Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Analysing Politics in Malaysia: Demographics and Statistics

Written by johnleemk on 2:52:46 pm Jan 5, 2007.

This is part of a series analysing the political situation on the ground in Malaysia. For an overview of the series, and a list of all its parts, please refer to the introduction. To comment on this series, a discussion thread on the forum has been opened.

Conventionally, an analyst segments the electorate into discrete groups in order to facilitate analysis. It is crucial for anyone attempting to win an election to understand their electorate, and to focus their efforts on those groups most likely to vote for them. In Malaysia, as many have noted, everything centres on one's race (and more recently, religion). Let us examine those factors first.

Looking at the Malaysian population as a whole as of the last census (when the population was 23.27 million; at present the population is 26.64 million), the Malays form about 55%, the Chinese contribute roughly 26%, the Indians contribute about 8%, and the lain-lain (e.g. non-Malay bumiputra) make up the rest. I am not sure what the figures are for the electorate - those actually registered to vote - so let us assume that the same percentages apply. Logically, a party that appeals only to one race cannot form a two-thirds Parliamentary majority, barring major gerrymandering. It would also be extremely difficult to form a simple majority unless one party magically captured practically the entire Malay vote.

The situation is similar for the issue of religion - Muslims form about 60% of the population, Buddhists about 20%, Taoists and other traditional Chinese religions about 2%, Hindus about 6%, Christians about 9%, with the rest going to other religious minorities. Again, it is clear that a two-thirds majority would be impossible to attain by appealing to only one religion, and that achieving a working majority would be quite hard.

Remarkably, race and religion represent the two most important factors in Malaysian politics. Politicians, when seeking for an easy card to play, nearly always play the race card. Muslim politicians will also occasionally play the religion card, as will non-Muslim ones. Strangely enough, the minority races and religions can be grouped together under the labels of "non-Malay" and "non-Muslim" without losing any important data - the Chinese, Indians and lain-lain tend to be quite homogenous in their political views, if both the mainstream and alternative media are anything to go by.

Despite this, race and religion are clearly not the only factors in determining how one votes. There are several other, often-overlooked factors that can be decisive (although usually not anywhere near as decisive as race or religion). Because of a lack of data on these factors, I will have to infer and deduce the political views of people belonging to these categories. I expect many will disagree with me on my deductions, and I hope you will explain to me how I am wrong.

One of the crucial factors besides race and religion is age. This is often a determinant of voter turnout - in many other countries (and I believe Malaysia is no exception) - the younger one is, the less likely one is to vote in an election. In many other countries (and again, I think this applies to Malaysia as well) the young are also more likely to favour opposition parties, so a higher turnout of young voters will lead to a higher proportion of the vote for opposition candidates. Things work exactly the opposite way for the senior citizens - this group is more likely to vote, and also more likely to vote for the government party. As a result, the government usually encourages turnout by the aged.

I am not sure if my inferences here are completely sound - in Malaysia, the aged may be biased against the government because there is a tendency to view the past in a favourable light compared to the present, and thus they might have higher expectations of the government. (Furthermore, this is not merely a mirage, as in some other countries - the situation, at least in terms of political rights, has deteriorated. For instance, the old are more likely to recall that we once had the freedom to gather in public to listen to election rallies and speeches, or that opposition parties once could touch on "sensitive issues".) The Universities and University Colleges Act may also discourage politicisation of the youth, resulting in a demographic that would not necessarily respond to opposition appeals for votes. In many countries, the young can be counted on as a sure source of not only support at the ballot box, but support in terms of volunteering to carry out election work, such as distributing leaflets. Because the UUCA bans student involvement in any political activities, the youth are cut off from any political involvement - this not only makes things more difficult for the opposition (which does not have the financial power of the governing party to pay election workers) but also probably further hampers turnout among young voters and possibly reduces their inclination to support the opposition at the ballot box.

Another demographic of interest is gender, and to a much lesser extent, sexual orientation. The gender issue is of course obvious - women will vote for a party that supports an expansion of women's rights (such as more maternity leave, equality in the workplace, lack of dress codes, etc.). It is not clear to me how a party interested in appealing to men would go about doing so - although it seems apparent that there might be proposed policies such as permitting polygamy or extending the rights available to existing legal polgyamous husbands (such as increasing the number of wives they may take). As for sexual orientation - although this theoretically could be an issue, as far as I can ascertain, it is a non-issue. The electorate as a whole is far too conservative to vote for a party that would legalise homosexuality, let alone permit things such as gay marriage. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I don't know; I'm quite neutral on the issue. I do know that there are a substantial number of homosexuals, but any policies that would appeal to them on the basis of sexual orientation would immediately turn off the vast majority of voters, resulting in this being a costly proposition.

Another issue of importance that is probably already factored in by individual candidates is geographical locality. Certain issues are more likely to be rated highly by voters in different areas. For example, in Terengganu and a number of other states with significant petroleum deposits, the divvying up of oil revenue has been an issue used by the opposition. The special autonomy of the East Malaysian states is another issue.

The education level of voters should also be considered. A more sophisticated audience also tends to be more cynical and less susceptible to cheap gimmicks or propaganda than those with a primary school education. There are also vested interests because there is often a substantial degree of correlation between education level and wealth.

Wealth is a determinant of how one votes because the wealthy are frequently predisposed towards the establishment that helped them attain their wealth in the first place. The poor, on the other hand, will be predisposed against the establishment because the establishment didn't help them. However, at the same time, the wealthy often tend to be more educated and informed about current issues, so this could be a double-edged sword for the government, as it is often easier to pull the wool over the eyes of the poor, who are unlikely to have access to alternative media such as the internet.

In order to win, a party must examine which demographical segments are most likely to support them, which can be most easily persuaded to support them, and so on. Resources are sparse and limited, especially for the opposition, so it does not make sense to chase those voters who will probably not vote for you.

The examples given here are only a small amount - I am sure you can think of many other possible ways to divide the electorate into different groupings. I have this odd feeling that I've missed something important, but since I can't put my finger on it and this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis, I suppose it's all right not to worry too much. I'm sure someone will point out my mistakes to me - that's what the commentary form is for.

In the next part, let's delve a little into racial politics. It's foolish to deny the amount of impact playing the race card can have on winning an election, so even if we wish race were not a factor, we must acknowledge the role it plays in elections.

If you'd like to keep informed about updates to the site, consider subscribing to our web feed:

Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

Najib's Orwellian 1Malaysia

Most Recently Read

  1. Saying No to Pigou?
  2. Malaysia, A Statist Economy
  3. Consequences of Schooling Autonomy
  4. Malaysia and Its Singaporean Inferiority Complex
  5. Libertarianism, Communism and Anarchism
  6. Apartheid and Protectionism, Internal Issues?
  7. Discovering Malaysia at the Discover US Education Fair
  8. Sepet, A Malaysian Movie
  9. Identification of Race with Economic Function
  10. Why Lower Our Standards?
Quoth the webserver...
The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that still carries any reward.
— John Maynard Keynes