Rural or Malay? Contending Perspectives on GE13 (1)

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.

Posted in Current Affairs, Malaysia, Politics, Research
10 comments on “Rural or Malay? Contending Perspectives on GE13 (1)
  1. Xavier Sim says:

    “In rural areas, therefore, rural issues happen to also be Malay issues.” This is obviously not true in most of east Malaysia. And if those who campaign in rural areas focus primarily on “Malay issues”, they would not offer any difference from Umno. Ethnic-based politics cannot be improved by offering no alternative. It’s not simply political correctness to focus on the rural-urban divide, it’s a political imperative, to move away from out national obsession with ethnic politics.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Xavier. Of course I agree that “rural issues also happen to be Malay issues” doesn’t apply in most of East Malaysia. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear; I assumed it was, but my mistake.

      I do agree that Malaysia ought to move out of its national obsession with ethnic politics. And if you’ve read my next post, you’ll know that I do indeed agree with the importance of focusing on rural issues. But as an analytical point for understanding what happened in GE13, you cannot ignore ethnicity. To do so is to misunderstand what took place.

  2. Greg Lopez says:

    Hi Tom, and all who are reading,

    1. I think the important question is what exactly are the issues (whether rural or Malay) that influenced voting behaviour?

    For example if it is about employment issues for rural youths — is it a Malay or rural issue.

    2. If rural voters are “homogeneous culturally” i.e. all Malays and all Muslims, and they are geographically separated from non-Malays i.e. not threatened by them (May 13 only happened in the largest cities where non-Muslims were significant), what then drives their voting behaviour?

    Were they really voting because of “Malay issues” or simply maximizing their utility in a rational manner (i.e. extracting the highest benefit from those who can deliver)

    3. If PAS campaigns on Islamic issues, and so does UMNO — how then do rural voters decide which candidate/party to support?

    4. Also how close were the electoral margins?

    The macro data tells one story, but there could be many stories at the local level which may support, contradict or provide a totally new dimension — and all could be true.


  3. kamal says:

    I find your writing in line with what popular analyst think about Malaysian politics. While we certainly cannot discount the role of colonial regime in determining the way politics was shape, I doubt the reason for racial politics was to have better representation for Rural Malay. The comment you made on rural and backwardness was probably a general statement to reflect the colonial perception. Although, today many pro-PR are using similar sentiments to voice disappointment in the way the rural votes have gone.

    My question here, and I suppose it contradicts your main argument is whether or not race/ethnicity is really the main thrust of politics in Malaysia or simply a smoke screen. As a reader pointed out, in East Malaysia rural people also voted BN and the issues there could not have been Malay issues. Also, you have not mentioned the sustained attempts over probably the last few decades to ingrain in the minds of Malay people the link between racial issues and social issues through various public channels such as Malay mainstream media. Yet, despite all that, how would you account for the support PAS and PKR has had from among Malay voters including those in the rural areas? Doesn’t this challenge your argument? Personally I would analyst the elections result differently. For one, the mechanism afforded by state involvement in rural development over the last fifty years gives BN a ready platform to manage and organization support more effectively in the rural areas. Also, rural voters feel the growing economic divide and feel the pinch of a rising cost of living. Voting the ruling party may simply be a strategy to ensure stability. There is some thing to say about how familiarity breeds complacency. But the other reason of course, I would argue is class. Though I am still struggling in trying to put together a reasonable argument.
    What is interesting however is how this election and the previous one challenges any arguments of a rural/urban divide; two states both listed as either being the poorest or a close second voted very differently. The Rural Malays of Kelantan voted for the opposition and the Rural Sabahans voted for the ruling government. If there is any reason to doubt an urban or ethnic politics in Malaysian election, understanding how and why residents in these two states vote these would serve as the starting point to explore the complex nuances of Malaysian politics.

  4. Tom says:

    Thanks for reading, Kamal. Lots to think about here. I’m not exactly sure where our understandings of Malaysian politics disagree, so I’m not sure I have a ready response to this.

    One thing that should be obvious is that the idea of bumiputera captures the salient ethnic distinctions in East Malaysia. I see this as completely obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Malaysia. So yes of course East Malaysian issues are not “Malay” issues, but should be obvious that this is not a simple way to dismiss ethnicity as mattering for Malaysian politics.

    You’ve written
    “you have not mentioned the sustained attempts over probably the last few decades to ingrain in the minds of Malay people the link between racial issues and social issues through various public channels such as Malay mainstream media”. I suppose not, not in this post. But clearly it’s compatible with my argument, and it’s something that I believe too. See I’m not sure what the point of belaboring the point here again would be, but just so you’re clear, yes I believe that the ethnic distinctions are a political project designed to maintain the status quo and employing the state-controlled media.

    As for the role of PAS and PKR. Two simple points.

    1. PAS is a party which contests in Malay districts, which fields Malay candidates, and which advocates on a platform (Islam) that is constitutionally defined as integral to Malayness. (Yes there are exceptions, but I wouldn’t build a counterargument on them.) I find it hard to be surprised that this is the party that does the best against UMNO in heavily Malay districts.

    2. PKR didn’t have a great contest. It primarily competed in mixed ethnicity districts, and where it competed in heavily Malay districts, it lost. I don’t see how this is a challenge to my conclusions.

  5. Jason Abbott says:

    Couple of things: You make the argument that because rural constituencies are overwhelmingly Malay we cannot ignore the ethnic dimension. but surely I can make the same logical argument in reverse. We cannot ignore the rural dimension because most Malay voters live in rural areas?

    Secondly — according to latest World Bank figures 72 per cent of Malaysians live in urban areas. 19,350,412 vs. 8,151,595. So I’m not convinced that the urban/rural divide can so easily be dismissed. The rural vote has greater significance because of the malportionment.

  6. Jason Abbott says:

    i was looking for the GE13 version

  7. Tom says:

    Yes, Jason, if you read these posts you’ll see very clearly that I do not think that it’s possible to separate ethnicity from urban-rural. The two are bound up for historical reasons.

    Yet many analysts seem to insist that the rural-urban cleavage is the “real” cleavage, for reasons which are unclear to me. What my posts show is that there is no way to separate the two, but if you insist on doing so, that ethnicity explains more of the two-party vote share than does urban-rural. That is all, and the evidence is overwhelming.

    I fully agree that malapportionment explains the results in terms of BN seats. But it does not explain the pattern of results at the constituency level. And it is very clear that malapportionment favors bumis.

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