KUALA LUMPUR, April 16 — On most weekends, you will find Sofia Tan — a 36-year-old designer of mixed ethnicity — eating and drinking at one of the hip spots in the city.
Sofia, who holds a diploma in architecture from an expensive private college and hails from the posh suburb of Sri Hartamas, has no qualms admitting to taking alcohol or consuming “light recreational drugs” when she parties. She also keeps an open mind about casual sex.
But when asked if she considers herself socially liberal, Sofia paused a little, then replied: “Mmm not really. My (social) stance maybe but my belief isn’t.”
Despite projecting herself as a cosmopolite, she considers herself to be a true Muslim. She tries her best to pray five times daily and hardly misses a day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Sofia believes that Islam should be the supreme guiding principle of a Muslim’s life including his/her political views. So come May 9, Sofia will look to her faith for guidance when she casts her vote at the ballot box.
“I’m all for Malaysia being one… but of course everyone needs to remember and respect that we are an Islamic country and it is tanah Melayu (Malay land)… in Islam, religion comes before everything else,” Sofia told Malay Mail.
Sofia is born to a Malay father and a Chinese mother. Her father, a former high-ranking civil servant, died when she was 15. Her mother did not remarry and has dedicated her life to volunteering at the local mosque.
She observed that affluent neighbourhoods like hers are often thought to be home to materialistic liberals because of the stereotype that comes with being well-to-do Malays.
As a voter, Sofia admitted she is open to supporting PAS in principle because of the party’s religious credentials. Yet she also confessed that she has been unwilling to support the Islamists because she felt the party lacked the credibility to govern.
“It should be the biggest factor in a Muslim’s vote… by right, everyone should vote for PAS but because the party is weak, people are afraid,” she said.
DAP’s reign in Segambut for two consecutive terms, coupled with the idea that urban voters are conventionally anti-establishment, would have likely played a role in perpetuating the cliche about affluent Malay voters being anti-PAS
Segambut is one of the 30 parliamentary constituencies nationwide with a Chinese majority. Malays form 33 per cent of the 75,631 total number of voters there, followed by ethnic Indians at 12 per cent according to electoral data from 2013.
Segambut has a highly diverse class demographic, but is also home to some of the country’s richest elites.
The constituency spans from neighbourhoods like Taman Tun Dr Ismail all the way to Sentul. Sri Hartamas, where Sofia lives, is located just next to Kampung Segambut, one of Kuala Lumpur’s oldest Malay villages and home to many of the city’s Malay working class.
The forgotten community
Just 15 kilometres south of Sri Hartamas, a small community of mostly poor old Chinese folks deal with a different kind of class stereotype.
This community forms a small but visible minority among the highly mixed residents of the San Peng public project housing (PPR) flats, the second oldest city council housing here. They are also likely among the lowest-earning Chinese in the country.
One of them, a 57-year-old pau seller by the name of Siao feels he and his neighbours have less access to welfare or state aid compared to their Malay neighbours because of their race.
Siao believes his community is a victim of race politics that thrives on portraying all Chinese as either rich or well-supported by their richer relatives.
This distorted perception, he added, makes the poorer segment of the community less visible and excluded from state assistance.
“I’ll give you one example, I sell pau for a living and I make around RM1,000 or RM1,500 on a good month. If I want to expand my business I am not entitled to any state loans, but the Malays have plenty of platforms to secure them,” the father of two told Malay Mail.
Like all those in his income tier, Siao is a recipient of the 1 Malaysia Cash Aid (BR1M), a federal intervention programme that gives out direct cash to households and singles earning less than RM4,000 and RM1,500 a month.
He also gets money from his two children, both of whom work as retail assistants in nearby malls.
But Siao said he wanted a fair system most of all, a government that hands out welfare and assistance to all in need instead of one based on race. He said the racial quota denied his children a good education and threw his family’s future down the drain.
