans which they did amicably well. Their focus was to please the Sultans first before seeking favours and concessions. They were lavish with gifts and spirits. Some of the Sultans were anglicized in many aspects but they kept their faith intact. One or two among them even had English wives.

    The land was flush with resources – tin and rubber in particular and the British needed labour to tend to and harvest them. I suppose it was the British idea (put to the Sultants) to import Chinese and Indian immigrants to work in the plantations and tin mines.

    At the time when the British were about to leave Malaya, they did not leave the Chinese and Indians in a lurch by leaving them stateless. They negotiated for them to be given citizenship rights and Tunku consented to it in magnamity or upon pressure.

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