Winning back the Chinese vote

  • Ceritalah
  • Tuesday, 01 Jun 2010

Economic issues have always been very important to Chinese voters, but increasingly civil liberties — more freedom of speech and other political freedoms — are becoming critical.

TWO years ago on March 8, Malaysia’s half-century old “Merdeka consensus” finally collapsed as the non-Malay vote swung dramatically to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat.

Unfortunately, Barisan Nasional and Umno have been in denial over the implications of this fundamental change. Instead of exploring new ways to revive and re-energize the social contract, there have been calls for a return to the past and an even stronger promotion of Malay rights.

Given the rhetoric — some of which has been extremely shrill — the Chinese community (witness results in Hulu Selangor and Sibu) has remained resolutely pro-Pakatan.

The Indian community at least has finally started shifting back to the ruling coalition. Their Chinese counterparts, however, have largely been unmoved by the premier’s 1Malaysia slogan.

Last week, I met with a Chinese businessman for some perspectives. He was extremely concerned with how Umno was managing the current challenges:

“I know the PM is trying hard to reform the country. However, his party is undermining these initiatives. People like me are watching closely.

“Can Najib transform Malaysia? I don’t know. I hope so, but I’m not confident.

“Most Chinese Malaysians are quite independent of the Government. We don’t need handouts. We have the resources and the determination. You can’t ‘buy’ our support. We want change.”

The worsening Chinese sentiment is a problem for both Barisan and, indeed, Malaysia. Our country has prospered because of the combination of Malay political power and Chinese commercial might. This is what the “Merdeka consensus” was basically about.

We need both communities onboard in order to progress. We particularly can’t afford for the Chinese middle-class to lose hope: both their human and financial capital are critical for Malaysia’s future growth.

Unfortunately, many of their youths are choosing to migrate. This is just one of the factors accelerating the relative decline in Chinese population figures vis-a-vis the Malay community.

In political terms, DAP has supplanted its rivals in Barisan as the main party of the Malaysian Chinese.

But the DAP is supposed to be multiracial, and a Chinese-centric agenda will damage its credibility in the long run. Indeed the position of the party’s non-Chinese members has always been awkward despite contributing prominent leaders like Karpal Singh and M. Kulasegaran.

The DAP’s leaders must tread carefully here. They must remain true to the party’s social-democratic roots that eschew ethnic distinctions.

Moreover, the party cannot deny that its successes in 2008 were partially due to growing Malay support. This stemmed from its ties with the two giants of the Malay opposition, namely Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tok Guru Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat. Anwar, however, faces another spell in prison, while Nik Aziz isn’t getting any younger.

Furthermore, some MCA and East Malaysian strongholds notwithstanding, the DAP has all but peaked electorally. Without an increase in its Malay voter base, it can only go downhill from here.

The DAP must therefore take care to cultivate new Malay allies within the ranks of PKR and PAS. They must make sure these relationships are sounder and healthier than the old Barisan formula.

Meanwhile, Umno’s refusal to acknowledge that Malaysian Chinese are no longer satisfied with the “Merdeka consensus” is a major obstacle.

This intransigence weakens the position of the MCA and Gerakan day by day. Their leaders know what must be done to win back support. However, they cannot change or adapt as long as Umno — the core of Barisan — refuses to budge when it comes to the social contract.

Moreover, the Sibu by-election has shown that this sentiment is beginning to have an impact on Barisan’s “fixed deposit” — East Malaysia.

While economic issues are very important to Chinese voters, civil liberties are becoming critical to them. Like all young Malaysians, their youth are also eager for more freedom of speech and other political freedoms.

Interestingly, the Prime Minister continues to strive to win Chinese support.

Sometimes, as his “Let’s make a deal speech” in Sibu demonstrates, this eagerness backfires. However, there is no doubting his sense of urgency and seriousness.

Najib knows the importance of winning back Chinese support. He knows Malaysia needs the commercially dynamic community to be fully committed to the national project.

The problem is that Umno (and Perkasa) may not see things the same way. Indeed, there are many voices in the party demanding he reject the Chinese community once and for all to concentrate on the Malays.

As with the DAP, however, such an ethnocentric approach would be disastrous. Najib must therefore not only win the hearts of the non-Malays, but also educate his party on why compromise is necessary.

Indeed, it’s clear that many Chinese view Najib more favourably than his party. The Indian community has clearly made the same calculation, even though Umno’s treatment of them has improved only marginally. This is a sign of the power of Najib’s 1Malaysia message and his own charisma.

The Chinese, however, will not be so willing to accept his personal guarantees. Rather, Najib must press on with his economic reform agenda, and expand it to the socio-political arena.

He may not win the community back entirely, but he can at least begin reconstructing the multiracial vote bank that kept Barisan in power for so long. It was also the basis of the over five decades of prosperity that our nation enjoyed.

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