China’s divided image in Malaysia

FILE PHOTO: A general view of city skyline in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia February 2, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo | 5-Jul-2022 – In a recent poll conducted by Malaysia’s Merdeka Center and the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, public perception of China seems to have improved slightly from the last time a similar survey was done in 2016. That said, opinions are divided among ethnic groups and hinge on a few deciding factors.

In a speech delivered in June 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged his senior officials to enhance their efforts to make the country more “credible, lovable and respectable”. Clearly, China has a long way to go in making itself “lovable”, judging by recent opinion polls released by the well-known Pew Research Center, which recorded a drastic decline of China’s image among its pool of selected countries.

Of course, a caveat is that countries selected for Pew’s surveys are generally affluent countries in the developed world and cannot be considered as the authoritative “international opinion”. On the flip side, in the newly released African Youth Survey 2022 which polled African youth in 15 countries, China was evaluated favourably overall. 76% of the respondents agreed that China has a positive influence in Africa.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore-based think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute has been conducting an “elite survey” since 2019 which has thrown up a mixed picture for China. In its 2022 report, for instance, China was noted for its contribution in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and was also recognised as the most influential economic and strategic power in the region. However, more respondents were worried rather than welcoming of China’s strong economic and strategic influences, and few had confidence in China to play a positive role in providing regional leadership. Variations among the member states of ASEAN should be noted too, with the surveyed elite in Cambodia and Laos generally more positive of China’s role in the region, in contrast to their counterparts in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Along ethnic lines?

As useful as it is, the ISEAS survey does not tap into public sentiments, which may or may not be in line with the “elite” perceptions. To gauge the full spectrum of how the public view China in Malaysia, in March 2022, Merdeka Center, a reputable public opinion polling agency in Malaysia, in collaboration with the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, carried out a comprehensive nationwide survey on Malaysian perceptions towards China. This was the second collaboration between Merdeka Center and the Institute of China Studies, after the two carried out a similar survey in April 2016.

… only the ethnic Chinese stand out as having a strongly “favourable” view towards China at 67%, and the “unfavourable” view among the ethnic Chinese is only a negligible 3%.

People walk past an Adidas store to be opened, at a shopping area during Dragon Boat Festival holiday, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China June 3, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

The 2022 poll result shows, somewhat surprisingly, that China’s image has improved slightly from the time of the earlier 2016 survey. The total percentage of the respondents that had a “favourable” impression of China increased from 35% in 2016 to 39% in 2022. There are two caveats, however, in interpreting this result.

First, a 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center actually showed that 78% of the Malaysian respondents held favourable views of China. Hence 35% in 2016 or 39% in 2022 seems to indicate a drastic decline of “favourable” views among the Malaysian public.

However, the difference in the Pew and Merdeka Center-Institute of China Studies surveys lie in the fact that the poll run by the latter provided three answerable options to the question “How would you describe your overall impression of China as a country?”: “favourable”, “neutral”, and “unfavourable”. In contrast, the Pew survey provided a binary (“favourable” versus “unfavourable”) option which forced the respondents to really make a choice.

In the Merdeka Center-Institute of China Studies poll, up to 45% of the Malaysian public actually answered “neutral”, while 12% responded “unfavourable.” The category of “neutral” is curious because the respondents could lean either way if they were asked to make a choice.

In contrast, none of the other ethnic groups had a majority holding a “favourable” view.

Second, the overall improved image of China masks a more complicated picture — that impressions are quite divided among the major ethnic groups in the country. Among the five ethnic groups (Malay, Chinese, Indians, Muslim Bumiputera and Non-Muslim Bumiputera — the latter two categories include mostly the ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak), only the ethnic Chinese stand out as having a strongly “favourable” view towards China at 67%, and the “unfavourable” view among the ethnic Chinese is only a negligible 3%.

Other factors come into play

In contrast, none of the other ethnic groups had a majority holding a “favourable” view. Among the Malay respondents, 28% had a “favourable” view, 50% “neutral”, and 17% “unfavourable”. The Indian respondents registered the highest in terms of an “unfavourable” view towards China (23%).

The increase of negative perceptions towards China by the ethnic Indians was also the most pronounced among all ethnic groups, with 56% of Indian respondents saying that their impression of China had declined in the past two years. As for the Muslim and non-Muslim Bumiputera categories, their views towards China are quite similar, with majorities having “neutral” view, slightly more than 30% were “favourable”, and around 6% “unfavourable”.

