Did you know that the people in Malaysia who search for 1MDB on the Internet live in the same parts of the country as those who search for Fifty Shades Of Grey?
Given the lack of clarity about the former, and the lack of cinema screen time for the latter, it may be understandable that people are curious to know more about both.
But their correlation suggests a fetish for sadomasochism that is, to say the least, intriguing.
I found this out from Google Trends, a site that gives analytical data about Google searches. For example, it will list and rank the most popular searches Malaysians ran in 2015 – which was actually a good mix of significant events and whimsical zeitgeist that doesn’t so much describe an average Malaysian as highlight extremes in tastes.
You might be wondering just how reflective Google Trends data is of Malaysians as a whole. Clearly, people who use Google regularly have access to the Internet and must know how to use the search engine. Instinctively, you would assume the skew would be towards urban, educated youth.
But I think the ubiquity of smart phones these days means the sample is broader and deeper than that. I will admit that the pakcik in the kampung is less likely to turn to the Internet to solve his problems, but I’m also pretty sure there are at least a few people in his kampung who do.
The top 10 things that people in Malaysia searched for in 2015 fall into the following categories: economic (and social) concerns, movies, Internet utilities – and HRMIS 2.0.
Yes, the top search of last year was for the latest version of the Government’s Human Resource Management Information System. I ascribe its popularity to the fact that we have 1.4 million civil servants who all needed to log in online to request leave and found out the old system wasn’t working any more.
Putting that aside, let’s look at the other, more interesting, search terms.
For some, the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) existed to offset the burden of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced last year. They are both in the top 10. The other economic-related term on the list is “1 USD to MYR” (the exchange rate between the ringgit and the US dollar). The Bersih 4.0 protests are also in the top 10.
I think that although it would be correct to say that Malaysians are worried about these topics, it must be noted that some worry more than others.
Although Google doesn’t give detailed demographics of exactly who searches for what (for example, by gender or age), it does tell you where the searchers are when they ran the search – by state, all the way down to the city, if that’s the granularity that you want.
So, for example, you will find that the term “GST” is searched for by people from all over Malaysia, with a slight concentration in the Federal Territory (FT). On the other hand, for a term like “BR1M”, apart from a similar agglomeration in the FT, the states where users have most searched for it are Sabah and Sarawak.
One can try to rationalise this by identifying that they are the two poorest states, and would have the most people eligible for the scheme. But whether it illustrates the disparity in poverty levels or the desperation of the needy, I don’t think you can easily tell from the data.
However, there are undeniably differences between the states – the urbanites of KL searched in droves for Fast & Furious 7 while rural residents of Kelantan and Terengganu were among the top in searching for Maharaja Lawak Mega and Hati Perempuan.
Another example is how everybody except people in Kelantan seem to be interested in Whatsapp Web (the browser interface for the popular Whatsapp app), and nobody except people in the Klang Valley is interested in the website how-old.net.
We might as well be two different countries living within one! Or several.
For example, look at what newspapers people search for depending on where they live: Harian Metro, Berita Harian, and Kosmo are pretty much only sought by those in the Klang Valley.
Readers of The Star and Malaysia Chronicle are in Selangor and Penang. Malaysiakini and Sinar Harian get a good proportion of their audience from Kelantan and Terengganu.
And many of The Malaysian Insider readers are from Selangor and, surprisingly to me at least, Sarawak.
Bear this in mind the next time you hear somebody say “Malaysians are...”. Very probably, what he or she means to say is “Some Malay-sians – and there really may not be very many of them – are...”.
The point has been made before, for example, that the much vaunted Bersih 4.0 rallies last year were only really supported by urbanites. The demographics from Google Trends bear this out, showing that people who searched for “Bersih 4.0” overwhelmingly came from KL, Penang, and Selangor.
Admittedly, this sort of analysis is only a rudimentary stepping stone to further investigation.
Why are people in Selangor, KL, Sarawak, Penang, Johor, and Perak more interested in scandals related to quasi-government agencies and badly written fantasy pornography? I have no idea. But I am intrigued by what it might say about us as a nation.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.