Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Evidence, Not Emotion, Matters

Written by johnleemk on 9:17:51 am Jan 20, 2008.

You can reach the right conclusion for very wrong reasons. I have often found spurious reasoning in the logic of opposition supporters, and although I generally agree with their support for the opposition, I occasionally find myself feeling like dissociating myself from them simply because of this bad thinking, the worst of which is a refusal to accept empirical evidence.

Not too long ago, the common wisdom was that the results from a particular by-election conclusively proved that the Chinese had decisively turned against the government by voting for the opposition in droves. The problem was that there was no strong evidence for this hypothesis.

A friend of mine published a brief statistical analysis of the results, and concluded that on the basis of the evidence, we could not say whether there was a landmark shift in Chinese support for the government. A response in the comments basically denounced his analysis because the writer "believe[d]" that the outcome was otherwise.

Likewise, the Merdeka Centre has on occasion published opinion polls and met with criticism from the alternative media. When Merdeka published results indicating that Malaysians rarely mixed with those of other races, 89 percent not having shared a meal with someone from another race in the last three months and over a third never having had a meal with someone from another ethnic community, Malaysia Today commenters poured scorn on the survey — for no discernible reason other than that they disagreed with it.

Asserting that something is so will not make it come true. I am not sure why someone would want to believe that Malaysians form a cohesive, united nation — that we are not splintered by racial divisions. Perhaps it fits in with the idea that we need a united Malaysia to put an end to the racist Barisan Nasional regime. Maybe, more subtly, it's because we refuse to accept that our obviously segregated education system causes racial polarisation — ironically, the opposition has a lot invested in the status quo when it comes to the racial structuring of our education system.

More recently, in the wake of the HINDRAF and BERSIH rallies, the Merdeka Centre published a report after surveying a sample of 800 Malaysians. Now this time it was the establishment and the mainstream media reading its own bias into the facts.

The Star ran a story opening with "an overwhelming number of Malaysians are against street protests", and continued that they supported the government's arrest of five HINDRAF leaders to preserve racial harmony in the country. The obvious issue is that the facts do not bear this out.

73 percent, it is true, said that "the government should use all legal means it has to stop individuals and groups from threatening racial peace and harmony". The problem is, this statement is rather vague — the wording of the question verges on making it a "push poll", which pushes respondents towards an answer. If it had been phrased as "the government should arrest people for peacefully gathering to express their concerns", you would certainly have a different set of results. In any event, it does not matter; all we can conclude from the survey's outcome is that the government should preserve racial harmony, which does not bear out the assumption that this means people believe the government should arrest people for expressing their views in a peaceful manner.

Now, 52 percent did say they agree with the government's decision to arrest the HINDRAF Five — but that is by no means an overwhelming majority. 25% disagreed with the government's decision, a substantial minority. A further 23 percent appear to have either been unsure, or simply apathetic. There is no way you can say that we have an overwhelming majority supporting the government crackdown.

The killer here is that though 53% believe that street demonstrations are not an acceptable means of expressing one's views, 42% think they should be accepted. That is a much larger number than I would have expected, and certainly shows that support for the basic freedom to think and say what you think is not dead in this country, thank God.

A number of other figures are given, which can be addressed in a similar manner, but one which I found noteworthy was this: about a third believed that violence in the rallies could be attributed to the protesters themselves, but a roughly equal number blamed "instigators or provocateurs in the crowd". Most surprisingly, over a fifth of the respondents blamed the police for causing the violence. In total, only about a third blame the street demonstrators for the violence! This shows a level of awareness about the nature of freedom of speech in our country that I would not have expected of your typical Malaysian.

If anything, the opposition can take some heart from these results, because they show that people do believe in basic freedoms, and that people are aware enough to think about what is being spun in the media. Malaysians exhibit a greater level of levelheadedness and libertarianism than I would have expected them to in this poll, and they deserve credit for that.

This of course brings us back to our original point: you cannot make assumptions or assertions based on how you feel about something. The only thing tangible is empirical evidence — numbers backing you up. A feeling counts for nothing when the evidence either does not support you, or contradicts you outright.

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

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