KUALA LUMPUR, April 9 — The ethnic Chinese community’s votes will still be crucial in the 14th general election (GE14), despite the expected decline of their percentage in the future.
What is the value of the Chinese vote?
Previously, Malay Mail wrote on how votes from the ethnic Chinese community would have reduced significance for the securing of Putrajaya, due to the low number of Chinese-majority seats (30 out of 222, based on GE13 figures) and its relatively small proportion of over 20 per cent of Malaysians.
But the true value of the Chinese vote can be seen when it comes to mixed-ethnicity seats. These are seats where no single ethnic group dominates, or at times are seats won by relatively small margins over rival candidates.
Wong Chin Huat, a research fellow with think-tank Penang Institute, said Chinese voters are “very relevant” and “very important” in determining the outcome in marginal seats and mixed seats, noting that GE13 figures showed the Chinese community accounting for at least 20 per cent of voters in each of the 35 marginal parliamentary seats then.
“Low Chinese turnout may see 16 marginal seats change hand from PH to BN...PH needs them to turn out to win. BN needs them to stay home to win,” he told Malay Mail, having also noted that Chinese-majority seats are “burial grounds for BN”.
He concluded that a low Chinese voter turnout in GE14 by itself may cause PH to lose one-third of the 222 seats up for grabs, while a scenario of a very high Chinese voter turnout coupled with a swing in Malay votes towards PH may result in a change of government.
Social media analytics firm Politweet’s founder Ahmed Kamal Nava said that Chinese votes can make a “big impact” in the mixed seats depending on their percentage, including in scenarios involving multi-corner fights where the Malay voters’ support are divided.
“There is also the PAS factor to consider. They are most likely going to split the Malay vote. So a party that depends on non-Malay support can benefit from this split,” he told Malay Mail.
Value of the vote
Kamal indicated that the value of the ethnic Chinese community depends on the political party seeking to win votes and the location, noting that Pakatan Harapan is still “dependent” on the Chinese vote.
“The Chinese vote is more important for PH in Chinese-majority and Mixed seats, especially for those they had previously won in GE13,” he said.
“I don’t think Chinese voters like being taken for granted by PH which is why I expect BN to still put in the effort, to win back some support. But BN doesn’t need to rely on the Chinese vote as much as PH because of their current seat demographics,” he added.
“BN will still try to win support from Chinese voters but it won’t be that important in Malay-majority seats,” he said.
He also said votes from the ethnic Chinese community still matter for BN in mixed seats, but “maybe more for Sabah and Sarawak” as it had only won seven out of the 29 mixed seats in Peninsular Malaysia during GE13 with the remaining 22 won by PKR and DAP.
Every seat counts
Oh Ei Sun, Pacific Research Centre’s principal adviser, said both BN and PH cannot afford to take voters lightly in the numbers game, where winning at least 112 federal seats is required to form government.
“No seats can be discounted by either side nowadays as every seat counts towards a simple parliamentary majority. But the harsh fact is that for the time being, Chinese-majority seats are overwhelmingly leaning more towards PH. So BN of course focuses its attention and resources more on those non-Chinese majority seats where they stand much higher chances of winning.
“PH also cannot take their overwhelming Chinese support for granted, as Chinese political awareness is very high and demands clean and efficient governance if PH is in power in some state governments, or at least diligent championing of their legitimate rights otherwise.
Oh said ethnicity does not really matter in urban and suburban seats where most voters would opt for PH, while BN “realistically can only target the urban lower-income groups, not even the suburban middle-income groups”.
“Conversely, in the heavily non-Chinese rural seats, PH cannot realistically make much inroads, as Umno with incumbent advantage and PAS with its spiritual appeal predominate there,” he said.
Was it really a ‘Chinese tsunami’?
Immediately after the release of the GE13 results where BN retained power despite losing the popular vote, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had described the polling results as a “Chinese tsunami” where the Chinese voted for the federal opposition and promised a “national reconciliation process” to curb extremism and racism.
Kamal said the GE13 results actually reflected both a Chinese swing and an urban swing towards the federal opposition’s previous iteration Pakatan Rakyat.
“Essentially voters in rural seats were more likely to vote for BN regardless of race. But elsewhere, the Chinese swing to PR from all age groups was very high,” he said.
For Oh, GE13 was the “first stage of a political awakening which saw voters making hard choices”, noting however that has since been “overwhelmed by a rural return to predictable responses to traditional materialistic and spiritual appeals”.
Wong said that he saw the GE13 results as more of an “ethnic swing” after it was shown that voting the federal opposition would not cause a repeat of the May 13, 1969 racial clashes.
“With the ghost of May 13 exorcised, voting for BN (which discriminates against and demonises them) is no longer rational for the Chinese. It was rational in the past for some Chinese who feared a replay of May 13. That no riot [happened] after 2008 eliminates the basis of that fear,” he said, referring to Election 2008 where BN lost its two-thirds majority.
What lies ahead for GE14?
Kamal noted that social media users have not shown indications of significant changes along ethnic lines: “There has been no sign of a major Chinese swing to BN or a major Malay swing to PH on Facebook or Twitter.”
“I do see people online saying that ‘Malays are not qualified/capable of governing’ and ‘We do not want Chinese taking over’ but there are other issues that people talk about more,” he said.
Based on his observations of PH supporters online, Kamal said they do not seem to care about policies, but are more focused on anti-corruption efforts- which he believes will be insufficient.
“Cost of living is a real issue but I don’t know yet how effective PH’s proposal to abolish GST is at winning support. Previous proposals in GE13 for cheaper cars and free education did not get much support,” he said, adding that various issues such as a PKR Youth leader’s luxury home, the Penang tunnel deal and Lim Guan Eng’s house purchase below the market price has dented PH’s credibility in its promise to end corruption.
“BN supporters care about political stability and generating revenue, and it’s easier to get a response from them on policy issues. Populism is not very effective. They also do not want DAP to gain more power,” he said, noting that the anti-DAP sentiment was partly racial but also tied to issues such as DAP’s stand on hudud, Lim’s behaviour and the DAP-led Penang government’s actions.
Wong said that although ethnic voting means different ethnic groups having markedly different voting patterns, he said that this does not necessarily mean that they would be driven by ethnic issues.
“For example, local elections will excite Chinese more than Malays while inflation may concerns Malays slightly more than Chinese,” he said.
Oh said all parties will have to appeal to all races in recent years as every vote counts, and noted that mixed seats will require campaigning on issues that cuts across ethnic lines.
GE14 campaigning will likely see BN and its mainstay Malay-based party Umno focusing mainly on messages of development and stability, while the Islamist party PAS will focus on “spiritual” aspects.
“PH still harps on kleptocracy (but I think to diminishing return) and alternative governance model and scrapping of GST,” he said, adding that PH is unlikely to focus on Malay-centric messaging as they are in “no position whatsoever to deliver the sort of materialistic and / or spiritual fulfilment to the rural voters”.
“They still have to try their luck but I think no luck for them at the end of the voting day,” he said of PH’s bid in Malay seats.