So, who are the Malay voters? The answers may surprise you

Voters in places like Terengganu are not necessarily ultra conservative... they care about larger issues too. — File pic
Voters in places like Terengganu are not necessarily ultra conservative... they care about larger issues too. — File pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 8 — Amirul Masiran, 27, owns a small business in the densely populated township of Kota Damansara and he has strong views about the country’s economy.

Just another armchair observer? Maybe. But Amirul believes how the economy is managed directly affects his livelihood and possibly that of his children in the near future.

He makes and sells popcorn for a living and said business has not been good lately. He blames this on the rise in the cost of living, which he feels has forced more people to tighten their belts and stop spending.  

“Small businesses have been fighting more intensely to stay alive the past couple of years. The government needs to come up with ways to boost growth in the nation,’’ he added.

Amirul’s popcorn business earns him around RM2,600 to RM3,000 monthly, which puts him among the country’s lowest income earners and defined by the government as the “B40”, or the bottom 40 per cent.

Malays and the Bumiputera community are the largest component of this category, which has a median household income of less than RM3,000 a month, according to the Department of Statistics in Malaysia.

They are also the most economically vulnerable and rely heavily on various government aid programmes to survive. There is a perception that this dependency on state assistance influences who they support when it comes to the general election.

But Amirul feels he is among the growing number of younger Malays from a working class background who are becoming more politically aware, with expectations that go far beyond a demand for welfare distribution.

He has strong views about transparency, good governance and meritocracy. Amirul also wants only the best and most capable leaders to run the country and sees race or faith as extraneous to good leadership.

“They need to kick out anyone who is unable to perform and stay away from scandalous individuals we need more effective leaders who can solve complex problems and are more people orientated,’’ he told Malay Mail.

“Religion and race is a small factor to me when it comes to voting because at the end of the day, I prefer a candidate who can get the job done.

“Their personal character plays a major part for me to see if they truly earn my vote,” he added.

Conventionally, merits-based political support among poorer Malay voters is uncommon and seldom heard of. Up until the last general election, many poorer Malay households continued to vote along racial or religious lines.

Data obtained from a study conducted by the International Islamic University of Malaysia’s (IIUM) published earlier this month would corroborate the view: it found the bulk of PAS and Umno voters to be mostly from low-skilled households earning less than RM4,000 a month.

The rich and religion

Coming from a privileged background, Nana Kamal (not her real name), 37, is highly educated, well-read and has leveraged on all this to get a good career as a stakeholder manager at a multinational company.

She makes close to RM10,000 monthly which makes her among the top 20 per cent highest income earners in the country. In 2016, the median income of the “T20” or top 20 per cent of the population is RM13,148 according to the DoS.

Just because they live in Kuala Lumpur and have had an overseas education does not mean the Malay voters here are not concerned about religion. — File pic
Just because they live in Kuala Lumpur and have had an overseas education does not mean the Malay voters here are not concerned about religion. — File pic

Nana herself grew up in quite a socially liberal family. She was raised in Subang Jaya, and later on Kota Kemuning, two upper middle class enclaves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Her friends are mostly English-speaking Malays and some of them are European university graduates. To them, holidays in countries like France or Greece are normal.

As a mother, Nana says a good economy and education are the two most important issues to her; she wants her child to have the same opportunities and a secure future.

Such expectations are standard and cut across race, class or income of course but the 37-year-old executive is also among those who sees faith as indispensable, and will consider voting on religious grounds.  

Nana said her support will go to any political party that can ensure her right to practise her faith is safeguarded. She wants easy access to mosques or suraus, and the constant/easy availability of halal food.

“I’d like to know that policies, development and directions regarding these two issues will benefit my child in terms of opportunities that are accessible to him (son)..(but) as a Muslim, I am grateful that I am able to practise my religion in a safe environment,” she told Malay Mail.

“I will also vote for representatives who can keep this environment, so long as it doesn’t compromise the other two issues,” she added.

The views expressed by Nana reflect how increasingly diverse the Malay electorate is becoming, and how it has also made it difficult for political parties to profile these voters according to conventional criteria like income, education or location.

In today’s reality, someone with a five-digit income and a cosmopolitan family background like Nana is more than willing to cast her vote along religious lines, when otherwise she would have been typically associated with a socially liberal attitude that puts lesser emphasis on religion when it comes to voting.

Small-town progressive

About 500 kilometres up north, a 54-year-old Malay middle-income voter in the rice state of Kedah holds views about religion that are vastly different from Nana’s.

Azhar Mohd Mokhtar, an entrepreneur, feels religion to be personal and is against political parties using faith to garner support.

He is wary of any parties that claim to represent Islam, and critical of institutionalised religion; he alleged the ruling Barisan Nasional government is pushing an Islamic agenda to woo support, and feels that the move emboldens fundamentalists and nurtures extremism.

Azhar Mohd Mokhtar, 54, an entrepreneur from Kedah, feels religion to be personal and is against political parties using faith to garner support. — Picture courtesy of Azhar Mohd Mokhtar
Azhar Mohd Mokhtar, 54, an entrepreneur from Kedah, feels religion to be personal and is against political parties using faith to garner support. — Picture courtesy of Azhar Mohd Mokhtar

“From what I see, when the government pushes the Islamic agenda too much they are creating pockets of extremists and sometimes they confuse Malay culture and Islamic teachings,” he added.

Again, it is a view that one usually expects from a younger and more progressive middle-class voter, not a middle-aged man from one of the country’s poorest states.

Like many Malay voters in his income bracket that Malay Mail spoke to, Azhar did not discount the importance of religion, but was more concerned about rice bowl issues.

But even within the same income strata, the expectations and aspirations expressed vary glaringly according to locations.

For example, a teacher from Terengganu said the most important issue to him was improvement in the education system, while a 27-year-old media consultant in the capital city felt human rights and separation of Islam from the state were more important than inflation.

These differences are also apparently visible among the B40. For example a Malay voter in this income bracket in the fishing town of Sungai Besar, Selangor may share Amirul’s views about the state of the economy, but understands them according to the unique situation of his constituency, and is likely to vote anyone who can provide immediate solutions instead of those who promise long-term reform.

Regardless, political parties are expected to use data compiled from various credible surveys to device campaign strategies based on the most popular issues which are usually inflation, housing and income.

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