FELDA voters

As pundits and political analysts dissect the outcome and meaning of Malaysia’s 13th General Election (GE13), one prominent explanation for the results has been a supposed gulf between urban and rural voters. As one online commentator put it:

“The urban-rural divide was clear. Pakatan won votes from all races and religions in the urban areas while BN retained their rural base. It is an election result between urban and rural, West Malaysia versus East Malaysia, between the better educated, better informed versus the lesser educated and lesser informed.” http://m.malaysiakini.com/news/229273

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal (Asia Edition) front page story of 8 May 2013 described the result by stating:

“…the vote was heavily split between Malaysia’s thriving cities, which largely voted for opposition parties, and rural, mostly ethnic-Malay areas that threw their support behind Mr. Najib…”

The idea that the GE13 vote reflected a divided society, split between urban and rural inhabitants has been echoed through many other online and print forums. It is a simple – and simplistic – explanation for a very complicated electoral result. And it reiterates a politics of urban cosmopolitan chauvinism that I have observed in Malaysia and elsewhere, dating to at least the 1990s.

The last and only time I have been in Malaysia on election-day itself was in 1995, now nearly two decades ago. That was a year when Mahathir and the Barisan Nasional were riding high on the pre-1997 economic boom, before Anwar Ibrahim’s dismissal from UMNO and subsequent reformasi movement. In the process of following that election – among other things, attending and collecting cassette tapes of PAS ceramah – I observed the particular ways that the figure of ‘orang kampung’ (villagers) was dealt with in the elections (Thompson 2013).

Mahathir, at least since the publication of The Malay Dilemma (1970), had championed a distinctively urban-oriented path to economic development and prosperity. Rural Malays, in Mahathir’s published opinion, were (quite literally) inbred and backwards. The early 1990s catch-phrase and concept of the “New Malay” (Melayu Baru) reiterated the idea that the only way for the Malay race to succeed would be through urbanisation (“membandarkan Melayu”) and championing of a new breed of Malay entrepreneurs (Muhammad 1993).

In that climate, PAS positioned itself as the champion of kampung folk against an urban, corporate (“korporat”) UMNO elite. While UMNO and by extension the Barisan Nasional (BN) held certain rural “strongholds,” it was by no means seen as a rural-based party. If anything, supposedly conservative, rural kampung folk were seen as the backbone of the PAS electorate – with overwhelmingly rural and conceptually remote Kelantan cast as ur-PAS territory.

Now in 2013, the rhetoric of rural-urban difference is cast very differently. Post-election analysis suggests that urban areas support progressive change while rural voters are stuck in old habits, clinging to patronage politics. In its most provocative form, as suggested by the first quote above, the country is divided between urban, better educated, better informed voters and rural, less educated, less informed ones.

Such rhetoric is both misguided and wrong. It is misguided, as far as opposition aspirations go. It is wrong in so far as it reiterates stereotypes of rural backwards and rural-urban difference in a Malaysia where substantive rural-urban difference is fast dissipating. With regard to opposition aspirations, there is a serious danger that the rhetoric of urban chauvinism may become entrenched among activists – particularly those affiliated with PKR.

PKR has sought to challenge UMNO as a “centrist” force in Malaysian politics. PKR takes a moderate line vis-├а-vis the role of Islam in politics and society, in contrast to PAS. And it has sought to avoid association as a party championing communal, racial interests, in contrast to the DAP, which despite efforts to the contrary is seen as a ‘Chinese’ party. PKR’s problem is that it is seen as a party of urban, elite, intellectuals, mainly interested in contesting UMNO and BN hegemony, not for the sake of the ‘rakyat’ (ordinary citizens) but as one urban elite group (the Anwaristas) trying to wrest power from the UMNO old-guard.

Rather than simply casting the ‘rakyat’ who live outside of urban centers as foolish dupes of the BN, the better question to ask is: what, if anything, did Pakatan Rakyat (PR) offer to rural citizens of Malaysia? An examination of the PR and BN election manifestos is revealing. The BN, among other things, state explicitly what they have done for those living “luar bandar”; in particular the thousands of kilometers of roads stretching throughout the country. http://www.manifestopru13.com/bahasamelayu.php

By contrast, the PR manifesto is very thin when it comes to plans or promises to non-urban constituents. While on the one hand, it speaks explicitly to taxi drivers and other urban interest groups, the only rural constituents that the PR manifesto addresses directly or in any detail are FELDA settlers, who make up only a small part of the rural Malaysian electorate. http://www.pakatanrakyat.my/files/BM-Manifesto-BOOK.pdf