Across all ethnic groups, the majority of those who had personal experiences in China came back with a better impression of China.

People walk past a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on June 2, 2022. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Age, income level, and educational level also have some impacts — China’s image improves slightly as it moves towards the older, higher income, and higher education categories, but the ethnic factor is clearly the most discernible factor here. Clearly, if one takes away the ethnic Chinese citizens of Malaysia, China’s image in Malaysia would be pretty unimpressive.

That the ethnic Chinese tend to have a more favourable view towards China is not surprising in one sense, but it is incorrect, or even dangerous, to simply conclude that this is simply the ethnic Chinese extending their co-ethnic sentiments towards China.

The 2022 survey also asked respondents whether they have had personal experiences in China (such as visiting the country as tourists or studying there) and whether such experiences improved their impression of China. Across all ethnic groups, the majority of those who had personal experiences in China came back with a better impression of China.

Among all ethnic groups, the ethnic Chinese naturally have more opportunity and reasons to visit China and find it convenient to do so. This is, in a way, natural and a similar rationale in terms of Malays/Muslims traveling to Muslim countries in the Middle East and likewise for the Indians to India.

In total, 70% of Malaysians view Malaysia and China having a good relationship… China’s vaccine diplomacy helped improve its image significantly.

Vaccine diplomacy helps

Despite the ethnic divide, a majority of all ethnic groups agree that Malaysia-China relations are good and cordial, and have improved from the past two years. In total, 70% of Malaysians view Malaysia and China having a good relationship.

Consistent with the ISEAS elite survey, China was acknowledged as the country that provided the most assistance to Malaysia during the Covid-19 pandemic. An online survey conducted from July to September 2021 by USCI University’s Poll Research Centre in Malaysia also showed that Malaysian perceptions toward China and Chinese companies improved after vaccine cooperation between both countries. All these data pointed to the fact that China’s vaccine diplomacy helped improve its image significantly.

A medical worker observes secondary school students after they receive a dose of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a school, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, September 20, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

In addition, with the exception of the ethnic Indian respondents, a majority of the respondents in all ethnic categories agree that China’s investments in Malaysia have a positive impact on the country, and that Malaysia should participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, either “actively” or “carefully”.

Up to 40% and 17% of the Indian respondents have negative views of China’s investment in Malaysia and the Belt and Road Initiative respectively, making this ethnic community the most dubious about China’s economic impact in Malaysia.

Hence, China has a divided image among Malaysians, notably across ethnic lines. Although partly natural, this is not necessarily healthy, as it could reinforce the ethnic fault lines in Malaysian society. China would be well advised to address its shortcomings among the non-Chinese populations.

In addition, Malaysia’s government policy towards China is one of maintaining positive ties and deriving benefits (economic or otherwise) from engagement with China. This approach is, overall, largely supported by the majority of the Malaysians as well.

Only 40% of Malay youth would vote if GE15 is held now, study finds

Undi 18 voters queue to cast their ballots for the first time at the Johor state election in March.

Malaysia Now | 17-Jun-2022 – Only 33% of Malay youth are interested in politics, with trust in government administration at about 69%.

Only 40% of Malay youth in the country would turn out to vote if the 15th general election (GE15) is held in the near future, research by an independent pollster shows.

Merdeka Center said this was a low percentage as the youth comprise about 58% of the electorate as a whole.

The study, conducted with NGO Sisters in Islam, was carried out from Oct 30, 2021 to Jan 25, 2022. It saw the participation of 1,216 Malay respondents aged 15 to 25 through face-to-face interviews across the country, including in Sabah and Sarawak.

According to demographic data for 2022 from the statistics department, a total of 12.2 million people aged 18 to 40 are eligible to vote, with 5.8 million new voters automatically registered after the introduction of Undi 18.

The study also found that only 33% of Malay youth are interested in politics, with trust in government administration at about 69%.

The rest said they had lost interest in the challenges and political issues in the country, with 52% of the belief that the country was on the wrong track.

At a session to present the findings of the study in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, Merdeka Center director Ibrahim Suffian said a survey conducted 12 years ago had shown that 66% believed Malaysia was on track to becoming a developed country.

The latest study had contained questions similar to those in the 2010 survey, and covered the same target group.

