KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – From rural hamlets to the jungles of Borneo and bustling, modern Kuala Lumpur, Malaysians will vote Wednesday in one of the country’s closest ever polls.
The country of 32 million people is a melting pot, home to a Muslim Malay majority, ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, as well as a kaleidoscope of tribal groups.
Malays provide the government with the bedrock of its support and enjoy a privileged position in society.
The large Chinese community has dominated business, while traditionally working class Indians have made inroads into professions such as law and medicine.
AFP talked to three voters from across Malaysia’s multi-ethnic spectrum:
Between a busy coastal road and expansive green paddy fields in the small town of Sekinchan, Azis peels mangoes that she sells to passers-by from a make-shift stall.
The widowed mother of two is from the Malay majority, which comprises about 60 percent of the population, and has traditionally been a strong supporter of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Malays are supported by a decades-old system of affirmative action that gives them advantages such as priority for government jobs.
Nevertheless many, like 27-year-old Noorfazilah, still struggle to get by. Her main concern is the soaring cost of everyday goods, particularly of food.
The massive 1MDB financial scandal that has ensnared Prime Minister Najib Razak is of little concern to her, just something for faraway politicians to bicker about.
“For those of us who stay in the villages, that is not important. What is important is the cost of living,” she told AFP from her stall, where she sells fruit and corn as cars rumble noisily past.
She said a basket of corn that might have cost 50 ringgit ($12) a few years ago has doubled in price.
Noorfazilah won’t say who she plans to vote for at the election but is clear that the situation for those at the bottom of society has to improve.
Chinese business owner
Tan Kim Chong’s repair shop is home to mountains of electrical items, with televisions, amplifiers and speakers piling up around the tiny space.
Like many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, the 62-year-old runs his own business in Sekinchan. Largely locked out of working for the government or in state-run companies where Malays get preferential treatment, they turn to starting their own firms.
Chinese make up about a quarter of the population in the country and many have ended up heading some of the country’s biggest private enterprises.
Tan laments the lack of job opportunities in Malaysia — he said three of his sons and a daughter now work in neighbouring Singapore, which is predominantly ethnic Chinese.
Many members of non-Malay minorities have emigrated in recent years after feeling they have run up against an ethnic glass ceiling.
Tan won’t be drawn on who he will vote for at Wednesday’s poll. But Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese have in recent years largely swung behind the opposition, which has promised a better deal for minorities.
His main concern is money, specifically the value of local currency the ringgit, which has suffered heavy falls in recent years.
“We should have a leader who is good, who can make the value of our money go up,” Tan said.
Indian city dweller
Krishna Kumari Letchumanan runs a small shop selling drinks, sweets and cigarettes in a poor Indian enclave in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The ethnic Indian minority, mostly descendants of plantation workers who came to Malaysia during British colonial rule, make up about seven percent of the population.
Krishna, 57, and her family were forced to leave the agricultural estate where they worked more than 35 years ago.
It is a similar story for many Indian families, who left plantations after British rule ended in 1957, and were replaced by cheaper immigrant labour.
She lives in a dilapidated wooden house in a small community with about 100 other families, sandwiched between a golf course and an affluent neighbourhood.
Krishna said a politician from the ruling coalition had promised to build new homes for them after the election. But she added, in broken English: “We voted so many times already but still… no improve.”
Nevertheless Krishna, who is unmarried and has no children, signalled she would still support the government at the election as she believes they had helped to maintain peace.
There have been ethnic tensions in Malaysia in the past, including race riots in 1969 that killed almost 200 people, but the country’s different groups have co-existed largely harmoniously over the years.