What urban voters want

Neil Khor (Malaysiakini)
For those of us who have been in the observation deck, the recent two by-elections have provided a lot of food for thought. Although it would appear that the BN is clawing back support, the reality is somewhat different if we subject these two results to closer scrutiny.
The most startling being the great similarity in rejecting methods of persuasion employed by the BN and the solid support for the Opposition along a wide cross-section of the electorate in ethnically-mixed areas.
In Hulu Selangor, a very large constituency with a fairly mixed population at different levels of material development, the BN won but very narrowly. It was a seat that the PKR could not hope to hang on to without a candidate popular with the significant rural electorate. Their previous candidate was an ex-Selangor deputy menteri besar, an academic and well-respected figure. The BN’s gamble of jettisoning a tired MIC deputy president won the day, but only just.
The opposite happened in Sibu. The absence of Goliath meant a more level-playing field, and the DAP won convincingly. Even taking into account postal ballots, the DAP victory reverses the late Robert Lau’s victory margin by more than 3,800 votes.
In both constituencies, postal votes favoured the BN. It would appear that the real fixed deposit of the BN is the postal vote.
By now, most BN leaders would be scratching their heads wondering why urban voters so consistently reject them. Is the Internet to blame? As Robert Lau the younger said, “Malaysiakini did not give me any positive stories.” Although the mainstream media gave him great support, it seems newspapers and private television stations, both subject to the powerful Information Ministry, have limited traction with urban voters.
Why urban voters reject BN
While it may be true that the Internet has levelled the playing field a bit, it would not have much traction if the government got its act together. There are at least five reasons why urban voters continue to be sceptical about the BN’s transformation programme and its slogan 1Malaysia.
One: The Najib administration attempts to please everyone and ends up pleasing no one. 1Malaysia is a noble objective but it is hard to imagine the deputy PM and his ilk ever accepting being “Malaysian First” as the NEM document seems to be suggesting. There have been great inconsistencies between aspiration (1Malaysia) and government policies. Urban voters being naturally cynical would prefer to see policy changes before trusting the BN with another five-year term.
Two: Throughout the two by-election campaigns the impression is that the BN is going back to the old formula of promising “development” and garnishing it with government allocation for schools, flood mitigation, lower land lease fees and other pro-development goodies.
The PM himself, demonstrating his caring nature, went down to the ground several times. Very often it is community leaders or school boards who are recipients of the windfall. This type of old school patronage cuts little ice with urban voters. They see all these allocations as “bribes” and few think that they should be “grateful” for allocations to fulfil government responsibility.
Moreover, so-called community leaders may bring with them a few hundred voters but they have little or no influence with the wider community. The young definitely are not bothered with clan or chamber-of-commerce leaders. Their monthly incomes are not dependent on community leaders and they are more anti-establishment. Right or wrong, this is the new mindset.
Three: Umno may be genuinely transforming by becoming less parochial and more inclusive but its two biggest component parties, the MCA and MIC, are still weak and unable to draw in the necessary votes. Under the BN’s race-based system, the Umno leadership is under tremendous pressure to move to the far right.
As can be seen in Hulu Selangor, Perkasa is quickly emerging as a force to be reckoned with. It may still be relatively under the control of individuals aligned to certain Umno personalities, but it is just a matter of time before it gets a life of its own. So long as the MIC and the MCA are unable to draw in the non-Malay votes, the BN is poised to lose even more parliamentary seats in the next General Election.
Four: Urban voters are at the forefront of the Pakatan Rakyat national policies. There has been a lot of shortcomings, but there has also been innovative change. Urban voters see themselves mirrored in the young Pakatan ADUNs and MPs. They are communicative, hard-working, responsive and air dirty linen in the open. The BN has yet to catch up with a more open and responsive way of doing things.
In Penang, for example, NGOs are given the platform to criticise the state government. Local council is more transparent. Although there are still festering issues about public transport, waste management, poor road maintenance – all of which urban voters feel that the federal government is equally responsible – they are willing to give the Pakatan a working chance. The likely scenario is that votes that may have been cast out of frustration on March 8, 2008 will most likely remain with the Pakatan. Younger voters are almost totally supportive of the opposition.
Five: The BN is also dragged down by financial scandals and, rightly or wrongly, the impression is that there is little will to shine the light on corruption and even less to deal with the culprits. This impression combined with a more critical and less tolerant urban electorate, most of whom see themselves as tax-payers, means more votes for the Pakatan. More damagingly, this also means less support for whatever policies government draws up to tackle corruption.
Even though the number of Malaysians who pay income tax is actually quite low, most urban voters feel they are “paying” more simply because cost of living is so much higher where they live. They take corruption and what the Auditor-General’s report lists as “kebocoran” (leakages) very personally.
Moreover, big fish are never caught, while police resources are channelled to monitor and stymie the opposition rather than dealing with the spiralling crime rate. In short, urban voters no longer feel that they are at the forefront of “development” but rather at the short-end of the stick. All the while, the income gap widens and, for the majority, the BN’s patronage system, bare for all to see in the two by-elections, simply convinces them that there needs to be regime change.
Many outstanding issues remain
Is there no hope for the BN amongst urban voters? It all depends on whether the BN can convince voters that it is truly reforming. The 10 percent GDP growth rate is impressive, but the government must be reminded that GDP is calculated based on averages. If, as the NEM document makes clear, 40 percent of Malaysians earn less than RM1,500 a month, the 10 percent GDP statistic will not translate so easily into votes for the government. Wealth is being generated but is it being distributed equitably?
There are also many outstanding issues that will put any government, Barisan or Pakatan, in a difficult position. These involve the negative perception of the judiciary, the high crime rate, the legalisation of football gambling, the use of the word “Allah” by Christians, the decline of living standards owing to stalled incomes, and the never-ending public transport nightmare. There will also be new challenges developing owing to climate change. Moreover, cheap fuel might soon come to an end with rising costs all round.
It might be wise for both the BN and the Pakatan to find some middle-ground and come to the table to sort out some of these issues. Both must realise that by 2020, some 75 percent of Malaysians will live in urban centres. For the BN, the advantage of incumbency means that they are in the position to draw up and implement policies.
The Pakatan is a fresh face and peopled with those who still believe in positive change. But both coalitions must realise that in the urban areas the old ways of patronage, personality-cults and heavy-handedness are well and truly over. It will be in the cities that Malaysia’s future will be forged.