What can the government learn from dipping approval ratings? — Nathaniel Tan

APRIL 29 — Sometimes I think the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” is a bit cliched, and perhaps not entirely accurate.

That said, it’s hard to argue with (presumably accurate) data.

Last week, Merdeka Centre release a comprehensive report, based on phone surveys of 1,204 registered voters from all over Malaysia, conducted between the 5th and 11th of March, 2019.

Just a quick recap of the highlights:

There has been a consistent trend, from GE 14 to the present day, where the initial approval rating of 64% has been dropping steadily, while the ‘disapproval’ rating has been going up steadily up from 12%.

As of the last survey before this one, in January 2019, the number of respondents who felt that the country was headed in the right direction was roughly equal to the number of respondents who felt that the country was headed in the wrong direction (40% and 41% respectively).

Three months later, there is now a marked difference. ‘Right direction’ dropped to 34%, while ‘wrong direction’ went up to 46%.

Approval ratings for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad followed a similar trend. After GE 14 it stood at 83%, in January 2019 it had gone down to 58%, and in March 2019, it is now 46%, dipping below half for the first time.

Some of this can be explained by the simple inability of any human being to live up to the immense levels of expectations placed on the new Pakatan Harapan government.

It was not just a new government, for the very first time ever. It was heralded as an entirely new Malaysia.

Over time of course, it became obvious that this was not some sort situation akin to Marvel character Thanos snapping his fingers and making all (or even half) of Malaysia’s problems disappear. A year onwards, reality appears to be setting in.

When those who believed the country was going in the wrong direction were asked why they believed so, two concerns seemed to dominate,

Firstly, 25% said that the economy was not doing well and that the cost of living was too high.

Secondly, 21% said that the administration was ‘weak’.  

The latter may have to do with perceptions regarding internal political conflicts, a lack of competence, and a general lack of unified direction within the government.

It’s not hard to understand why, given the amount of infighting, various U-turns and absence of an overarching narrative to frame the work of the Pakatan Harapan government.

When respondents were asked to indicate the number one problem facing people in the country today was, no less than 63% answered ‘the economy’.

The next most common answer ‘racial issues’. The number of respondents that said so? 6%.

Ten times more people answered ‘the economy’ than the next highest answer. Surely we must take note of this.

The bad news is, the way the global economy is interconnected nowadays, it feels like national governments have a decreasing amount of control over a country’s economy.

We are all beset and buffeted by the uncertain winds of international economics, and it is perhaps in the economic sphere where the government could be least likely to be able to institute the kinds of drastic changes that people can feel to the tune of double digit percentage differences in their day to day life.

Even if the economy is so well managed that there is technically say a 5% reduction in your expenses, there are some who would still barely notice. Reaching even a 5% reduction is already quite a feat. Making a 10% or more difference on a large scale is a gargantuan task.

The good news is, there is still nonetheless some space to improve perception of how the government is handling the economy.

Once again, we return to the question of narrative. In the absence of an overarching narrative, government initiatives are seen to be ad hoc and piecemeal.

They appear as a blip in public consciousness for a while, and then are swallowed up as soon as the news cycle changes.

Even when the government does good things, such as finding alternative markets for palm oil, or cutting the massive cost for the East Coast Rail Link by as much as one third, these things are not packaged or seen as part of a grander effort by the government.

In this day and age, with attention spans as short as they are, people need a narrative — a story that gives all the facts and figures context and meaning.

Without this, they fade from memory, and the perception of people towards the government is shaped not by their piecemeal successes, but by dramas like infighting or the agenda set by the opposition that often taps into and stirs discontent (especially economic discontent).

The best response to the Merdeka Centre study is not to spin or make excuses as to the how’s and why’s, but to look into the what’s of moving forward — specifically, what can be done to build on the successes so far, and how to correct where the government has fallen short.

*Nathaniel Tan currently works at EMIR Research.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

Related Articles