A political honeymoon in Malaysia – Mahar Mangahas

Philippine Daily Inquirer | 18-July-2009 – Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Najib Rajak, who has just completed his first hundred days in office, must be pleased with the new poll of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, that last July 8th reported public satisfaction with his performance at 65 percent, up from 45 percent in May, “thanks to a raft of announcements relating to economic policies, an inclusive message on inter-community unity via his One Malaysia concept, as well as conciliatory gestures over Malay unity.”

The Merdeka report was based on a scientific survey of 1,060 registered voters (age 21+) over June 19 to July 1 in peninsular Malaysia (i.e., excluding Sabah and Sarawak), for a 3 percent error margin. In line with the racial demographics of Malaysia, the sample consisted of 600 Malays, 355 Chinese, and 105 Indians, interviewed by telephone in Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Tamil, or English.

Highlights of the Merdeka poll. For almost all social, political, and economic analysis in Malaysia, the most relevant category is race. Here are the new percentages satisfied versus dissatisfied with the way Najib is performing his job as prime minister: Malays 74-17, Chinese 48-31, Indians 74-22. The average of these numbers, 65-22, is the score for peninsular Malaysia as a whole. The balances from 100 percent are don’t knows and non-responses.

Percentages of confidence versus non-confidence in Najib’s ability to bring about reforms needed by the country: Malays 48-29, Chinese 32-23, and Indians 47-18. The average is 43-26, with a large 30 percent unable to respond.

Confidence versus non-confidence in Najib’s ability to manage the economy: Malays 74-16, Chinese 35-38, and Indians 79-18. The average score is 62-24.

Confidence versus non-confidence that Najib’s announced stimulus package will boost the economy: Malays 64-25, Chinese 22-52, and Indians 64-23. The average is 59-34.

However, as to those expecting to personally benefit versus those expecting not to benefit from Najib’s stimulus package, Malays are divided at 48-43, Chinese are very pessimistic at 15-77, and Indians are a bit optimistic at 58-30. The resulting average of 37-53 is generally negative as to personal benefit from the stimulus.

Majorities of 71 percent of Malays and 72 percent of Indians, but only 40 percent of Chinese, say they are confident that Najib will be able to improve race relations in Malaysia.

Although three out of four have heard of “One Malaysia” (Malays 81 percent, Chinese 72 percent, Indians 63 percent), 39 percent can’t articulate it. Twenty-three percent say it means “unity among the races,” 18 percent say it is “fairness and equality among the races,” and 6 percent call it “Malaysia as one nation, no differentiation of races.”

The Merdeka poll also has percentages of confidence versus non-confidence in certain government functions under Najib. Confidence prevails on efficiency of public service delivery (58-32), and the elections commission (51-34). On the police, opinion is neutral (46-45). Confidence is lacking regarding the judiciary (39-43), the anti-corruption agency (41-46), and timely government project implementation (38-45).

The Merdeka Center (www.merdeka.org) is an independent, non-partisan organization with the mission of acting as a bridge between ordinary Malaysians and leading members of the nation, by dispassionate presentations of its research. It is headed by Ibrahim Suffian (ben@merdeka.org).

Asian Barometer and satisfaction with the working of democracy. The Merdeka Center and Social Weather Stations are co-members of Asian Barometer (www.asianbarometer.org), an applied research program on public opinion on political values, democracy, and governance in the region.

This network includes research teams from Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Each team does a national survey, under a common methodology, to ensure reliability and comparability of the data. There have been two waves of Asian Barometer surveys so far.

Among the many items in Asian Barometer, I like to pay close attention to the percentage very/fairly satisfied with how democracy is working in the country. This item is now standard in all regional barometers of the globe.

For the five original Asean countries in particular, the 2005/06 wave of Asian Barometer found the percentage of people satisfied with the working of their democracy to be highest in Singapore (83) and Thailand (79), somewhat less in Malaysia (66; from Merdeka) and Indonesia (59), and comparatively quite low in the Philippines (38; from SWS).

I see this survey indicator not as characterizing Filipinos in general, but describing how well (or how poorly) Philippine political institutions operate at certain points in time. From about 45 SWS national surveys, done since 1991, one can see satisfaction with the working of democracy as highly related to elections. The percentage peaked at 70 after the presidential elections of 1992 and 1998, but was a disappointingly low 44 after that of 2004. It resurged to 54 after the 2007 election, but afterwards slipped back to the thirties again. I hope it will peak once more in mid-2010, since that would signify popular satisfaction with the election process.

Given the Philippine experience, I assume that the working of democracy is likewise dynamic in other countries. The next wave of Asian Barometer, tentatively set for 2010, will enable us to compare notes again with the Merdeka Center and other survey colleagues in Asia.

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Contact SWS: www.sws.org.ph or mahar.mangahas@sws.org.ph.