Merdeka Center also identified some of the challenges faced by the youth in dealing with issues arising after the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in terms of the economy and employment.

Ibrahim said the main concern for the group was job security, with 48% worried about losing their current jobs and being unable to find new work.

Other areas of concern included the environment (43%), corruption (40%), an influx of refugees and immigrants (35%) and mental health (30%).

“The views given by the youth in this latest study are driven by their experiences and challenges over the past few years, including the spread of an epidemic, economic uncertainty and political turmoil,” Ibrahim said.

“This has affected their confidence about the future and their views of the country’s direction.”

Ibrahim said many Malay youth were also sceptical of the political process and saw politicians as “transactional” in nature.

Azmil Tayeb of Universiti Sains Malaysia meanwhile said the same trend could be seen among his students who were increasingly losing faith in the political process.

He said they were instead shifting to volunteer work and the organisation of community programmes with the local people.

Positive perception of China grows among Malaysians | 20-May-2022 – KUALA LUMPUR, May 20 (Xinhua) — Malaysians have an increasingly positive perception of China in 2022 compared to 2016, according to a Kuala Lumpur-based opinion research firm.

A study by Merdeka Center found that adult Malaysians view China more favorably, citing personal experiences, Chinese investments in Malaysia and future cooperation as among the factors that have contributed to an increased positive perception, the research firm said in a statement on Thursday.

Of those surveyed, 70 percent of the respondents perceived relations between Malaysia and China as good, compared with 67 percent in the 2016 survey.

When asked which countries helped Malaysia the most during the COVID-19 pandemic in the past two years, China stood out at 50 percent, followed by the United States at 12 percent, Saudi Arabia at 6 percent, Britain at 3 percent, and Japan at 2 percent.

China provided various forms of aid during the pandemic with vaccines being the most high profile item. Malaysia also uses several Chinese developed vaccines, including Sinovac, which is being filled and finished in Malaysia.

This survey was carried out in cooperation with the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, with the data collection being carried out from March 17-26 this year. Enditem

Survey: Perception of China improving in general, but not among Malays | 19-May-2022 – Adult Malaysians view China a bit more favourably this year compared to 2016, according to a survey by Merdeka Center in cooperation with Universiti Malaya’s Institute of China Studies.

In a statement, Merdeka Center said the survey, conducted in March, showed 39 percent of respondents viewed China favourably, up from 35 percent when a similar survey was conducted in July 2016.

Local perception of China has improved, Merdeka Center survey finds | 19-May-2022 – PUBLIC perception towards China among Malaysians aged 18 and above has improved, a joint survey by Merdeka Center and Universiti Malaya’s Institute of China Studies found.

“In the March 2022 survey, 39% of the respondents viewed China favourably compared to 35% of the respondents in a similar survey conducted in July 2016,” Merdeka Center said.

Repeal draconian laws to ensure media freedom, says activist

C4 chief Cynthia Gabriel said any bias in reporting by media which is owned by tycoons or political parties will lead to distrust against the media in general. | 10-May-2021 – PETALING JAYA: There is an urgent need to repeal draconian media-related laws and push for media reform and greater press freedoms, rights advocate Cynthia Gabriel said today.

Gabriel, who is executive director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), claims laws such as the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and Sedition Act 1948, among others, have been used as a “shield” to protect those in power.

Speaking today in a webinar titled “Malaysia’s Trust in Media”, she said that any political bias in news coverage could also be due to ownership by political parties or influential people.

“News coverage tends to be biased if a news portal is owned by a certain political party or tycoon with a political agenda. This will destroy democracy in the country.

“Such bias in news reporting could also lead to growing distrust of the media,” she added.

Earlier in the webinar, Merdeka Center programme director Ibrahim Suffian said a survey commissioned by the NUJ with the International Federation of Journalists (under the European Commission Project), revealed that many Malaysians agreed with the provisions in the Sedition Act and anti-fake news law, despite the concern that such laws could be abused by the authorities.

He said the survey showed that many Malaysians acknowledged the threat of fake news and supported laws that served to curb disinformation in the country.

Is Malaysia heading in the right direction? Youth are pretty much split down the middle, according to new survey

According to Merdeka Center’s ‘National Youth Survey 2021’, Malaysian youth have mixed views on the country’s future. — Picture by Firdaus Latif | 08-May-2021 – KUALA LUMPUR, May 8 — A recent survey has found that Malaysian youth have mixed views on the country’s future, with 46 per cent saying it is heading in the “right” direction, while another 42 per cent believe it is going the “wrong” way.

