Independent polls gaining influence

When the Pakatan Rakyat government in Perak was unseated through defections in February, the local people were clearly unhappy.

But just how unhappy?

The independent pollster, Merdeka Centre, did a survey in the state to find out.

Its poll found that half the Malay respondents believed the palace’s decision to install a Barisan Nasional (BN) government, instead of calling for fresh polls, was in line with the people’s wishes. In contrast, a whopping 82 per cent of the Chinese said it was not. That would have been that, except for the oddest twist of fate.

A Perak MP died of a heart attack, triggering a by-election in Bukit Gantang two months later.

The election result tallied with the survey findings. The Malay vote for the BN came in at around 55 per cent, while the Chinese support was a low 22 per cent. It rarely happens as neatly as this, but this was one example of how polling can be a fair measure of the Malaysian political pulse.

Political polling is still fairly new in Malaysia, although there has always been some form of pulse-checking. Umno, for instance, had grassroots systems which had one party member taking care of 10 voters in their village. This used to be very effective. But that system broke down spectacularly in last year’s general election.

The BN did not have an inkling of the massive ground shift that dealt it the worst electoral showing in 50 years. Its village methods had failed in an urban setting — and more than 60 per cent of Malaysians now live in urban centres.

That was when independent polling received a boost as it appeared more reliable than in-house sources and party intelligence. Even before the general election, Merdeka Centre had published several surveys that revealed a sense of Chinese and Indian unhappiness. Not enough attention was paid to the findings, and the BN paid a heavy price in terms of seats.

“Polling is extremely important so that you don’t risk fooling yourself with internal bias. That said, it can still be a challenge to base decisions on poll results because of other pressures,” said Nelleita Omar, managing director of Vox Malaysia.

Vox Malaysia is the newest polling and consulting firm in the country. It is run by ex-policy staffers from former premier Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s office.

The interest in poll data is certainly noticeable now. Ibrahim Suffian, director of Merdeka Centre, said there was a surge of interest immediately after last year’s March 8 general election. Shell- shocked political parties were scrambling for answers, and the public also sought to make sense of the topsy-turvy landscape. This started to change public discourse.

“People were not clear about the mood before. But when we started to publish our surveys, it changed the debate because there’s now the ability to quantify sentiments,” said Ibrahim.

It does seep into the debate, going by the chatter online. People may not discuss surveys, but the data they provide helps shape arguments to some extent. But polling, which is still in its infancy in Malaysia, does not yet have the reach to influence public opinion. The impact on public policymakers is also relatively low, compared to, say, private companies which have wide experience with using polling data to position their products.

“In politics, it’s a lot harder. The span of products, if you like, is very wide. But it’s the same principle, you have to find the key issues and zoom in,” said Nelleita.

She said while polling had become more visible in recent years, there is still a gap between retrieving data and using it to structure policies.

It is the political parties that have begun to use the data strategically. DAP election strategist Liew Chin Tong said while they realise it is not an exact science, polls can yield useful information if they are properly done and interpreted. “It’s a snapshot at a particular time, and political sentiment is notoriously fluid. But if it’s consistently monitored, it can be a fair reflection of ground feeling,” he said.

In the last general election, Liew said, the opposition parties had taken several good decisions partly influenced by polling data.

One, the three parties decided not to form a coalition then but to work together in an electoral pact. Polling had indicated that voters were not ready for an official alliance but also did not want the opposition to fight one another. Two, the parties avoided campaigning on a platform of winning federal power because surveys showed that this would discomfit voters. Both strategies worked.

“It’s not good to be too dependent on polls as they are never accurate, but they can show part of the picture and be one of the many tools,” said Liew.

The accuracy of polling is always an issue, of course. That depends largely on the expertise with which it is carried out, the frequency, and the skill in reading the data. Still, it looks like political polling is here to stay — and grow. As Ibrahim noted, the 2008 election has changed the Malaysian mindset significantly. There’s a distinct loosening of what he called “brand loyalty”.

“People look for quality, and that has changed the way politicians have to react to them,” he said.

Malaysians have also become more vocal, and pollsters see far less of the frustrating blank looks and shrugs in response to surveys. Everyone has an opinion now; the question is how to read it.

The Straits Times

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