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FEER: Wooing Malaysia's Chinese
By Tan Siok Choo

19/5/2001 2:26 pm Sat

[Beberapa perenggan di dalam rencana ini mungkin kurang enak dibaca tetapi itulah persepsi beberapa masyarakat Cina mengenai pemimpin pembangkang akibat putarbelit media. Apa yang menarik di sini ialah pengundi baru kaum Cina dan bagaimana Suqui begitu menonjol di Lunas sehingga menyebabkan kekalahan BN. Faktor pengundi Cina harus diambil perhatian oleh pemimpin BA kerana Mahathir kini sudah mengorak langkah untuk memancing mereka dari lari kepada parti BA. Ternyata di sini MCA telah gagal dan tidak boleh diharapkan untuk menolong BN menonjolkan imejnya. Mekap terbaru Mahathir untuk mengambil seorang (atau lebih?) penasihat seperti satu sindiran buat MCA yang sudah tidak mampu berkerja. Ia juga bertujuan untuk membaiki imej BN yang terjejas teruk oleh beberapa isu yang gagal diselesaikan yang melibatkan masyarakat Cina. - Editor]

The Far Eastern Economic Review
Issue cover-dated 24th May 2001

Wooing Malaysia's Chinese

By Tan Siok Choo

The writer is a former journalist and currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any institution with which she is associated

Changes, unprecedented in magnitude and scope, confront the Malaysian-Chinese community today. Not only will they transform the political landscape, but any political party failing to adapt to them could find itself relegated to the margins.

These changes come in several interrelated strands. First, the number of political-party suitors wooing the community is proliferating. Traditional ones like the Malaysian Chinese Association and Gerakan, both part of the ruling National Front coalition, and the opposition Democratic Action Party, now must compete with ardent newcomers like the Islamic party, Pas, and the new opposition party, Keadilan, to find favour with the Malaysian-Chinese community.

Just consider the zeal Pas now shows in courting the Chinese community. In 1981 it labelled members of the United Malays National Organization, the leading party of the National Front, as infidels for working with non-Muslim political parties. Today, Pas has joined an opposition coalition that includes the DAP, a party that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as "backward" in defending real or imagined erosions of Chinese rights. Complicating the picture is the entry of non-governmental organizations like the Malaysian Chinese Organization Election Appeals Committee, or Suqiu. In a key state-assembly by-election last November in Lunas, Kedah, Suqiu proved it could match the DAP in mobilizing support from the Chinese community. Because of a disagreement over which party from the opposition coalition would field a candidate for the Lunas seat, the DAP was largely absent from the hustings.

Second, the Malaysian-Chinese community is becoming younger. Projections suggest that 518,000 Malaysian Chinese will be eligible to vote for the first time in the 2004 general election. This group could account for about 13% of the Malaysian-Chinese electorate in that election. Additionally, by that year, voters aged 21-40 years could comprise almost 47% of the community's electorate. This preponderance of young voters could signal a shift in future voting trends.

A harbinger of this was apparent in the Lunas by-election. To be sure, not all new voters voted. But it is arguable that the addition of 2,265 new voters to the electoral roll after the 1999 general election was a major factor in the 29.1% swing against the National Front in that seat. Admittedly, the National Front candidate obtained 2.3% more votes in the by-election than the coalition's candidate in the 1999 general election. But this wasn't enough to prevent the loss of a seat the coalition won with a 26.5% majority just a year earlier.

Next, the younger profile of the Malaysian-Chinese electorate, coupled with rising affluence, suggests that political parties seeking support from the community may need to redefine their vision. Traditionally, two cornerstone issues for the Chinese community have been business opportunities and education, in particular, opportunities for tertiary education in local universities and the role of Chinese-language schools. In the 1970s and 1980s, the MCA tended to focus on economic issues. Uncertainty over the implementation of the affirmative-action New Economic Policy in favour of the Malay community made such an electoral strategy a necessity; it helped reassure Malaysian Chinese that through their role in the economy they would still be a meaningful part of the country. But a younger, more idealistic Chinese electorate--like its counterparts in other ethnic groups--is likely to place greater priority on non-economic issues. The 1998 recession, the country's worst, served to underline the strength and resilience of Malaysian Chinese-owned businesses. As fears on the economic front recede, socio-political issues--the role of Chinese-language schools, the rule of law and corruption--take on increasing importance.

But that is not to say that economic issues have been completely erased from the Malaysian-Chinese mind. Indeed, there remains the rising issue of globalization and its effect on segments of the Malaysian-Chinese business community. The risks here are confined mostly to those involved in "middleman" trade. For example, the entry of international discount retailers such as Carrefour and Makro threaten mainly Malaysian-Chinese-owned sundry shops and wet-market vendors.

What all these changes suggest is the possibility that the fault line in the future political landscape may not be ethnic, but socio-economic. Although the prospect is remote that they will do so, ethnic-based political parties--whether in the National Front or opposition--in fact may need to revamp the rationale for their current ethnic-based political structures.