TODAYonline, 22 Dec 2007
THE recent spate of street protests may have affected Malaysia’s international image to a certain extent. But at home, the protests could go some way in halting the Chinese community’s slide in support for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).
In fact, the government may even gain a few votes from the community, which had been leaning towards the opposition in recent months.
One reason for this change of heart lies in the traditional conservative belief of the Chinese that such street protests are bad for business.
When a coalition of opposition and non-governmental organisations called Bersih organised a demonstration calling for free and fair elections last month, many Chinese stayed away from the city centre for fear of violence.
That same fear was borne out when Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force) led some 10,000 Indians onto the streets last month in protests against alleged racial discrimination that descended into chaotic clashes with riot police.
The Hindraf protests were given wider coverage on Mandarin television news broadcasts than on national Malay language bulletins that day – perhaps a sign that the authorities were sending a message to the Chinese community that BN stood for law and order while the opposition represented some form of anarchy.
It was particularly noticeable that in fact, the Chinese were conspicuous by their virtual absence from both protests.
Except for a few opposition activists, the two demonstrations were completely dominated by Malays, in the case of the Bersih rally, and Indians, in the Hindraf protests.
Madam F L Chen, a 50-something long-time resident of Petaling Jaya suburb, said she did not understand what the protests were all about.
“I could not go out that day to do any shopping. I just do not understand what the protesting was about,” she told Weekend Extra.
When asked who she would vote for in the next election, Mdm Chen’s response was telling: “I think BN has been doing an okay job. I do not know what the opposition is fighting for.”
Her reaction is perhaps stereotypical of many Chinese Malaysians, who, while not happy with the government over a host of issues including perceived discrimination, will not vote opposition if there is a chance it will lead to instability.
One other reason for the lack of Chinese support for the Bersih and Hindraf rallies is perhaps the community just did not relate to the issues at hand.
In the case of Bersih, the rally for free and fair elections appeared to many Malaysians, if not just the Chinese, an abstract issue.
The rather exaggerated claims of “ethnic cleansing” and the ridiculous notion of a lawsuit against the British government demanding billions in compensation by Hindraf also clouded the real issue of perceived racial discrimination, which many Chinese would have had no qualms about protesting together with the Indian community.
“There is no doubt the Chinese are still not entirely happy with BN and Umno, and many are predicting a swing to the opposition.
“But the opposition has gotten itself involved in the recent protests which the Chinese do not support so we may have a chance to persuade the voters to change their minds and vote for MCA candidates,” said a senior leader of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Umno’s major partner in BN which stands to lose the most if the Chinese vote opposition.
Despite widespread discontent among the Chinese against the Malay-dominated BN government, the opposition has failed to capitalise fully.
The Chinese are unhappy over issues like the economy, particularly over the continuation of pro-bumiputera policies giving preferential treatment to Malays in business.
They are also angry at the rising crime rate, with many Chinese, who are generally wealthier than the other races, ending up as victims of robberies, snatch thefts and car-jackings.
Corruption is another major issue the Chinese are particularly concerned over as many in the community are businessmen who have to deal with graft on a routine basis with corrupt government officials.
None of these issues were addressed during the two recent rallies by Bersih and Hindraf, in what is probably the most telling explanation of why the Chinese did not support the protests.
The sheer lack of law and order was a massive turnoff for the Chinese, and newspaper photographs and television visuals of shops with their shutters down during the protests were scenes the community did not want to see.
Such an environment may help the MCA, which have been working hard over the past few months to regain lost support.
Senior party leaders have even been campaigning door-to-door in some areas.
“We need the public to understand our role in government. We are making such visits more frequently now,” Ms Chew Mei Fun, an MCA legislator said in a local newspaper here recently, in reference to the party stepping up constituency visits.
An opinion poll conducted earlier this year showed that 60 per cent of the Chinese would vote opposition in the next general election, confirming the conventional wisdom that there was swing to the opposition.
But the political temperature among the Chinese community has come down quite a bit since the survey and Umno has also become less strident and confrontational with elections approaching.
While the Chinese are still not completely satisfied with how the government is handling the economy and issues like corruption and crime, the opposition has not offered much of a solution itself.
The recent clashes between protesters and the police were, in some ways, presenting the Chinese with a choice. And many may yet choose the devil they know and continue supporting BN if the ruling coalition plays its cards right in the next few months.
Leslie Lau has been reporting in Malaysia for more than 15 years. He has worked in regional and international newspapers and TV stations.
And what about the Chinese?