According to Merdeka Center’s “National Youth Survey 2021”, the most prevalent reasons cited by youth with positive sentiments were administration (17.6 per cent), leadership (11.6 per cent) and economic concerns (9.1 per cent).

This was followed by social and public safety (4.9 per cent), along with development and infrastructure (3 per cent).

Top reasons why Malaysian youth think country is headed in ‘right’ direction

For those that believe the country is going sideways, politics (24.7 per cent), economic concerns (20.9 per cent), administration (9.6 per cent), health (8 percent) and leadership (5.6 per cent) were the most frequent concerns mentioned.

Corruption was among the lowest concerns listed, with only 0.8 per cent of those who held a negative view saying it influenced their perspective, as were education (1 per cent), along with social and public safety (1.3 per cent).

Top reasons why Malaysian youth think country is headed in ‘wrong’ direction

Furthermore, 70 per cent of youth polled said they were uninterested in information related to politics.

Of that percentage, 66 per cent believe that politicians “do not care what people think”, while 78 per cent said that politics and government seemed beyond their grasp.

When asked if they identified more with their ethnicity or nationality, 46 per cent of respondents said it was an even split.

This was followed by 40 per cent who said feeling Malaysian took precedence.

Only 11 per cent said they identified more with their ethnicity than their nationality.

The survey did not reveal which respondents were more likely to identify with their nationality or ethnicity, based on their ethnic background.

Meanwhile, 88 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Malaysians need to develop new political thinking that is no longer premised on race and religious difference”, while 10 per cent disagreed with the statement.

Two per cent refused to answer or were unsure.

Similarly, 94 per cent of them agreed that “Malaysians need to put multiculturalism at the centre of society and celebrate an inclusive Malaysian identity that embraces all races and religions”. Only 3 per cent disagreed.

This data was taken from the results of a study conducted by the Merdeka Center between February 19 and March 20, 2021, with 2,520 respondents aged from 18 to 30, from all states across Malaysia.

The respondents were equally divided between female and male, and further demarcated by race; their location in urban, semi-urban and rural settings; and if they are registered voters.

Survey: Financial constraints Malaysian youths’ top concern followed by unemployment

People were face masks during the movement control order, in Kuala Lumpur city centre February 16, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara | 07-May-2021 – KUALA LUMPUR, May 7 — According to a recent study, “financial constraints” was the highest among the top five concerns faced by Malaysian youths.

Merdeka Center, in its National Youth Survey 2021 report released this evening, said 28.8 per cent of those polled said financial constraints are their top concern followed by 12.7 per cent who listed unemployment as their main problem they face today.

Top 5 among ‘issues, concerns or problems’ faced by Malaysian youth

The subsequent issues listed in the top five were “E-learning” (7.5 per cent), “internet connection” (5.5 per cent) and “Covid-19” (four per cent).

This list coincided with another poll in the study, where 34 per cent of youths aged between 18 to 30 said financial stability was their biggest need, followed by 17.3 per cent who opted towards job security and employment opportunity.

Top 5 among ‘needs’ of Malaysian youth

The following three other top needs for the youths polled were internet connection (6.6 per cent), effective online learning method (4.5 per cent) and comfortable living place (4 per cent).

Similarly, when asked if they have enough to make ends meet, 52 per cent of those surveyed said they have enough, while 44 per cent said they are struggling.

A further four per cent either refused to answer the question or said they were unsure.

Of those surveyed, 84 per cent said they are confident in achieving their goals.

Among the top aspirations listed by the youth were family bonding (29.1 per cent), financial stability or wealth (25.3 per cent), success in their career (18 per cent) and good education (18 per cent).

Meanwhile, 82 per cent of the youth agreed that everyone has a fair chance to increase their social standing based on their talent and hard work, while 15 per cent believed people’s standing was based on their background and “who your parents are”.

The study was conducted between February 19 and March 20, with 2,520 respondents aged from 18 to 30, from all states across Malaysia.

The respondents were equally divided between female and male, and further divided between race, urban; semi-urban and rural, and if they were registered as voters.

