AT a kopitiam in Pandamaran town, Klang, the owner and his regular customers laughed when asked why local Chinese do not support MCA and Barisan Nasional any more.
To them, the question seemed rhetorical and answers were obvious: The weak ringgit, government mismanagement and alleged corruption and the rising cost of living.
Many Chinese Malaysian voters, who make up 29.68% of the voting population, remain strong in their support for the opposition, as they have since the watershed election of 2008 when BN was denied its customary two-thirds majority and lost four more states to the opposition.
“We don’t care whether it’s a white cat or black cat, as long as it can catch rats (corrupt politicians and civil servants), it’s a good cat,” said Charlie, an elderly customer at the kopitiam.
He said BN’s mismanagement of the country’s economy, corruption and wastage had led to a weak ringgit, resulting in the people struggling with rising cost of living.
“Our ringgit has weakened significantly compared to the Thai baht and Singapore dollar over the years. We used to be able to get 1,100 baht or more with RM100, now it’s only 770 baht.
“Our exchange rate with Singapore was RM2 to SGD1, now it’s more than RM3! Don’t you think importers and locals who do business with them feel the pinch?” said the retired businessman.
The kopitiam owner, Mark Gor, said few locals bought into BN’s rhetoric that the economy was doing well with its GDP growth, foreign investment figures and upcoming mega projects like the East Cost Rail Link or proposed upgrading of the ports in Klang and Kuantan.
“How much money is actually ending up in the people’s pockets? Everything is more expensive now because of GST (Goods and Services Tax).
“Times are tough for small- and medium-sized businesses. Many kopitiam in Bukit Tinggi (another town in Klang) have closed in the past few years to become hawkers (to save on rent).
“A friend of mine used to have four hardware shops, but had to close three and is now managing with just one.
“Many local construction subcontractors are also out of jobs. He is one of them who hasn’t had work for more than a year (he pointed to a customer seated at another table).
“Even if they are offered work, they are worried if they will get paid,” he said.
MCA still seen as Umno proxy
A combination of factors led to a 40% swing in Chinese support to the opposition in the 2008 polls, including the use of social media and greater political frustration.
This surge in support for the opposition also swept traditional MCA strongholds like Pandamaran, which has been held by the ruling Chinese party since the state seat was created in 1984.
The semi-urban seat in Selangor was abolished after the first two elections and re-established when electoral boundaries were redrawn for the 2004 elections. That year, MCA’s candidate Teh Kim Poo beat DAP’s Tee Boon Hock to clinch the seat.
However, in the 2008 and 2013 electins, Pandamaran voters ditched MCA for DAP. The Chinese-majority opposition party won 63.7% of the votes in 2008 and 68.75% in 2013.
What happened in Pandamaran was reflective of a larger shift among Chinese Malaysians in the 2008 and 2013 elections.
“Usually the Chinese would split their vote for Parliament and state seats. In 2008 and 2013, it was synchronised, with all their votes going to the opposition for both Parliament and state seats,” said Merdeka Center For Opinion Research’s research manager Tan Seng Keat.
MCA suffered its worst electoral outing in 2013, winning only seven out of 37 parliamentary seats and 11 out of 90 state seats it contested. In comparison, DAP won 38 out of 51 parliamentary seats and 95 out of 103 state seats it contested.
BN chairman Najib Razak has challenged MCA to win at least 15 parliamentary seats in the next elections to justify the three cabinet posts the party holds.
MCA president Liow Tiong Lai boldly proclaimed during the party’s annual general assembly that DAP would tumble in the 14th general election.
However, Tan said many Chinese still perceived MCA as a proxy of Umno, and it was ineffective in addressing their core concerns of the country’s economy and governance.
Attributing it partly to DAP’s successful campaign, Tan said the perception that MCA ministers and the party could not do much for the Chinese community persists among most Chinese voters.
In a September poll conducted by Merdeka Center, more than two-thirds of Chinese respondents (68%) believe the country was going in the wrong direction, compared with 51% in a similar poll done in April 2013 prior to the elections.
Tan predicts that even if there was a voter swing back to MCA in the next polls, it would come from traditional MCA supporters who voted for the opposition in 2013 in the hope for a change of government.
MCA is said to have some 1.09 million members and is the second largest component party in BN. However, only 661,469 Chinese voters (18.4%) voted for BN in 2013, while 2.92 million (81.5%) voted for the now defunct opposition bloc Pakatan Rakyat.
Tan said MCA and BN were unlikely to win back youth votes, where between 90% and 92% of voters between the ages of 21 and 30 voted for the opposition in 2013.
He said a small number of Chinese voters, particularly youth, disillusioned with the opposition’s infighting might spoil their vote or not turn up to vote, but that would not affect the larger trend.
Cost of living top Chinese voters’ concern
Tan believes the GE14 will be a “GST elections”.
“A lot of people talk about 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) but that is factored into the broader good governance and leadership issue.”
An Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE) survey in August found that more than two-thirds of the Chinese respondents (68%) still favoured Pakatan Harapan. Only 21% supported BN, while 7% were undecided and 4% supported PAS.
IDE also found that the rising prices of goods topped the list of concerns among Chinese respondents (53%), followed by the pressures of life (23%), wages (10%), crime and social issues (6%), infrastructure development (5%), unemployment (2%) and other issues (3%).
Tan Ah Poh (not her real name), 80, who has been running a sundry shop in Pandamaran for almost six decades, said GST and rising goods prices have hit her business hard.
“My shop is busiest in the beginning of the month, when people just got their salaries. By the middle of the month, there will be fewer customers. Towards the end of the month, it can grow so quiet that I could doze off,” she said.
“Even during the 1997-1998 financial crisis, business wasn’t as bad as it is now,” she added.
She said she understood that other countries had GST, but in those countries, the people’s wages were higher, too.
“Our wages are low. When the people don’t have enough cash to spare, they shop less,” said the grandmother with only primary school education.
“The rich are okay, but the poor are doing worse,” she said.