Road to GE15: Spotlight on Indian voters

From the Hindraf protests of 2007 to the recent decisive vote swings away from Pakatan Harapan in Malacca and Johor polls, Malaysian Indians play important roles in shaping campaign narratives and determining election outcomes. They are too often ignored, both in governance and in analysis.

It is the time to shine a light on the critical role that Indians play in national elections. This community comprises 6.6 percent of the population and an estimated 7.2 percent or 1.52 million total voters. Diverse and often fragmented internally with intense (and sometimes destructive) competition, this group of voters are concentrated along Malaysia’s West Coast.

How they vote and whether they vote is critical in close races, especially in Johor, Malacca, Perak and Selangor. While dispersed across constituencies, they are a large plurality in eight seats, detailed below. In all of these key seats, except Bagan Datuk won by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Indian support for Pakatan Harapan was crucial for the coalition’s victories.

Decisive Indian swing: Voting retrospective

In fact, Indian support for Harapan was one of a handful of critical factors (along with shifts among Malay, young and lower-income voters as well as gains in Sabah and Sarawak) that resulted in Harapan securing victory in 2018. The swing in support was the largest among Indian voters compared to the other dynamics.

Overall estimated support for Harapan in GE14 jumped a whopping 30 percent to 86 percent. This increase extended across age cohorts, with the lowest support among older voters and the largest estimated gain among those in their 50s, an estimated increase of 47 percent.

Without Indian support, arguably there would not have been a Harapan government. Similarly, in 2008, without another change in support and mobilisation of the Indian election, the opposition would not have broken the two-thirds of seats barrier. Indian votes matter.

Umno/BN best understood this, as they effectively wooed this community in recent elections. Indian support for Harapan has dropped precipitously in the state elections of Malacca 2021 and Johor 2022.

Overall support for Harapan dropped an estimated 44 percent with the decline most concentrated among older voters. Changes in support among Indians alone can arguably explain why Umno/BN secured two-thirds of the seats in both states. Seats such as Gadek and Bemban in Malacca and Kempas and Kota Iskandar in Johor were all lost in significant part due to an erosion of Indian support from Harapan.

Perikatan Nasional captured an estimated 11 percent of the support of Indian voters in both elections, while Umno/BN gained an estimated 29 percent of support from its low share of 14 percent in GE14. This swing by any standard is large.

The shift was not just in support patterns. Large numbers of Indians opted not to vote altogether. An estimated 38 percent of Indians stayed home in recent state polls, compared to GE14. This was concentrated among younger Indian voters, especially those in their 30s. Indian voters are increasingly disengaged and disappointed with all on offer, with many of those who voted for Harapan opting to stay home.

Systemic concerns

What accounts for this shift? Here the reality of the difficulties experienced by Indian Malaysians resonates – exclusion and disrespect intertwine with contracting social mobility and lack of opportunities.

What must be understood is the deep-seated vulnerability of a large share of this community. Covid especially hit Indian Malaysians hard. The statistics released in 2021 by the Department of Statistics show that the average Indian Malaysian salary was the lowest of the three major communities in Peninsular Malaysia, RM2,850 as opposed to Malays at RM2,900. Secure jobs, fair-paying salaries and career advancement are persistent issues.

While Malays and bumiputera communities make up the largest number of those in poverty, the 2019 Household and Income Survey estimated that the share of Indian Malaysians with the lowest income of below RM3,000 was 7.4 percent, or 97,000 households. Yayasan Pimulihan Social (YPS) found that nearly half of Indians were at the bottom of the income ladder, with significant inequality even within the community.

Campaigns in Malacca and Johor tapped into this economic vulnerability, with support for food and other assistance. Indian communities were wooed with greater financial support and promises of further support. The GE15 campaigns are already echoing this cash-driven model of voter engagement.

The issues go beyond economic security, however. Education is a consistent concern, as a lack of fair access is limiting social mobility. In 2019 Indians ranked lowest in national elementary-school examinations. About one in every 12 Indian children was found not to even attend primary school.

Problems of education for Indians are complex; they extend from a lack of citizenship documents for some children to inadequate funds for education and the limits imposed by a quota system at universities.

There is perceived systemic discrimination. A survey by the Sekoka Semua Youth movement last year found disturbing results regarding views of discrimination in schools; of the 2,441 respondents, 87 percent of ethnic Indians felt discriminated against because of their ethnicity, while 69 percent felt discriminated against on the basis of skin colour, and 65 percent due to religious beliefs.

Almost 75 percent pointed towards educators as the source of the discrimination. A worrying 92 percent also said that no action was taken after reporting to authorities.

Indians have deep-seated concerns in how they are treated in Malaysia. Among the most glaring statistic is deaths in police custody. Suaram reported in 2020 that Indians comprise 55 percent of victims of custodial deaths, even though they are a minority of the population. This year alone, there have been over 20 custodial deaths so far. Although the ethnic composition of these deaths has not been announced, Indians continue to be disproportionately in these numbers.

Indian issues were meaningfully taken up by the Najib Abdul Razak government in 2017 with the launch of the overdue Malaysian Indian Blueprint.

This plan remains largely unimplemented. Harapan managed to modestly increase education access, especially vocational training, and increased representation, but Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership was myopically focused on the Malay community.

Harapan leaders, notably Charles Santiago, have repeatedly called for broader initiatives to regain momentum to address the needs of this community.

One consistent challenge is how programmes targeting the Indian community are poorly governed. There have been arrests in the Malaysian Indian Transformation Unit (Mitra) this year, as scandals and a lack of accountability are endemic currently.

Mitra is under the prime minister (recently moved), rather than subject to proper oversight. Sadly, the programmes that are being implemented need a proper overhaul. Steps to improve governance during the Harapan government have since been reversed.


Resistance to change

Indian leaders across the political spectrum are frustrated about a lack of attention to Indian concerns and the resistance within the system as a whole to address long-standing issues. Those that raise Indian issues in all three of the political coalitions are regularly dismissed, a product of a long-standing pattern of ignoring the serious issues facing this community.

This pattern continues.

‘For-now Umno prime minister candidate’ Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s ‘election manifesto budget’ did not prioritise the Indian community. Only RM125 million was earmarked in Budget 2023 for the Indian community of over 2.5 million. By comparison, another marginalised community, the Orang Asli of 200,000 people received an RM305 million allocation.

Neither group has received the attention and resources needed to address their challenges. Yet, the disparity is illustrative; it is no wonder (too) many Malaysian Indians feel as if they are secondary.

Unless political parties show they are serious about engaging Indian issues – and that Indians genuinely matter with leaders slated that can effectively speak for the community – then Indian voters are likely to continue to be wooed by short-term financial rewards rather than long-term dreams of inclusion, respect, and fairer opportunities for their children.

The voting data shows that Indians cannot be taken for granted. They matter in elections and, even more important, they matter in the rich fabric of Malaysian society. Malaysia is stronger when all of her communities are.


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