The country’s demographic change has many political, economic and social implications and the big boss of the Lion Group conglomerate certainly knows how the trend will affect the community.
Being a businessman, Cheng chose to dwell on the economic aspect. The owner of the Parkson department store chain said the Chinese community would have a chance to play a leading role in the country’s economy even though the population was low.
Speaking at the ACCIM Youth conference, Cheng did not want to ruin the upbeat mood, telling his listeners not to be pessimistic. Being the shrewd businessman that he is, he cleverly stayed away from talking about the political effects.
But he can certainly calculate what is ahead. The continuing drop in the Chinese population would correspond with a drop in political clout.
In a plural society, racial numbers do matter. It is the same in the United States where election candidates play along racial voter numbers to win their votes.
In 2009, journalist researcher Helen Ang highlighted in her report that the country’s Chinese population will decline to a mere 18.6% of the population in 25 years. While the bumiputra population for this decade (2011-2021) will see at least 1.98% annual growth, the Chinese population growth over this period will only be 0.73% annually.
Citing a study by researcher Saw Swee Hock, Ang wrote that by 2035, Malaysia will have 41 million people, with bumiputras making up 72.1% of the population.
Even Penang is now officially a Malay majority state. The latest statistics from the Department of Statistics indicate that Malays are increasing and have now outnumbered the Chinese by 0.7% in the once Chinese dominant state.
In 2009, the Penang Malay population stood at 654,300, just ahead of 651,600 Chinese by 0.1%. Last year, it widened to 0.7%. Of the estimated 1.6 million population in Penang, 670,100 were Malays (41.6%) while 658,700 were Chinese (40.9%). There were 9.7% Indians (155,600), 7% non-Malaysians (112,200), 0.8% others and other bumiputras (13,300).
In Selangor, another state with a big Chinese population, they now make up 29% of the state’s population of over five million.
We all know the reasons for the drop in Chinese population, which range from late marriages, preference for small families to migration. But there is less talk about the political effects, particularly the community’s diminishing political importance.
Chinese voters generally get angry and offended if they hear, even in the most subtle way, that their votes could be foregone. After all, in any election, every vote is crucial.
In a close fight between two Malay candidates, for instance, the minority Chinese voters can be the deciding factor. In fact, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has always reminded his listeners that it was the Chinese voters who saved many Umno candidates in the 1999 general election following the sacking of his deputy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Indeed, the Chinese can be kingmaker by voting strategically. Or they can vote to vent their frustrations and end up outside the government.
The big test will come in the next general election. Of the 222 parliamentary seats, only 40-odd seats are in Chinese majority areas. The others are Malay majority or racially mixed seats. There is no Indian majority parliamentary seat.
It is obvious at this point there is still much resentment in urban Chinese areas, with the voting pattern aligning towards the opposition. There is even a misconception that the Chinese, if they voted for the opposition entirely, would see their position strengthened based on the belief that PKR-PAS can deliver the Malay seats.
But it is a big gamble as the Chinese voters may just find themselves the only one outside the government, as in the case of Sarawak where the community was led by PKR-PAS to believe that the other races would join in to topple Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.
In the end, the DAP ended up with 12 state seats while the SUPP was almost wiped out. The urban Malays-Dayaks, it turned out, voted solidly for Barisan Nasional, with PBB winning all 35 seats it contested. The SUPP lost its deputy chief ministership and is left with only two state assemblymen.
The question now is whether the Chinese voters would be happy with the 40-odd parliamentary seats for the DAP come the next election and see the community representation completely out of the government as they increase the number of PAS Members of Parliament.
The Chinese are the ones who will chart their future since Malay and Indian votes have shifted back to Barisan. It is now a choice of whether they want to follow their heart or rule with their head.