Government losing Chinese support, putting reforms at risk

Reuters/The Malaysian Insider
Jun 03, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, June 3 — Ethnic Chinese voters, upset over policies that favour majority Malays, have become increasingly alienated from Malaysia’s ruling coalition, raising the risk of racial polarisation and a slowdown in the pace of reforms.

Support for Prime Minister Najib Razak among Chinese voters plunged to 37 per cent in May from 56 per cent in February, a survey by the independent Merdeka Center showed on Friday. It found 56 per cent of Chinese were dissatisfied with the government, compared to 30 per cent of Indians and 23 per cent of Malays.

Recent state and by-elections underline the trend. The main Chinese party allied with the ruling National Front coalition in eastern Sarawak state lost 13 of 19 seats it contested in local elections last year and the opposition won a by-election in the same state in 2010 largely thanks to Chinese backing.

The Southeast Asian nation’s 6.5 million ethnic Chinese turned heavily to the opposition in 2008 polls, handing the National Front, which has ruled uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1957, its worst election showing.

Malaysia has seen ethnic Chinese voting with their feet, leaving the country for better prospects aboard including to neighbour and rival Singapore, in a troubling brain drain of talent and capital. “Malaysia needs talent to meet its goal of becoming a high-income country,” the World Bank noted in a report last year. “But the problem is that talent is leaving.”

With elections likely later this year, the government has failed to reverse the tide with voters such as Jack Gan, who complains he had to study much harder than his ethnic Malay peers to get into one of the country’s top universities.

“I’m used to the lifestyle here but I don’t like the government and the policies,” said the 24-year-old law student, referring to decades-old affirmative action policies that favour Malays in education, business and employment.

Government efforts to appeal to minority Chinese and Indians were “just propaganda, not a policy,” he added.

Malay chauvinists

Chinese disillusionment is straining relations within the ruling coalition, complicating Najib’s efforts to reverse the shocking losses four years ago. Najib has rolled back some repressive security laws in an effort to appeal to middle-class, urban voters but his reforms have not gone far enough for many Chinese.

The main ethnic Chinese party in the ruling coalition, whose parliamentary seats were halved to 15 in 2008, says it won’t accept any cabinet posts if it does worse this time, raising the prospect of a government dominated by ethnic Malays.

The trend risks deepening racial fault lines if, as some analysts expect, the lead party in the coalition, the United Malays Nationalist Organisation (Umno) effectively “gives up” on the Chinese vote and focuses on championing Malay rights to secure support in rural areas.

Some analysts think Chinese voters could be shooting themselves in the foot if a weak showing by Najib in the election hands power back to right-wingers within Umno and puts the brakes on his reform programme. The three-party opposition alliance is seen as unlikely to win enough seats to form a government.

“The concern I have is that it is going to be a coalition of one (party) plus a few others who are not as strong as they are,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the head of Malaysia’s Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. “It’s going to be a very imbalanced mix in the new coalition that will be formed.”

The prime minister is stuck on the horns of a Malaysian dilemma: He has promised to reform the 40-year-old affirmative action programme for majority Malays that has long upset Malaysia’s minorities; yet to do that he needs Chinese electoral support to strengthen his hand against Malay chauvinists in his party.

Middle-income trap

In the past, the National Front could rely on sizeable support from the Chinese community, who control most of the country’s wealth despite making up only about a quarter of Malaysia’s 28 million people. But that support — forged through cosy business ties and strong government support for a separate, Mandarin language school system — has frayed in recent years as Chinese frustration with slow progress on reform has grown.

Malaysia’s Chinese, many of whose ancestors came to the country in British colonial times, increasingly lead separate lives from Malays, attending separate schools, speaking Mandarin and socialising with friends from the same race.

“We are not integrated, sadly, and I think it’s going to take a long time before we can integrate because economically we are compartmentalised,” said Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a long-serving Umno member of parliament and former finance minister.

The Chinese account for many of an estimated one million people who emigrate annually, a “brain drain” driven by a lack of education and job prospects that is eroding Malaysia’s competitiveness.

Malaysia had been among the best performing economies in the world over the past 50 years under the National Front, which transformed a poor, colonial plantation economy into a modern, middle-income country. Per capita GDP has reached US$8,100 (RM24,300), almost doubling each decade.

