With one eye on understanding social change and another on societal relevance, Utar is forging ahead with a series of polls.
NOT many will remember the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline of the Chicago Tribune that incorrectly announced the winner of the 1948 United States presidential elections.
Then, incumbent US president Harry S. Truman scored an upset victory over New York governer Thomas E. Dewey.
Thanks to an early press deadline, the paper was forced to rely heavily on polls and virtually all pollsters predicted a Dewey victory.
A notable exception was the Gallup Poll that accurately predicted the winner and today, Gallup is generally accepted by the media as a reliable and objective measure of public opinion.
Since then, other polls have also made a name for themselves and some of them are run by universities.
Taking inspiration from this, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (Utar) is forging ahead with a year-long series of opinion polls that concentrate on the youth of Malaysia.
The person behind the initiative is Utar vice-president (R&D commercialisation) who hopes the varsity is able to build up a reputation for itself.
“It would be good if Utar is synonymous with accuracy in portraying public opinion,” he mused. “It will require a lot of hard work but I’m confident that we will get there.
“This is the first time we are doing something like this on a big scale and we have decided to focus on youth.
“There are many issues like social ills, youth cultures and subcultures, as well as sex education, among others that would generate a fair bit of public response.”
Now, as dependable or unreliable as they are, poll data is often summed up as boring.
And arriving at any conclusion or correlation requires a fair bit of statistical number cunching, adding to the drudgery.
By focusing on youth or youthful issues, Utar is hoping to reverse the perception by getting closer to society in the process.
After all, the primary objective is to study the dynamic and impact of societal change in a Malaysian context.
The digital age
And by going online, Utar is embracing the digital age and harnessing the Internet’s limitless potential to engage the public in a more efficient way.
“More and more research is taking place at Utar and a number of our academics, particularly those in the social sciences are active in it,” said Prof Lee.
“Most of their research centres on human beings and the way they interact and shape society.
“To achieve this, we need to find out public opinion and we are doing a lot of fieldwork by conducting interviews and surveys.
“Going online will enable us to participate in a process that allows us to utilise a wide array of questions that cover different themes.”
An internal pilot run was done involving foundation and pre-university students from Utar’s main campus in Petaling Jaya
Open for five days, the poll attracted 874 participants and apart from providing the all-important test that gauged the varsity’s capability to conduct a large scale online poll, the trial run also yielded some fairly interesting results for Utar’s internal usage.
For example, 30.9% of respondents came from families with a monthly income of under RM2,000 while another 38.9% were in the RM2,000 – RM4,999 bracket.
This showed that most Utar students came from families in the middle and low income brackets and the varsity’s selling point of competitive fees was spot on in a societal context.
Also, 50.6% of the respondents came from families whose parents only have secondary school education – ensuring the varsity’s relevance in the upskilling of society.
And there were revelation on study habits - or the lack of it – as well.
The poll showed that 40.5% of the students spent one to two hours studying each day while 25.3% spent two to three hours.
However, Prof Lee opined that it might not be an accurate portrayal as students had the tendency to over-inflate their study time.
“The figures might be too high as students do not want to look bad, you know,” he said with a chuckle.
And if the amount of time spent studying could be disputed, the same issue shrouded the validity of the self-declared amount of time students spent on computer games.
Quite a few said they were “unsure” of the amount of time spent playing games and every avid computer gamer who has lost track of time knows what unsure means in this context.
Having passed the crucible, Utar will now concentrate on addressing validity issues.
The university will implement a tighter answer selection process and the nagging issues of accuracy, political and gender bias, amongst others, will also be looked into.
“We hope that the polls will go down well with the public and we are targeting at least 2,000 respondents in the first poll,” added Prof Lee.
“Although the first poll we are conducting may be more relevant to young people, our polls are open to everyone and we hope that more and more people will participate.”
The idea is to come out with a dependable pool of respondents which form a microcosm of the larger society — enabling Utar to draw correlations and conclusions from their findings.
After all, polls are only as useful as what is made out of them, as conclusions tend to hog the front pages, influence behaviour and shape society.
Should the project achieve lift-off, Utar is hoping to find out the youths’ response towards government policy and other serious issues.
“It would be good to find out their views on concepts like 1Malaysia,” added Prof Lee. “After all, they are the leaders of tomorrow.”
Now, participating in an online poll is one thing. Participating in 12 such polls on a monthly basis is another.
Acknowledging this, Prof Lee admitted that it would be quite tricky to rope in the masses, especially if a particular topic failed to generate enough buzz.
However, Utar has thought about this and by roping in KFC and Pizza Hut as reward partners, Prof Lee believes that there is enough incentive for regular participation throughout the one-year period.
Thanks to the collaboration, the first 1, 000 respondents will receive two food vouchers and this giveaway will recur each quarter.
To spice things up further, the varsity is actively seeking more sponsors and more exciting rewards could be in store in the near future.
The Utar opinion polls go live on July 1 and the first edition of the 12-part series focuses on Youth Lifestyles while the second poll on August 1 will put the spotlight on sex education.
Each poll will run for a month.
To be part of the Utar opinion polls, log on to http://poll.utar.edu.my.