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Between ringgit and wira? The ethnic dimensions of voting behaviour in Malaysia


By Meredith Weiss and Saliha Hassan


            One of the basic tenets of a democratic political system is that as rational voters, we each have a certain set of preferences which we rank in order of their importance or utility to us and which we seek to maximize through voting. On the other hand, it is generally believed that in Malaysia, only some voters are like that. The standard perception is that Chinese vote with their pockets and Malays vote with their heart, that Chinese are pragmatic and Malays are loyal. Indians are presumably somewhere in between and everyone else – orang asli, Kadazans, Penans, Eurasians, and other minorities – hardly figures in mainstream (Peninsular) popular consciousness.

The usual assumption is that non-Malays, especially Chinese, vote rationally and with materialistic priorities, selecting the candidate or party that will best assure material development. Malays, on the other hand, are presumed to vote based on sentiment, including not-so-outmoded notions of feudal-style loyalty. While the Chinese are said to want ringgit (money), the Malays want wiras (heroes). However, if it seems that Malays are driven by blind, irrational loyalty while Chinese are driven by mercenary calculations of profits to be gained, that vision may be more an artifact of election-era verbal acrobatics than substantially different political values or decision-making processes. It may be that not only Malays factor patron-client ties into their calculations for profit-maximization, and that it is not just non-Malays who rationally rank and seek to maximize preferences. Indeed, though these preferences are often thought of as money or material gains, they actually may be religious, ideological, emotional or social goods as well. In short, it is not so certain that these ethnic distinctions are so clear cut after all.

Therefore, the question of whether Malaysians of various ethnic groups, especially among the dominant Peninsular communities, really vote so differently or whether it is just their public displays of political feeling that are racially distinctive poses an intriguing conundrum. Similarly, is all the drama around the Barisan Alternatif and the Barisan Nasional – dueling diatribes, brazen banners, vituperative videos, and all the other accouterments of a good political brawl – just a lot of sound and fury, signifying little? 

            First, the standard model of rationality only asserts that individuals rank their preferences then vote to maximize those preferences. That does not mean that it is less valid to prefer non-material goods (such as religious values, alternative notions of justice or individual freedoms, for example) or that it is wrong to assume, as many burdened with political debt know, that benefits are maximized through cronyism, patronage, and the like. A wide range of “goods” may be valued by voters –  goods that may be obtained through an even wider array of efficient or circuitous means. For instance, the only political parties organized along religious lines in Malaysia are Islamic parties, which distinguish themselves by asking Muslims to prioritize religious virtues and responsibilities, prompting voters to select a party with the Quran and Hadith as its basic guiding principles regardless of the competing parties’ promises or aptitude. If paving the path to syurga is more important to the voter than building a serviceable road to the local market, a modern housing estate or a shopping complex, then choosing a religious party is a rational decision (which is not to say, of course, that an Islamic party cannot do all of the above). Alternatively, if a voter has personal links with a less-than-stellar politician and feels he or she can benefit by perpetuating that individual’s time in office rather than by selecting a more competent and less corrupt adversary, choosing the former is a perfectly logical, rational choice.

When these calculations result in voting strictly along racial lines, voters may be acting not out of racism but out of simple self-interest. After all, the balance of policies in effect today encourages racialized voting. If Malays vote for non-Malays, there is always the possibility that their representatives may endeavor to dismantle the preferential policies of the NDP.  Hence, it would be rational for them to vote for “their own kind” specifically for that reason. Just as feminists have long encouraged female voters to elect female candidates to ensure that women’s issues are well-represented, Chinese or Malay voters may honestly and accurately feel that their interests are best represented by someone of the same race.

            Second, it is anachronistic at best to say that only non-Malays are really interested in material gains. Malays want economic development, too. Promises of development, whether rural roads, new schools, suraus and mosques, scholarships, or stable jobs as public servants have long been a mainstay of UMNO electioneering, while PAS and other opposition parties have countered by averring that their rule would not necessarily hinder similar economic progress. In fact, PAS and PRM promise more equitable distribution of benefits, and like the DAP, neither is really advocating the overthrow of the capitalist order.[1] Moreover, in creating a Malay middle class, the NEP, NDP, and other government policies have helped entrench common interests among Malays and non-Malays of the same economic class. Everyone wants safe streets and efficient service provision, plus pretty much all middle-class urbanites (and those who aspire to become such) also want high employment, a strong stock market, steady streams of foreign investment, and the other accoutrements of a vibrant capitalist economy.

            Third, political discourse may be emotional and lively, but that does not necessarily reflect the reality of voting behavior. In other words, voters may be effusive in their outpouring of vocal, seemingly irrational support for the BN or some opposition party, but then not vote for those candidates during the elections. As opposition parties in particular have been disappointed to discover time after time, all those extravagant displays of loyalty may not mean much on polling day. Once the voter, whatever her race, is in the polling booth (barring really creative strategies for manipulating votes), she will cast his ballot based on her own preferences and what she stands to gain from a win for that candidate – pre-election bribes, earnest protestations of support, and other supposed indicators aside. Thus, the fact that Malays’ political discourse in particular tends to be enthusiastic and perhaps more gut-directed and loyalistic than rational, does not necessarily mean that Malays vote less caculatively than their fellow citizens.

            Finally, a simple lack of studies prevents our knowing whether Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the rest do vote differently from one another (i.e., demand satisfaction of different preferences or aims by politicians), or are more or less likely to vote irrationally (on straight party or personalistic lines, regardless of benefits to be gained). Only a carefully constructed, well-administered survey could assess the validity of these hypotheses on voting behavior.

            Let us assume that these presumed racialized voting patterns are fallacious. We still often observe, however, the phenomenon of Malay voters’ displaying Hang Tuah’s characteristic loyalty to their favoured party or leader or, conversely, being just as fiercely and effusively disloyal if they feel betrayed: the Hang Jebat syndrome. Other ethnic groups, on the other hand, tend to be less dramatic in their public display of political proclivities. Perhaps Malays voters are just more demonstrative, but then why? The answer is probably a combination of a uniquely Malay tradition and political culture.

            Malay tradition, particularly relating to politics, does play up the physical and verbal fisticuffs of politics, and this tradition is still glorified as the quintessential Malay model of political engagement. For instance, the classic representation of traditional Malay politicking (or at least discourse about politics) is the Sejarah Melayu. These annals feature a number of knock-down, drag-out fights and very emotional Machiavellian politics as well as proudly-proclaimed loyalty to the gory death. With this tradition moulding the contours of the political stage, it may be only in the privacy of the polling booth that the true political preferences – based on rational calculations of personal self interest –  of a contemporary Malay voter are honestly expressed.

            Thus, perhaps distinctive customs of political discourse more than political traditions per se, rooted in linguistically- or ethnically-specific literature and socialization and fostered by a persistent lack of inter-ethnic dialogue, maintain the myth of ethnically-divergent political behaviour. More probably, all voters, regardless of ethnicity, evaluate what the contenders are offering and how likely a given party is first, to win and second, to deliver. Depending on what goods (material or otherwise) those voters prioritize, they will vote, more likely than not, rationally. Thus, every voter is doubtless voting for both ringgit and wira, or more precisely in the contemporary era, for a wira with enough ringgit to go around.

Saliha Hassan teaches political science at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (The National University of Malaysia). Meredith Weiss is a doctoral candidate in political science at Yale University. Weiss is currently a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.

[1] The as yet unregistered Parti Sosialis Malaysia is the one party seriously to espouse a distinctly different, socialist model of development. However, PSM targets its message not at the comfortable middle classes, but rather at plantation and industrial workers – the true “proletariat” in the Malaysian context.