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What do Malaysians think about the current state of Malaysia and the most critical issues facing the country? In Stage 2 of The Citizens’ Agenda, Malaysians responded with astonishing unity: virtually every group, regardless of race, gender, age, or location, picked the same top five issues: Cost of Living, Jobs & Wages, Economy, Corruption, and Education. People tend to think of Malaysia as a divided country, but The Citizens’ Agenda tells us that Malaysians are united to a great degree about their concerns for the future, even if there remain some notable regional differences.

Note: This report only includes results from Vase.ai (1,146 respondents) and does not yet include results from JotForm (18 respondents). This report will be updated once we have finished processing those results, but the JotForm results will not change the overall results in any significant way.

Results

Here are the top 5 issues identified by our respondents:

  1. 💸 COST OF LIVING
    Should the cost of goods be subsidised, or should wages be increased instead? Why are house prices and rent so high? Should we continue subsidising fuel, or should the people be assisted through a more targeted approach? Should the government start building houses for the people to rent?
  2. 🧳 JOBS & WAGES
    Do we have enough jobs, especially for the younger generation, or are we facing a demand and supply mismatch? Should we increase our minimum wage instead of trying to import more foreign labour? How can we empower workers to negotiate their working conditions with their employers better? How can we encourage the work-from-home policy? How can we increase our minimum wage with minimal impact on the economy?
  3. 🧮 ECONOMY
    How should the Malaysian economy be developed in the post-pandemic era? Should we keep our wages low in order to stay competitive compared with other ASEAN economies, or should we focus on higher-income sectors? Should the value of the ringgit be prioritised over our exports? Would you accept higher inflation for higher wages instead of having a lower wage with a subsidised cost of living?
  4. 💰 CORRUPTION
    How do we deal with systemic corruption? Do we need stricter punishment for corruption, or is there something else that has to be changed?
  5. 🎓 EDUCATION
    How do we ensure equitable access to education for everyone? Should university education be free? How can we make the education system more inclusive? Does a vernacular education system still have a place in our society? Should religious education be kept separate from the national schooling system? Should we allow parents and the local community to be more involved with our school’s management?

Click here for an interactive datastudio presentation, including a breakdown of demographic data, and click here to view the raw data (see below for an explanation of methodology).


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Analysis and Observations

Observation #1: Malaysians are more unified than people assume, and in particular, they overwhelmingly agree that economic issues are the primary concern.

The top three issues — Cost of Living, Jobs & Wages, and the Economy — were in the top five of all groups, regardless of race, gender, age, or location. The worries of all Malaysians come across startlingly clearly. They are worried about the rising cost of living, finding work with fair and living wages, and the economy in general.

Observation #2: People lack confidence in leaders rather than political institutions.

The main issues may be clear, but do Malaysians have confidence in their politicians? While questions about the ability of politicians were not often raised, Corruption ranked high across every race, age, gender, and location. At the same time, issues related to the selection of politicians and the structures and institutions through which they govern (Political Reform, Public Institutions) ranked far lower in general and sometimes even in the bottom five.

One conclusion may be that Malaysians do not see the institutions themselves as the problem. Instead, they see the leaders (e.g. politicians, civil servants, and other people in positions of power) who are operating the institutions as the problem. The recent anti-hopping legislation focused on one way in which politicians subvert the wishes of the people. However, the phrasing of the Corruption issue (“How do we deal with systemic corruption? Do we need tougher punishment for corruption, or is there something else that has to be changed?”) also addresses structural factors within public institutions which incentivise leaders towards corruption. Thus it may be that people, in general, do not see the reform of public institutions as being as urgent, except for this one specific aspect.

Another contributing factor may be the continuing fallout of the 1MDB scandal being uppermost in people’s minds. The trial of Najib Razak was ongoing throughout the period when The Citizens’ Agenda was being conducted.

This tension between leaders and the institutions — are people corrupt, or do the institutions corrupt them? Or both? — bears further study.

Observation #3: Education ranked high across all racial and age groups.

Malaysians, in general, see a desperate need to have equitable and inclusive access to education; for better quality education; and for educational reform. 

One conclusion is that Malaysians still see education as the pathway toward a better life and believe that what is needed is fair access to education. Conversely, an opposing conclusion might be that Malaysians feel that the education system is letting the country down and that the educational system does not lead to a better life and opportunities for their children.

We may conclude that Malaysians want a better and more equitable education. Even on the other hand, it still needs deeper research and study to understand the reason.

Observation #4: People are over COVID-19, but not over the lessons of COVID-19.

COVID-19 ranked consistently low across all groups, but Healthcare ranked very high. The lessons of the pandemic, and in particular the overwhelming of the public health system and inequitable access to healthcare, have left their mark. 

It may be that people are anticipating the onset of the next pandemic/healthcare crisis rather than looking back.

Observation #5: Young people more concerned about Rights & Discrimination than older people.

