Loyal readers know that I have been selling the ethnic politics angle on Malaysian politics pretty hard. There is another perspective, though. That perspective is about UMNO’s dominance as a machine party in the rural areas, and it comes most notably from ANU’s Edward Aspinall. Ed has written a series of excellent posts on GE13, culminating in this capstone review of his time traveling around Malaysia in the run-up to the May 5 elections and his observations of UMNO’s machine in action in rural areas.
Ed is not alone in emphasizing the urban/rural divide rather than my ethnic politics angle. Khairudin Aljunied, writing over at New Mandala, finds that “While such carrot and stick tactics worked well with the rural folk – at least for this year’s elections – and have found expression in terms of BN’s victory in rural parts of Malaysia, Malays in urban areas showed opposing reactions.” Lynette O, commenting on my post election report at the Monkey Cage, writes “If you put in rural/urban dummy, and age, I suspect the ethnic factor is not as significant/not significant anymore.”
So we have here a narrative that sheds a different light on the election than I have. It’s about an urban/rural split rather than a Malay/non-Malay split. In this first of two posts, I want to give credence to the importance of rural votes for the BN, but insist that ethnic politics is absolutely central to our understanding of what happened in GE13. The discussion in this post reviews the issues, and the next post will take us to the data.
The first thing to note is that the variables “rural” and “Malay” covary: rural areas tend to be more Malay than urban areas do. This is true even when broadening the focus to include East Malaysia, as I showed in my Post-Election report over at the Monkey Cage.
This means that we cannot simply look at rural areas and their tendency to vote BN, and conclude that they do so because they are rural rather than because they are predominantly Malay. The same thing is also true in the reverse, of course.
Relatedly, these two variable covary for reasons that are equally important to the origins of Malaysian party politics: the perceived social and economic hierarchy in colonial Malaya featured a largely (but not exclusively) urban Chinese population and a largely rural Malay population. The fact that the Malays were largely rural, and hence “backward,” was considered part of the justification for why they needed a party like UMNO that would advocate in favor of their interests. Conceptually, then, it doesn’t make sense to separate UMNO’s rural focus from its Malay focus. They were one and the same, and one justified the other.
Third, this dynamic has not much changed. If you are going to campaign for Malay votes in a rural district, you need to emphasize rural issues. In rural areas, therefore, rural issues happen to also be Malay issues. We must be careful not to ignore the pull of ethnicity when party named the United Malays National Organisation, with a long and widely known history of Malay chauvinism, campaigns for Malay votes in overwhelmingly Malay areas without emphasizing that history.
Fourth, none of this is to ignore the other resources that UMNO and the BN have in rural areas. These are finely tuned machines with deep reach into rural communities. UMNO’s machine, in particular, is especially effective in rural areas. But of course, these are also Malay areas.
Fifth, although I have no data to back this up, I sense a tendency in the commentary on GE13 to think that it is somehow more politically correct to focus on rural/urban issues rather than ethnicity. I disagree. Urban chauvinism is, to me, no better or worse than Chinese chauvinism. Eric Thompson has a nice discussion of urban chauvinism in the context of GE13.
In sum, it is conceptually difficult to separate Malay issues from rural issues in Malaysian politics. For historical reasons, the two are deeply interrelated. The fact that they are so deeply interrelated means that they are also hard to disentangle empirically. In a followup post, I will delve more deeply into how analysts ought to go about doing that.