Sunday, September 23, 2007

One Race, Two Sets of Views

The Star Online

What do the “three pillars of the Chinese community” or the so-called “banana Chinese” have to do with where the Chinese vote will go in the next general election? Quite a lot, actually.

CORPORATE figure Rita Sim wears several hats but the one she seems to wear rather passionately these days is that of executive director of the Chinese vernacular newspaper Sin Chew Daily.

Sin Chew is the top-selling Chinese paper in the country. It not only makes money, but it is the most powerful voice in the stable of Chinese papers.

Even Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein courts the paper because he needs Sin Chew's cooperation to air policies on Chinese schools.

Today, 95% of Chinese children attend Chinese schools. More importantly, said Sim, the Chinese media (six in the peninsula and eight in East Malaysia) is part of what is known as the “three pillars of the Chinese community”.

The other two pillars are the Chinese schools (1,291 SRJKs and 60 independent schools) and the Chinese organisations or hua zong (7,000 registered clan, guild and business groups).

According to Sim, who is also deputy chairman of the MCA think-tank Insap, anyone who wishes to understand the Chinese social and political sentiment has to first understand the Chinese who subscribe to the concept of the three pillars (G1) for the simple reason that they make up 85-90% of the 6.5 million Chinese in the country.

Insap director Fui K. Soong
The remaining 10-15% are, for want of a better term, referred to as the English-speaking group (G2).

The G2 encompasses those who are not Chinese-educated; they speak English and include a large number of Christians, the peranakan and also those who are part of the Lions and Rotary Clubs set.

Sim and Insap director Fui K. Soong have done quite a bit of research on the two groups.

“People often talk about the Chinese as though they are one homogenous entity but they are not,” said Soong.

The two groups are quite distinct although they overlap in some traits and issues.

But what distinguishes the G1 from the G2 is that the latter does not subscribe to the three pillars concept even if some of them have begun sending their children to Chinese schools.

To the G1, Chinese education is part of their socio-cultural life and even their identity as a race. Chinese associations and Chinese media also form part of that identity.

But the G2 who send their children to Chinese schools do so for largely pragmatic reasons. They think these schools offer a better standard of teaching and that it is useful to learn an additional language.

The G2 are more likely to read English and Malay papers than Chinese papers and their social life and networking do not revolve around the traditional Chinese associations.

The G1, said Sim, are distinguished by their relative sense of self-sufficiency. They do not depend on nor do they demand too much of the government. Many run their own businesses, mostly small and medium scale enterprises or SMEs.

Fair treatment

Hence, political stability and a good economic environment to work and live in are very important to the G1 and they expect the powers-that-be to provide that climate for growth.

“They want the government to be fair and not to interfere too much in their businesses. Basically, this group wants to be left alone.

“They think they can take care of themselves as long as there aren't too many barriers or interference,” said Sim.

That is why schemes like the Northern Corridor Economic Region and even the Iskandar Development Region, to some extent, do not excite the G1. They think the NCER, which is about logistic and infrastructure building, benefits the GLCs rather than SMEs like their own.

Rita Sim - Deputy Chairman: MCA think-tank Insap
The G1 also see many issues from their own narrow perspective. For instance, the crackdown on pig-farmers in Malacca was not just about the authorities regulating pig-farms but a threat to Chinese business interests.

At the height of the pig farming issue in Malacca, Alor Star MP Datuk Chor Chee Heung could not walk into a coffeeshop in his Kedah constituency without being bombarded with comments.

It was taking place down south but Chinese businessmen in Kedah were riled up as though it was happening at their doorstep.

“One day, I walked into the coffeeshop and I thought ‘die, man, I'm going to get it’. They saw it as a move against the community,” said Chor.

The downside about people in this group is that they tend to live in their own ethnic bubble – they attend Chinese schools, read Chinese papers and, as Soong noted, some of them probably know more about what is happening with political personalities in Taiwan than, say, Umno or PAS.

The Chinese-educated have long labelled the English-speaking group as “bananas,” meaning they are yellow outside (Chinese), but white inside (pro-Western culture). Or, as the Hokkiens would put it a little more explicitly, the G2 folk “chiak ang moh sai” (have eaten too much Western s**t).

There's no denying that the G2 are more open to Western ideas and ideals.

“Their ideas of governance, democracy, role of the media and even elections are influenced by the West, namely Britain and the United States. They like to say these are universal ideals even though half the world does not subscribe to the way the Americans and British think,” said Soong.

And given that the general election is looming on the horizon, the question most asked is how these two groups will vote.

Soong said the G2 are issue-oriented. They are influenced by issues and their votes swing from one election to another. They are mostly middle-class, articulate and prone to take issues to the press and in recent years into the Internet.

Incidentally, Gerakan's base lies mainly with this group.

The Chinese, it is often said, are quite inscrutable about their politics but not this group. They are not afraid to air their political views or who they will vote for.

“They are so articulate about their grievances that people think, ‘oh dear, the entire Chinese community is upset’.But actually, their views reflect mainly those in this English-speaking group,” said Soong.

The G2 have been the most critical of the ruling party in recent years.

The Christians in the G2 are particularly concerned about the issue of Islamic state.

According to Soong, the survival of the common law and the secular state is very important to this group because it guarantees their modern lifestyle and for the Christians, the freedom to practise their faith.

“Their fears about the Islamic State is very real and emotional because they see it as a threat to Christianity. The fear comes from deep in the gut,” she said.

The G1 have their own grouses but their concerns are somewhat more diverse.

“At least 30% of them are hardcore opposition supporters at anytime. This group, even if you sent them to heaven and back, will still vote for the opposition, especially the DAP,” said Soong.

Within the G1, there are also about 25% hardcore MCA supporters who will sink or swim with the party.

Of the remainder, 10% are deemed indifferent to politics and elections, leaving about 35% who are known as the swing voters.

They are the ones whom political parties woo like crazy during elections because their votes can determine the result. The swing voters are also very issue-oriented and would react to things like controversial statements from Umno leaders.

Chinese schools issue

The G1 are generally uncompromising when it comes to Chinese education. The MCA and Gerakan took a beating at the polls during the 1980s because this group felt the government was unfair to Chinese schools.

Many of them now feel that their struggle for Chinese education has been vindicated with the rise of China as a global powerhouse.

They point out that even the US News magazine recently reported that learning Chinese would rank 12th among the 50 things to accomplish in one's lifetime to improve one's quality of life.

The Chinese schools issue has not been this stable in decades, something many credit to the confluence of two key politicians.

On the one hand, there is Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, the first MCA president to really understand the community's convictions about Chinese education, hence, his commitment to the issue.

On the other is Hishammuddin who has been more open to Chinese schools than any other education minister in history.

Economic opportunities are another top concern while recent years have seen a rise in concern about crime and public security.

This group's fear about the Islamic State has less to do with its potential impact on their respective religions than on how syariah law will affect their economic interests.

But the issue of fairness underlies the concerns of both groups.

As Chor put it: “Whether it's education, business or local services, the Chinese just want fair treatment.”

If there is anything homogeneous at all about the Chinese, it is about fairness for everyone.

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