While nearly every demographic sub-group picked the same top five issues (in different orders), there was one major exception: People aged 18-19 selected Rights & Discrimination as the #3 issue and sent Corruption all the way down to #15 (out of 22). 

People aged 20-29 picked it #10, people aged 30-39 picked it #14, and people aged 40-49 picked it #18. The issue then recovers slightly among people 50-59 (#14) before falling again to 60-69 (#19). However, all those groups selected Corruption in the top 5 (those in their 50s selected it as #1).

Thus, in general, the younger you are, the more you see Rights & Discrimination as a pressing issue. 

Observation #7: Young people are more concerned with issues relating to Gender and Sexual Identity than older people.

A similar pattern may be discerned for Gender & Sexual Identity – it is #7 for 18-19 but in the bottom five for every other age group (no one from 60-69 selected it at all!).

Do the above two observations suggest a future shift in opinion, or will other issues supersede these as people age? Remember that this is a relative ranking, so people aged 20 and above may still regard Rights & Discrimination as important (and people 18-29 may still regard Corruption as important), just less important than other, more urgent, issues.

Observation #8: There’s not much difference between the “male” and “female” genders.

There were minor differences – men ranked Healthcare and Environment & Sustainability lower, women ranked Rights & Discrimination and Gender & Sexual Equality higher, but overall the issues had similar rankings.

Observation #9: Racial divisions remain: minority races ranked Rights & Discrimination and Race Relations higher than those who identified as “Malay”.

Not a surprise. Overall, Rights & Discrimination was ranked #12 and Race Relations #14. However, “Chinese” ranked Rights & Discrimination #7 and Race Relations #10; “Indians” ranked them #7 and #8; “Others” ranked them #11 and #15. “Malays”, by contrast, ranked them #16 and #18. Otherwise, Malaysians were in general agreement on what the most important issues were.

The difference between races was not as significant as Singapore, where Racism & Discrimination leaped up into the top five for “Malays” and “Indians”. Please see below for more comparisons with Singapore.

Observation #10: Location does matter.

While the top five issues that were ranked top five were all identified as important everywhere, there were local differences regarding the relative importance of other issues.

People in Sabah were relatively more concerned about Migrants & Refugees. Probably because of the ongoing issue of irregular migration in the state (Migrants & Refugees were, sadly, the bottom issue, or near the bottom, everywhere else — but again, remember this is a relative ranking, so people may still consider the issue important, just not as important).

People in Perak were relatively more concerned with Finance & Taxation (ranked #5) and Public Infrastructure (#6) than Corruption (#7) – one of the few places where corruption was outside the top 5. One explanation might be that people in Perak are relatively more content with the performance of their state government than Malaysians in other states. This would explain why policy issues are placed above corruption in the rankings there.

People in Kedah and Johor were more concerned with Food Security than those in other states. They are at opposite ends of West Malaysia, probably due to different reasons. For Kedah, this may reflect recent natural disasters, a history of rural unrest, or the ongoing concern among the northern states on water resources, particularly regarding the Muda River. For Johor, the explanation may be its proximity to Singapore. Food in Johor has been reported as being overpriced compared to elsewhere on the peninsula, with prices also distorted by Singaporean visitors, higher wages from remittances, and price competition due to the greater profitability of exporting food to Singapore.

People in Melaka and Negeri Sembilan were relatively more concerned about Welfare & Social Security (ranked #5 and #6 respectively) than other states. This may be because both are small states with a higher proportion of the population of retirement age than other states.

People in Kuala Lumpur were more concerned with Public Infrastructure, probably because of the impact of floods, traffic congestion, and the poor quality and availability of public transport. The serious missteps, accidents, and delays on the RapidKL service (run by Prasarana) have likely elevated this issue in the minds of KL residents. It would be interesting to see whether this ranking changes after the full opening of MRT2 next year. People in Terengganu were also relatively more concerned with Public Infrastructure than other states. This may reflect the historical underdevelopment of the states on the East coast of West Malaysia and, in particular, the fact that no interstate railway line runs through Terengganu. The East Coast Rail Link should address this, but that is not planned to open until 2027 at the earliest.

Other Random Observations

The youngest respondent is unknown as we had a lower age limit of 18, but there were 14 18-year-olds who responded. Like Malaysians as a whole, their answers were broadly similar. 11 selected Cost of Living. Seven chose Economy and six picked Jobs & Wages.

The oldest respondent is 75 years old, Male, Indian, and lives in Johor. He proved to be something of an outlier in more ways than just age, as he selected Food Security, Gender & Sexual Equality, Race Relations, Welfare & Social Security, and Migrants & Refugees—issues that are overall lower ranked by everyone else.

Of the 1,146 respondents on Vase.ai, 739 responded in English, 368 in Malay, 36 in Chinese, and 2 in Tamil.

Comparisons with Singapore

Singaporeans tend to perceive Malaysia as more divided than Singapore, but The Citizens’ Agenda shows that it is the reverse, at least in terms of the concerns of the people. Malaysia is far more unified in terms of what it considers the most important issues across all races, genders, ages, and locations. On racial issues, in particular, there is a far larger gap between the perceptions of minority races vs. the majority race in Singapore than in Malaysia.