“I’m happy that they (my sons) have jobs. They get paid okay. But I wanted a good education for them and because they can’t go to public universities, they end up having to work after school,” he added.
The Chinese suffer the largest intra-race income disparity even as ethnic Bumiputra make up the most households in the bottom 40 per cent (B40), according to official government data.
Bumiputra households account for 44.7 per cent of the B40 group, followed by Indians at 38.71 per cent and Chinese at 28.02 per cent.
For every ringgit a B40 Chinese earned in 2014, those in the top 20 per cent earned RM5.80, a 2016 Economic Planning Unit data showed.
This figure rose to RM6 in 2016, whereas the income gap between Bumiputra and Indian B40s remained the same at RM1 to RM5.30 for the same period.
People like Siao make up pockets of B40 Chinese voters that occupy many of the poor urban locations in constituencies within the city.
Parliament seats like Cheras and Bukit Bintang, where the San Peng flats are located, are homes to many of the capital city’s Chinese poor and working class but due to their relatively small number, these communities are often overlooked and excluded from state benefits.
The plight facing the city’s Chinese poor have also given rise to perceptions that they are fervently anti-government, or are default DAP supporters. But Siao disagreed, saying Chinese support for the Opposition is not directly linked to race alone.
“I don’t necessarily feel this way about the government because the leaders are Malay. Some of my family voted for Barisan Nasional. I will give my support to any party that wants to genuinely help me and my family… unfortunately this government has not done so,” he said.
Indian and lesbian
As a 27-year-old Indian lesbian from Jalan Ipoh, Sentul, Syam deals with social persecution daily. Her sexuality is frowned upon by some within her own family and she is ostracised by her own community.
The graphic designer comes from a lower-middle income family. Her parents are devout Hindus with strict traditional values, which run in direct collision with her sexual leaning. Meanwhile her neighbourhood is rough with mostly poorer Indian households, a hotbed for what she described as “toxic masculinity.”
Being the poorest of the three main races means Indian voters like herself often demand for economic empowerment, often through direct assistance. But for Syam, May 9 will see her vote to achieve ideals different from the conventional needs of her family and community.
“I want my own life to improve,” the soft-spoken woman told Malay Mail.
“That means I want my rights as a member of the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders) community to be respected, to be protected.
“I’ve suffered enough stigmatisation, humiliation just because I’m a lesbian so when I vote it’s going to be for parties that will fight for human rights.”
Syam likely represents a minority among the country’s three million Indians, but underscores the growing exposure to intellectual ideals otherwise unheard of within a community dogged by poverty and the lack of access to education.
Malaysian Indians have the lowest social mobility, according to the “Climbing the Ladder: Socio-economic Mobility in Malaysia” report published by think tank Khazanah Research Institute in 2016.
Compared to their Bumiputra and Chinese counterparts, only 5 per cent of Indian children will reach tertiary education level if their parents had no formal education.
For Bumiputras, only 27 per cent of children born to parents who belong to the lowest income quantile, remain in the same income bracket as their parents — lower compared to Indians at 32 per cent and Chinese at 42 per cent.
Syam is very aware of this and expressed strong views about good governance and economic equitability. Pointing to her surroundings, the graphic designer said poverty among the Indians is still rife and many cannot survive without assistance.
She is a voter within the Batu parliamentary seat, a large constituency that spans mostly middle and working class neighbourhoods. It is also home to some of the city’s poorest people, most of whom are public flats renters or illegal squatters.
Batu had 85,000 registered voters in 2013 and Indians make up 16 per cent of the electorate, a significant number. Malays, also mostly middle and working class, are the majority at 44 per cent followed closely by the Chinese at 38 per cent.
But as much as the economy is important to her and the well-being of her community, Syam felt the fight to earn a dignified place in society is more pressing for the simple reason that LGBTs from the Indian community have been the worst victims of hate crime.
“No other races have had people murdered because they are gays or perceived to be soft. LGBT Indians have died just because they’re different,” she said.