Myanmar athlete ditches Olympic dream in junta protest | 30-Apr-2021 – Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb 1 coup. (AP pic)

BANGKOK: A Myanmar swimmer has abandoned his dream of competing at the Tokyo Olympics in protest at the junta ruling his homeland, saying that taking part would be “propaganda” for the regime.

Win Htet Oo is one of Myanmar’s top swimmers but in early April, the 26-year-old said he was no longer interested in going to Tokyo.

“To accept the MOC (Myanmar Olympic Committee) as it is currently led is to recognise the legitimacy of a murderous regime,” he wrote in a statement on Facebook.

“I shall not march in the (opening ceremony’s) Parade of Nations under a flag steeped in my people’s blood.”

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb 1 coup, with much of its population taking to the streets to demand a return to democracy.

To quell the uprising, security forces have cracked down with deadly violence, killing more than 750 civilians in anti-coup unrest, according to a monitoring group.

Besides street protests, a nationwide civil disobedience movement has brought large parts of the country’s economy to a standstill – with civil servants and workers boycotting their jobs in a refusal to serve the military regime.

Win Htet Oo said turning his back on Myanmar’s Olympic team was his way of joining the movement.

“I wanted to show Myanmar people that athletes can take part in the civil disobedience movement,” he told AFP, speaking from Melbourne, Australia.

“The image of me walking behind the flag in the Parade of Nations and smiling – pretending everything was all right – quite frankly disgusted me.”

“It would be a propaganda exercise, some sort of way to tell the world that everything is fine in Myanmar.”

‘Undermines Olympic values’

Much of the international community has condemned the junta for the coup and its use of violence against unarmed civilians.

Western powers – including the US, EU and Britain – have imposed sanctions targeting the military top brass and their business interests.

Win Htet Oo achieved the 50m freestyle Olympic selection time at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, putting him in the frame for Tokyo.

He said he wrote to the International Olympic Committee in March, citing the ongoing violence in Myanmar and asking to compete as an independent Olympic athlete.

But his request was declined.

The IOC told AFP that “to the best of our knowledge”, Win Htet Oo had not been selected by the Myanmar team.

“I’m trying to let the IOC know and people know that the MOC is not a legitimate Olympic committee and they undermine Olympic values,” he said with a frustrated sigh.

Swimming at the Olympics has been an ambition since childhood for Win Htet Oo, who moved to Melbourne in 2017 to fast-track his training.

Today he works as a lifeguard at a sports facility where he watches Australian athletes train for the Olympics, and does laps in between his shifts.

Win Htet Oo says he harbours “no regrets” about turning his back on the Games.

“For me, it’s just one person’s dream of going to the Olympics, but in Myanmar, millions of young people have witnessed their dreams and aspirations have disappeared,” he says.

One of his non-Olympic dreams was to bring youth sports to conflict-wracked areas of Myanmar, to help reconcile divided communities.

With the country headed for “a dark future”, Win Htet Oo says he feels compelled to join the fight for democracy – much to the dismay of his immediate family in Australia.

“As soon as travel restrictions lift I want to come to Myanmar to continue the struggle – if it is at all possible,” he says.

“That’s what I think about every day.”


We read with interest over the feedback elicited from the results to the survey which we released on 23rd April and would like to clear the air over a number of topics raised by various quarters:

  • The survey was conducted by telephone interviews which allows for a more representative distribution of respondents. In the context of this survey, respondents matching the age, gender and ethnic criteria based on the profile of the Election Commission’s electoral roll were selected and interviewed from every parliamentary constituency in Peninsula Malaysia.
  • The survey sample size affords a margin of error of less than ± 3.00% which is more than adequate to gain a response on a fairly clear matter of the respondents’ assessment of particular political leaders and other topics.
  • Although all surveys are not free from biases such as social desirability bias, our survey places great emphasis on statistical rigor to ensure reliability by controlling for various variables such as age groups, location i.e. urban vs rural along with socio-economic background so as to have a representative sample of the electorate.
  • Comparison with social media driven online surveys may result in misleading conclusions due to the difficulty in controlling for self-selection bias which means certain groups of people may be more motivated to respond compared to others. There is also the question as to whether controls for representativeness of the sample were put in place. Additionally, it should also be noted that Malaysian Twitter users are limited – less than 5% of the total population (source:
  • The survey topic in question was about the leader and should not be conflated, confused or transposed on other questions such as which party people would vote for in an election.

Merdeka Center