One explanation may be that these specific issues are far more pressing in Malaysia relative to other issues. Another might be that there is freer political discourse and freedom of expression in Malaysia, leading to these issues being discussed more openly and thus the wider population being able to build more consensus through this discursive process. This suggests that—contrary to what the Singapore government argues—freedom of expression would lead to more unity and less division, rather than more.

At the same time, Malaysia appears to have a narrower range of concerns than Singapore. In summarising issues from Malaysia, we found that several issues overlapped (Rights & Discrimination vs Race Relations vs Gender & Equality; Political Reform vs Public Institutions; COVID-19 vs Healthcare) but people talked about them in diverse ways. We sought to capture the nuance in people’s responses, and so ended up creating different issues. Singapore, by contrast, had a wider range of issues, with several (e.g. Inequality & Social Mobility, Digital Infrastructure, Wellbeing) not featuring in Malaysian responses, but people who brought up an issue tended to talk about it in similar ways, allowing us to create more distinct issues. Again, an explanation may be that Singaporean society is more atomised and divided into smaller “echo chambers” due to relatively less freedom of expression.

People in both countries are worried about the Cost of Living, which is rising significantly in both countries. They are also worried about the Economy and Jobs & Wages, albeit in different ways. Having an overall more developed economy with greater inequality, Singapore is far more concerned about the sustainability of their lives (economically, mentally, physically, and environmentally)  and about the inequality inherent in their economy, than Malaysians. Malaysians are more concerned about the overall development of their economy and having access to jobs. They are less concerned with the environment than Singapore, which as a small island-city is more exposed to the climate crisis than Malaysia.

Both countries are also worried about the quality of the leaders, but again in different ways. Malaysians are more worried about politicians being corrupt, and corruption within the system, while Singaporeans worry more about politicians being unaccountable and uncaring of people’s needs. 

Overall, the difference between the countries is not surprising, given the two countries’ different economies, demography, and geography, but what is surprising is how Malaysia—a far larger and more diverse country—has far more unity of purpose than Singapore, while also being more limited in its range of issues.

Read the Singapore report here


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Methodology

In stage 1 of The Citizens’ Agenda, we asked Malaysians to answer the following question:

In your opinion, what issues do you consider important to Malaysia? What do you think the candidates should be talking about as they compete for your votes in the upcoming election?

The survey was run in the four official languages of Malaysia. We worked with a survey company, Vase.ai, to ensure that we surveyed a statistically representative sample of Malaysians. We also ran the survey publicly via JotForm. 1,236 people responded. We read through all 1,236 responses and then grouped all the responses into 22 broad issues. People brought up many different topics, from Corruption to Migrants & Refugees. You can see our Stage 1 report here.

We then ran a second survey (stage 2) where we asked Malaysians to pick the top five most important issues facing Malaysia from the list of 22 issues. The order of the issues was randomised in the survey. Participants also provided some demographic data: gender, age, race, and their location. This was provided as part of the panel on Vase.ai, but optional on JotForm.

A note on demographic data: Vase.ai is a survey platform that has 3.6 million people across Southeast Asia in its panel. Through its platform, it aims to provide surveys as an automated service, thus making it easy and affordable to run statistically-accurate surveys across the region in different countries. However, this automation also involves constraints and trade-offs, and one trade-off is that we have to conform to its pre-defined panel demography. This includes only two genders (male and female) and the MCIO racial categorisation. In New Naratif’s public survey on JotForm, we sought to be more inclusive, but the majority of the data comes from Vase.ai and the results are accordingly limited.

In processing the responses from stage 2, we noted a problem: Vase.ai was unable to limit people’s responses to exactly five. While most people picked five, some people picked fewer than five and some picked more. At the suggestion of Vase.ai, we eliminated responses from those who had picked fewer than five, and asked respondents who had selected more than five issues to rank the issues they selected. This enabled us to determine their top five issues. In total, we had 1,164 qualified responses—1,146 from Vase.ai and 18 from JotForm.

If you’d like to see the raw data, please click here. We welcome any statisticians or data journalists who would like to use the data—it is licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Conclusion

The people have spoken! With few exceptions, Malaysians everywhere are most immediately concerned about the same thing: the cost of living, jobs, the economy, corruption, and education. They are worried about the economy and jobs with fair wages, but also doubt whether their leaders can address these problems and whether young Malaysians are being adequately educated to deal with the challenges of the future.

A big THANK YOU to everyone who took part in the survey!

What’s Next?

  • We will be running articles and democracy classrooms about these issues over the next year. If you’d like us to let you know about upcoming articles and democracy classrooms on the above issues, sign up for our weekly newsletter or better yet, join as a member to support New Naratif’s mission to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia!
  • Please share this article, and fill out the form below and let us know your thoughts! We will highlight the best responses on social media over the next few weeks.

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Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and a historian at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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