KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — Political parties are paying greater attention than ever to the ethnic Indian community, the smallest of the three main races in the country, in the run-up to the 14th general elections.
The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has learnt its lesson after losing its parliamentary supermajority in the watershed Election 2008, MIC Youth chief C. Sivarraajh said, and is not taking the minority community which, he says, has roughly 950,000 voters for granted this time around.
“BN realised the importance of Indian votes post-2008,” Sivarraajh told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
He emphasised that the recent economic and education development initiatives for Indian Malaysians as announced by BN chairman and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak signalled the government’s acknowledgement that the community had been much marginalised in the past and desire to redress its policies.
Sivaraajh believes that ethnic Indian voters matter and will “definitely” be able to tilt the game in the next elections in almost 70 parliamentary seats, pointing out that the community forms more than 10 per cent of the electorate in places like Buntong and Sungai Siput in Perak as examples.
MIC, BN’s ethnic Indian component, contested nine federal seats in the last general election of 2013 and double that number of state seats, but only won in four parliamentary and five state seats.
“But for me, Prime Minister Najib is sincere with his efforts to develop Indians in this country, because if he fails under his leadership, it will leave a bad image in coming years,” Sivaraajh added.
Race to offer recognition
The federal Opposition parties too have been keen to tout their efforts to raise the status of Malaysia’s dispossessed Indians before the elections that must be called by August 2018.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) vice-president M. Kulasegaran said the informal pact’s component parties recognised the contribution of ethnic Indians “a long time ago” and are continuing to give the community its dues in the states under its control.
“In Penang, the intake of ethnic Indians to the civil service is increasing. In fact, its state assembly secretary is an ethnic Indian woman,” he told Malay Mail Online.
Kulasegaran confirmed that the Opposition is also eyeing support from ethnic Indian voters, whom he notes face enormous problems daily due to their socio-economic status.
He said that the percentage of ethnic Indians in Sabah and Sarawak was “negligible” and that the Opposition would be focusing its efforts in the peninsula where the community makes up a sizeable portion in certain constituencies.
“Here, in 61 constituencies, it has been identified that ethnic Indian voters make up between 5 and 30 per cent,” he said, listing his Ipoh Barat parliamentary constituency alongside Sungai Siput, Batu Kawan in Penang, Kapar and Kota Raja in Selangor as examples.
His DAP colleague and MP for Klang, Charles Santiago, said that while ethnic Indians make up only 7 per cent of the country’s 31.7 million population, their support as a bloc could decide the vote in a close contest within the Malay majority who now has more parties to choose from.
“Indians voting as a bloc in a three-cornered fight could decide the outcome, especially if the Malays split three-ways with Umno, PAS and PKR,” he told Malay Mail Online.
To Charles, the swing votes would most likely come from Indians in the bottom 40 per cent income-level.
“The working-class votes are up for grabs. This is where all BN efforts are focused at this time with the SEDIC fund,” he said, using the acronym for the Special Unit for Socio Economic Development of the Indian Community, set up under the Prime Minister’s Department to address the challenges faced by the minority group.
Analysts split on impact
Oh Ei Sun, an adjunct senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, agrees that ethnic Indian voters will make a huge difference in closely contested seats.
“Yes, Indians are the crucial minority and perhaps kingmakers in many closely contested constituencies where their minor vote swings could mean win or loss for either side,” he told Malay Mail Online.
But Oh’s forecast is that the swing will be in BN’s favour this time around despite the attempts by PH to court Indian voters.
He said the Opposition pact’s leadership line-up only gave a “cosmetic impression of Indian representation” and was unlikely to persuade voters compared to the various development measures announced by the Najib administration.
He believes BN’s two-pronged strategy to win the hearts of ethnic Indians has also successfully steered them away from being influenced by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), the grassroots movement led by P. Waytha Moorthy, which was one of the key drivers for the Election 2008 tsunami.
“Through a combination of the tried-and-tested method of divide-and-conquer as well as carrot-and-stick, Hindraf was successfully neutralised over the past few years to such an extent that they are hardly heard of anymore, not to mention having any minuscule impact on the Indian psyche nowadays,” Oh said.
But Wan Saiful Wan Jan from think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) disagrees with Oh’s pronouncement of the Indian voters as “kingmakers”.
He also said it is not fair to link the recent announcements for a RM1.3 billion loan funds and RM800 million school aid from the government to attempts to fish for Indian votes.
“When it comes to the Indian community, the government has been working to help them for many years. So I think we should not link the assistance purely to GE14. There have been some genuine attempts,” he told Malay Mail Online.
“When it comes to elections, regardless of the size of the community, all votes matter,” he added.
He explained that the size of the ethnic Indian voter demographic is too small to make a real impact. Like Charles, Wan Saiful said the group’s strength would only make a difference when their votes were combined with those from the other races.
“In reality, MIC is at the mercy of Umno for seats,” the Ideas chief executive told Malay Mail Online, adding that the BN Indian party has been winning some of its seats in the last few elections by standing in Umno strongholds.