But economists now warn Malaysia has fallen into a “middle-income trap”, in which a country is unable to make the next leap to developed nation status — Malaysia’s stated goal by 2020.

Domestic investment has struggled to recover since the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis. Foreign investment, which powered the earlier decades of growth, has stagnated. And the affirmative action policies, aimed at helping Malays better compete in the economy through educational and ownership quotas, have become an impediment to growth by not fully exploiting the human resource potential of the Indian and Chinese minorities.

Critics say the privileges, which include requiring companies to employ at least 30 per cent Malays, have also scared off some foreign investors who think it represents too much government interference in the economy.

Najib has tried to unite the country with a highly touted programme called “1 Malaysia”. His efforts, however, have often been undercut by his own party, whose conservative wing has dug in its heels over protecting Malay privileges.

The government says it has reached out to Chinese under Najib, increasing funding for Mandarin schools and for lower-to-middle income Chinese communities.

“The government is continuing to implement measures under the transformation agenda and all Malaysians — including the Chinese community — stand to benefit,” a government spokesperson said.

Nevertheless, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the main Chinese party in the coalition, could see its seats slashed again in the coming election as it pays the price for corruption scandals in the ruling coalition and perceptions it has failed to defend Chinese interests, analysts say.

Penang pull factor

One factor driving Chinese voters from the ruling coalition is they now have a viable alternative following the opposition alliance’s unprecedented takeover of five state governments in 2008, including the northwestern coastal state of Penang, one of Malaysia’s biggest manufacturing hubs.

“A major pull factor is that the DAP is a much stronger party now — it is able to capture the imagination of Chinese voters,” said political analyst Ong Kian Ming, referring to the Democratic Action Party, the opposition’s ethnic Chinese party.

Penang’s Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is a veteran of Malaysia’s hardball politics: He spent 18 months in detention from 1986 under the draconian Internal Security Act (which Najib had repealed) and a year in prison for sedition for making allegations against an Umno state leader.

He is credited with cutting debt and attracting a flood of high-tech investments into Penang. Ethnic Malay businesses still get the lion’s share of state contracts, Lim says, but his move to make all public tenders open through a computerised system has cut down on the cronyism that annoys Malaysians of all races.

“We have broken the myth that Malay contractors cannot compete on the open market,” said the 51-year-old Lim, whose father Lim Kit Siang has been a party leader since its beginnings in the 1960s. “It goes to show that Malay contractors can compete. It is only Umno cronies who cannot compete,” Lim told Reuters.

After taking over in 2009, Najib signalled he would take a bolder approach on dismantling affirmative action. In 2010 he introduced the “New Economic Model”, with poverty and income, not race, as the main criteria for getting help, and calling for less government interference in the economy. But so far the model has been short on policy implementation with little change to the core privileges that often benefit well-connected Malays more than the poor and have been blamed for fuelling cronyism.

Najib’s defenders say he is hoping a strong electoral mandate will strengthen the reformist wing of Umno — but he will need Chinese support to make that case.

MCA leader Chua Soi Lek acknowledged the party leadership had been too “low profile.” But he told Reuters Chinese voters risked losing influence over policy and ushering in a less business-friendly government if they turned their backs on his party.
“The message to the Chinese community is to choose wisely. We are a business community. The wrong choice of government and everybody suffers but it will affect the business community … more than everybody else.” — Reuters

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 11:41 am

    The author got it all wrong – it is the other way round. The slowdown in reform risks stifling Chinese support.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 12:01 pm

    BUT UmnoB/BN-Perkosa r NOT losing ENUF Chinese n non-Chinese support 2 b voted OUT

    So, calling all Malaysians, ADD FUEL, jia you, 加油, gambatte, がんばって, CHEONG AHHH: GIVE UP UmnoB/BN-Perkosa, UBAH, vote 4 PR!!

  3. #3 by SENGLANG on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 12:32 pm

    There are many reasons why Chinese have turn their back on BN after decades of strong supports. But saying only Chinese are turn away from BN is not all truth, all races are turn way that include the Malay and Indian and other in the East Malaysia.

    Instead of threatening the Chinese BN should ask themselves why Chinese are losing faith in BN?

    MCA has opening warn the Chinese that without BN the country will be Islamic state and that no Chinese Ministers thus their rights will not be represented, all these issues are out dated and they are applicable in these days.

