Professor Redzuan Othman, the vice-chancellor of the University of Selangor, has often insisted numbers do not lie. And that his statistical models are empirically solid.
Moreover, based on this week’s move by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government to change constituency boundaries, he now believes the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition will win big again. Redzuan’s predictions have been right on several occasions, and he is a serious and professional pollster. But there is also a chance Redzuan could be wrong.
Did Najib just pocket the Malaysian election? Opposition uproar as Barisan Nasional forces through boundary changes
The flaws lie not so much in the numbers and metrics but the failure to capture the psychology of the Malays, the linchpin of Malaysia, as the country inches closer to its 14th general election, which could be called as early as the end of April.
Possibly the best insight into the Malay mentality are three Malay proverbs that have been passed down from generation to generation.
One is “Melayu pantang di cabar”, which roughly translates to “Malays do not like to be challenged or provoked” – a warning that has not been heeded in this heated election season.
The opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition and Barisan National both seemed to have dismissed the notion that Malays will have a major effect on the polls.
Some believe that a “Malay tsunami” against the status quo could happen but would not be big enough to produce a victory for the opposition. Others rebuff the idea of a Malay tsunami against the ruling coalition, arguing that the government will actually gain more seats to give it a two-thirds supermajority.
But it would be foolish to think Malays will stay home while other Malaysian communities have become more politically active, namely the ethnic Chinese and Indians.
There are signs the Malays have lost their patience with the current government as a feeling of aib, or shame, has permeated the community as a result of the 1MDB scandal.
Multinational investigations into corruption allegations of the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund resulting in losses of billions of dollars have made headlines around the world, and many Malays feel as though they have become international laughingstocks.
Najib’s handling of the scandal – downplaying the investigations as a civil, not criminal, matter – hasn’t helped. Middle-class Malays’ anger appears to grow with each new piece of information that comes out. Compounding things, the main suspect appears to be a flamboyant businessman: Low Taek Jhow, or, Jho Low.
Merely having a baby-faced Malaysian Chinese associated with scandal is bad enough, but the lack of any legal action against Low has added to the anger, prompting whispers in some Malay villages that Najib, or other members of his United Malays National Organisation party, must go.
The second proverb was made famous by the 14th century Malay warrior poet Hang Tuah, who declared “Tak akan Melayu hilang dari dunia,” or “Malays shall not perish in this world”.
Egged on by this mentality, Malays are not typically economically driven people, but are often driven by a strong sense of nationalism. This could cut both ways for the ruling coalition and the opposition.
However, as more Malays suffer under growing inflation and low wages – more than 90 per cent of the country earns less than US$1,500 per month – they will turn up in large numbers to sack who they deem responsible. Due to the predominantly Malay demography – they make up 23 million of the country’s 32 million people – what is a Malaysian problem has become a defining issue of the Malays.
Thirdly, Malays young and old, profess to live by the ethos “Hutang emas boleh dibayar, hutang budi dikandung mati.” This literally means “What is owed in gold can be repaid, what is owed in gratitude cannot ever be repaid – even in death.”
This plays into the hands of opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad, who led the country as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. His stewardship of the country was complex, marked by remarkable economic growth and development along with a period of authoritarianism that saw activists and political opponents jailed and civil liberties curtailed.
Many Malaysians who lived through his tenure view him as the man who modernised the country, from a sleepy hollow of agricultural pastures to a country with gleaming towers and first-rate airports.
Mahathir turned 93 this year, and while there are Malaysians who lament his iron-fisted rule, they admire his gutsy performance on the national stage, often criss-crossing the country, and delivering inspiring speeches – in both Malay and English.
Malays do feel indebted to this man, whom by all accounts, is considered a “negarawan” or statesman. To Malays and Malaysians who are even partially political, they are both awed and inspired by nothing less than the freak of nature – a nonagenarian fighting to be prime minister again. Adding to his mystique, he has promised he would pardon his one-time nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, who is in jail on a sodomy charge many believe is politically motivated, and pass him the reins if he is elected.
Crowds at Mahathir’s rallies have swollen from 200 to 12,000 as the election draws near.
So there is a distinct possibility that there will be a Malay tsunami. And, if that tidal wave can swing the vote as much as 8 per cent, the race between Pakatan Harapan and Barisan National could come down to a photo finish – something pollsters are having trouble getting their heads around.