Consider also the dynamics of how Pakatan contested the elections. Most rural Malay-majority districts were contested by PAS, not PKR – reflecting and reinforcing the latter’s urban orientation. Centrist rural voters were thus left with something of a dilemma – in order to support the PR agenda they had to express this desire by voting for PAS. Choosing between UMNO and PAS does not present these voters with any new choice, at least not on the surface. It is the same choice they have had since independence. The point of urban chauvinism is evident here. When in the past rural voters have supported PAS, as in Kelantan or Kedah, they are cast as backwards and conservative. Now, in voting for UMNO, they are cast as backwards and conservative.

I will conclude with three suggestions. First, in general, urban chauvinism should be avoided and resisted by all parties – politicians, pundits and especially thoughtful scholarly analysts. Simplistic portrayals of a rural-urban divide and denigration of ‘uninformed, uneducated’ rural folks should not pass for intelligent analysis. This sort of urban chauvinism, in political discourse as well as academic analysis, is common not only to Malaysia but many other places in the world – such as Thailand and the United States. In the former, the Democrat Party, representing entrenched conservative urban-based elites has cast derision on rural voters who have revolutionised Thai Politics through their support of parties associated with Thaksin Shinawatra. In the United States, entrenched progressive urban-based elites cast aspersions on the supposedly reactionary rural support of the Republican Party.

These broad-brush “explanations” for electoral politics tell us little about the actual dynamics of politics outside urban centers. Rather, we need better understanding of rural politics, through nuanced and thoughtful analysis of the sort emerging in Thailand by authors such as Nishizaki (2011) and Walker (2012). In Malaysia, serious study of rural politics used to be at the center of important scholarship (e.g. Husin 1975; Shamsul 1986), but has seen much less attention since the 1970s.

Second, in analysing the outcomes of the GE13, the “rural-urban divide” is one of many simplistic explanations for the election results. In my opinion, it is a particularly erroneous one. The real story, I suggest, lies in complex and often highly localised dynamics of this election cycle. In Kedah, for example, the ‘ignorant’ voters of this largely rural state ousted a PAS-led government that had put in a poor showing when given its turn to govern for five years.

In the overwhelmingly rural district of Selama, Perak where I happen to spend most of my time in Malaysia, voters rejected a PAS candidate whose main qualification was that he was the son-in-law of the PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang. He had been nominated by PAS amidst significant protests and at the expense of a local PAS leader with deep local roots. Hadi Awang’s son-in-law lost by a little over 600 votes. Had PAS favored local representation over internal nepotism (and thereby deeply undermining the stance of Pakatan against cronyism), the vote may well have gone the other way. How many times over where such machinations made by the PR component parties, making them, in the words of a friend with PAS sympathies “no better than UMNO”?

Third, political actors of whatever party or persuasion should not treat rural voters as an automatic vote bank whose loyalties can be won over easily. Cities commonly exert economic and cultural dominance over rural places, and in the political arena this often means that rural voter’s interests are poorly represented in the choices afforded to them in the electoral process. Politicians everywhere would be wise to examine their own shortcomings in addressing the needs and aspirations of rural constituents, rather than taking the easy way out of leaning on stereotypes of rural idiocy and calling rural voters “uninformed and uneducated” when those voters do not vote the way that losing politicians and their supporters had hoped.


Husin Ali, S. (1975) Malay Peasant Society and Leadership. Kuala Lumpur and New York: Oxford University Press.

Mahathir Mohamad (1970) The Malay Dilemma. Singapore: Times Books International.

Muhammad H.M.T. (1993) Melayu Baru (The New Malay). Kuala Lumpur: ITC Book Publisher.

Nishizaki, Yoshinori (2011) Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand: The Making of Banharn-buri. Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asian Studies Program.

Shamsul A.B. (1986) From British to Bumiputera Rule: Local Politics and Rural Development in Peninsular Malaysia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Thompson, Eric C. (2013) “Urban Cosmopolitan Chauvinism and the Politics of Rural Identity,” In: Cleavage, Connection and Conflict in Rural, Urban and Contemporary Asia, T. Bunnell, D. Parthasarathy, and E.C. Thompson, eds. Dordrecht: Springer.

Walker, Andrew (2012) Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy. Madison and London: University of Wisconsin Press.

Eric C. Thompson is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.