    The issues that concern most not only Chinese but all races are Corruptions among BN leaders. While PKFZ has yet to settled down, we was given another NFC and more. It seems that BN are not serious in addressing the corruption issues that have made the people suffer.

    Another issues that concern all the rakyat are most of the agencies that include Police, MACC and AG chambers that are the administrative agencies of the people have been acted as the tools by the ruling government to strengthen their power.

    Off course there are issue that make the Chinese feel most, one of them is the education. Despite the education standard have been dropping year by year the BN government refuse to accept the fact but keep telling lies among them is that our education standard is on par will that in America. At the same time we also seen many of of the local graduates facing with high unemployment simply most of them could not communicate effective especially using English as its medium.

    We also seen many well to do parent will send their kids overseas at the young age that include the current PM children, while leaving those that could not afford them stay in the local universities but receiving low standard of education.

    The Chinese is keep busy and losing their resources in trying to make the Chinese primary school unchange. It seem the government has never being sincere its effort to assist the Chinese to maintain the Chinese primary school. The fact is Chinese Primary school education will not harm the nation unity as all the 6 years of primary education all Chinese have be able to integrate into the main stream of the national secondary school. The government must be sincere and provide the necessary funding to the Chinese to have their six year primary education in their mother tongue, but doing so the Chinese will be able to focus and out their resources in a betterment of the nation.

    The Chinese are losing faith simply we have to understand people just can’y being keep cheated. Take eg for the teachers shortage in the Chinese Primary schools. The Chinese simply can not take BN is sincere its effort as this problem have not see any light after decades. The Chinese can only conclude that the BN government is not sincere and they wish to have the Chinese Primary school abolish.

  4. #4 by monsterball on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 12:45 pm

    All one needs to feel and see are all from BERSIH 3 supporters.
    No need to survey this or that.
    Almost all Malaysians will vote for a CLEAN government …and that worries the con men whose conning does not work with educated Malaysians anymore.

  5. #5 by limkamput on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 1:17 pm

    Please, this piece is not about UMNO/BN losing Chinese support. This piece is trying to put fear into Chinese to continue supporting UMNO/BN. Since when was Naj!b a reformer or a moderate? What handing power back to right-wingers are you talking about if support for Naj!b further erodes? Are they liberal and left winger in UMNO all these years, if so please name me one? And stop saying separate primary and secondary schools are the cause of disunity. It is exclusive universities and special designed courses that have created dissension and frustration. No one is complaining about affirmative programmes. It is the abuse and siphoning of public money by the well-connected and the cronies. What Chinese control of the economy are you talking about? You mean the SMEs and the small traders here and there? Please don’t equate about twenty Chinese families in Malaysia with the rest of the Chinese, you stupid nincompoops. Name me one major sector that is still in Chinese hand – banking and finance, automobile, telecommunications, utilities, mining, infrastructure, satellite tvs, and plantation? Sdr Lim, you better read the article before posting it your blog. This piece is crap.

  6. #6 by waterfrontcoolie on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 1:53 pm

    They will privatize only those services within the captive environment where Malaysians have nooption. Slowly the owner of Johor Port will control all international Ports with annualized % increase just like the road toll. Where sweat is oozing just to compete, they will prefer to lease it out at 30%. Of course they will pass such projects to their well-connected partners who could raise the up=front cash. #4 rightly pointed out, this note mst be written by MCA!

  7. #7 by hiro on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 2:03 pm

    Reuters is the next in line to be affected by Najib’s marketing after NY Times.

    BN government supports the Chinese community very little. They can stand on their own feet. By continuing to support the opposition, they indirectly require BN to think harder about winning over middle Malaysia instead of taking things for granted. It also helps tamper extreme views within the opposition coalition with the view that they will be a moderate federal government should they come to power.

    No one loses out by Chinese and for that matter Indian (working on the same principles) reducing their support for BN.

    BN’s reform does not work not because of lack of minority support, but rather because it continues to be plagued by incompetence, corruption and gross abuse of power, and does not deserve to continue leading the electorate.

    I speculate that there is change of tune from the US, and perhaps I won’t be surprised by the change of tune from Europe as well, as economically they need a new source of growth, and Malaysia offers an easy way out with respect to sub-par investments, no adequate environmental protection, and easy to be bought officials. Better to have self interested BN in power than a thinking, savvy opposition.

