Malay voters look for Islamic credentials in future PM, survey shows

Most Malay voters feel that the number one criterion a prime minister of Malaysia must have is "Islamic credentials", with the majority preferring it over qualities such as "hardworking" and "economic and management skills", a survey commissioned by The Malaysian Insider has revealed.

The survey by pollster Merdeka Center showed that fewer Malay voters felt "taking a tough stand on corruption" was among the most important qualities needed in a prime minister, even as Pakatan Rakyat (PR) continues to use Barisan Nasional’s (BN) alleged corrupt activities as its main ammunition.

Asked to pick the top two qualities they were looking for in a prime minister, 35.8% of Malays chose "Islamic credentials", while just 24.3% chose "tough stand on corruption".

The other qualities listed in the survey, which respondents were told to choose from were "economic and management skill set" which got 8.6%, "decisiveness/firmness" (7.8%),  "honest" (6%), "hardworking" (4.8%), "fair to all races/treats everyone equally" (4.6%), "has team of competent and good advisors" (1.5%), "good orator/public speaking" (1.2%), and "efficient" (1%).

Malays make up a huge vote bank, with the community counting for around 60% of the electorate, compared with Chinese (30%) and Indians (10%).

“This survey shows that any leader who wants to come in and promote himself as the top person in power needs to show they have Islamic credentials and an awareness of Islamic sensibilities,” said Ibrahim Suffian, the director of Merdeka Center.

“They don’t necessarily have to be a religious scholar or an ustaz, but it’s just that Islam is very central to the Malay identity these days.”

He said Malays were becoming increasingly conscious about their Muslim identity, due to education and the Islamisation of Malaysia, and they wanted their leaders to embody the same values.

“They want to know what these leaders’ stand is on Islamic matters like the Palestine conflict, Islamic law... they want leaders to be able to at least converse about the Quran, who can draw references to the religious texts,” added Ibrahim.

But Ibrahim denied that this meant PAS, the only Islamist party in Malaysia, had the upper hand, saying that Malays also wanted a prime minister who could stem corruption and treat everyone fairly.

Meanwhile, most of the Chinese interviewed in the survey preferred a prime minister with economic and management skills, with 28.5% choosing it as one of their top two criteria, followed by "tough stand on corruption" (27.2%) and "fair to all races" (18.5%).

Both opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak have tried to portray themselves as Muslim moderates. – The Malaysian Insider pic, March 13, 2015.

Indian voters were more concerned about a prime minister who is fair to all races (38.2%) and hardworking (17.6%), the poll revealed.

Race aside, respondents who were undecided over whether to support Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) mostly chose "tough stand on corruption" as one of their top two criteria (21.5%), followed by Islamic credentials (17.8%), economic and management skills (17.3%) and fair treatment to all races (17.3%).

BN supporters placed emphases on Islamic credentials (30.5%) and tough stand on corruption (22.3%).

Some 21% of PR supporters chose tough stand on corruption, while 22.6% favoured management skills.

Overall, Malaysians chose fair treatment to all races as the most popular quality for a prime minister, followed by Islamic credentials and tough stand on corruption.

Umno's top leaders such as Najib, his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and vice-president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi have often painted themselves as defenders of Islam and Muslims, a move that has increasingly ostracised the non-Malays who overwhelmingly voted for the opposition in the 2013 general election.

Najib projects himself as a moderate Muslim leader internationally, and has spoken out against terrorist acts by those using Islam, such as the Islamic State militant group.

PR’s choice for prime minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, or Abim in the 1970s, has similarly taken up a moderate Muslim image, and often peppered his speeches with quotes from the Quran, and Islamic scholars such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.

The survey involved 1,008 respondents of voting age, who were interviewed by telephone from January 21-30 and selected through the random stratified sampling method along the lines of ethnicity, gender, age and parliamentary constituency.

All parliamentary constituencies were surveyed and the selection of the respondents is proportional with respect to the population. – March 13, 2015.