  8. #8 by sotong on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 2:33 pm

    ” The wrong choice of government and everybody suffers but it will affect the business community … more than everybody else.”

    The Chinese are voting for a fair, accountable, responsible and competent government….how could this be wrong?

    Even if the business community is affect by their choice and the less-business friendly government does not care of economy and job creation, so be it.

  9. #9 by Kampong Orang on Sunday, 3 June 2012 - 4:21 pm

    Message to Chinese community: Chinese don’t need MCA at all to progress. MCA could do nothing to reform Malaysia nor helping in anti corruption. Look at Anti Corruption Commission is quiet about Taib and look at Mathir and Daim who are running away from crimes!

    Look at the case of murder of Mongolian mother where the High Court has never mentioned about name of Najib in trial. Hong Kong newspaper has published about French authorities have investigated and believed that HK$3.66 billion have been taken away by Najib and his friend:

    MCA is only good at threatening. Losing support from ruling party UMNO? Certainly! Because UMNO, MCA, MIC are to be opposition parties!

  10. #10 by Loh on Monday, 4 June 2012 - 8:51 pm

    ///Some analysts think Chinese voters could be shooting themselves in the foot if a weak showing by Najib in the election hands power back to right-wingers within Umno and puts the brakes on his reform programme. The three-party opposition alliance is seen as unlikely to win enough seats to form a government.///–

    Those analysts still think that non-Malays now are like their forefathers who preferred a slow death to a change in government. Non-Malays now know that they either change the government now or prepare to leave the country. Since those who could leave have already left, those who remain want to see a real change, come what may!

  11. #11 by Loh on Monday, 4 June 2012 - 9:01 pm

    ///Najib has tried to unite the country with a highly touted programme called “1 Malaysia”. His efforts, however, have often been undercut by his own party, whose conservative wing has dug in its heels over protecting Malay privileges.///-

    Najib was only playing games trying to use sweet words to fool non-Malays into voting BN, out of fear. That was why he talked about defending PutraJaya using human bodies. If he was a true leader interested in seeing the success of 1Malaysia, then 1Malaysia should mean only Malaysian Malaysia and no two ways about it. The fact that he would not even say that 1Malaysia is for equal right for all Malaysians, and the weak would be given assistance without regards to race, it only says that he is still playing the race card. Malay privileges was a euphemism to say that Malays were placed in a special position out of need. Najib would not even say it out that he would spare no efforts to move Malays out of the special position so that Malays do not have to depend on those special position. Why can’t he repeat the word of the late Tun Dr Ismail that he would make Malays see their pride to leave that special position as soon as possible?

  12. #12 by Loh on Monday, 4 June 2012 - 9:09 pm

    ///MCA leader Chua Soi Lek acknowledged the party leadership had been too “low profile.” But he told Reuters Chinese voters risked losing influence over policy and ushering in a less business-friendly government if they turned their backs on his party.
    “The message to the Chinese community is to choose wisely. We are a business community. The wrong choice of government and everybody suffers but it will affect the business community … more than everybody else.”///–

    CSL makes it appear that all Malaysian Chinese are businessmen. That is far from the truth.

    The Chinese are happy to hear that MCA will leave the government if it has not obtained a better results than in 2008. Chinese will now make sure that MCA will be wiped out totally in the next election. UMNO will try to appoint a few Chinese into the Cabinet but we know that they are running dogs, and they do not represent the Chinese community. The world will too know the truth. Whether or not UMNO regains power, the fact that MCA is out of the government says that UMNO cannot pretend any longer that it leads a government representing non-Malays too. The Chinese will be wise this time to make sure that MCA leaders cannot enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of the Chinese community!

  13. #13 by Loh on Monday, 4 June 2012 - 9:18 pm

    ///Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad today skirted the issue of citizenship being given to illegal immigrants in the 1990s, asserting that he had “very little” knowledge on the matter.///–Malaysiakini

    Now that the Mamakputra has declared that he had little knowledge about the matter, he would give a ‘don’t know’ answer rather than “can’t remember”.

    Should he not be asked to return his salary since he did not know very much about the most important matter in the country? Yes foreigners may be attracted to come to this country, but isn’t it the duty of the government to secure its border. Why do we have defense spending if we are helpless about foreigners coming to this country, and stay on to make local a minority?

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