The inability for PH to make significant headway among the Orang Asli and Malay voters in Cameron Highlands shows how much more work needs to be done

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming on the Cameron Highlands By-Election Results on the 28th of January, 2019

A day before the campaign for the Cameron Highlands parliamentary seat by-election began on the 12th of January, 2019, I wrote the following[1]:

Winning this by-election is difficult but not impossible. If PH can hit the following by-election targets, chances are there for PH to eke out a victory. These targets include:

  • Not letting turnout drop below 55%, especially among key Pakatan Harapan supporters
  • Achieving at least 70% of Chinese and Indian support
  • Increasing Malay and OA support from approximately 10% to at least 30%
  • Increasing early and postal voter support from approximately 10% to 40%

While PH was able to mostly achieve targets (i) and (ii), we were not able to get close to targets (iii) and (iv).

An analysis of the detailed results at the Polling District or Daerah Mengundi (DM) will show the relevant details. But first, we need to compare the summary figures for the by-election and for the 14th General Election (GE).

  1. Comparison of the By-Election versus GE14 Summary Figures

Table 1 below captures the salient figures comparing GE14 and the recent by-election.

Turnout fell by 9.7% from 78.5% to 68.8%, which is quite a good turnout for a by-election given that the other 4 by-elections post GE14 experienced an average fall in turnout of 37% compared to GE14.

BN’s increased its majority from 597 votes in GE14 to 3238 votes in the by-election and its % share of votes increased by 13.7% from 41.0% in GE14 to 54.7% in the by-election. This was caused mostly due to BN’s ability to work with PAS and to win most of the votes obtained by PAS in GE14 (approximately 14.3% of the total vote).

PH’s share of the popular vote actually increased slightly by 1.4% from 38.6% in GE14 to 40.% in the by-election.

Table 1: Summary Figures By-election versus GE14

  • Changes in Turnout by DM type

Although turnout decreased by 9.7%, the distribution of this drop in turnout was quite different according to the type of DM. For example, the drop in the turnout in the Chinese majority DMs was the highest at 14.5%. This was followed by the racially mixed DMs (comprising of Chinese and Indians in the majority) which fell by 11.1%. The fall in turnout in the Indian majority DMs was about 9.4% which mirrors the fall in overall turnout. The drop in voter turnout in Malay majority DMs was smaller, at 7.4%. Average turnout in the Orang Asli majority DMs actually INCREASED by 0.4%, which is probably a record achievement for a by-election (See Table 2 below).

Table 2: Average change in Turnout by Type of Daerah Mengundi, By-election versus GE14

The higher drop in the Chinese majority DMs can be explained by the fact that many outstation Chinese voters were less likely to make the trip back home to cast a vote because Chinese New Year is around the corner and most of these voters would prefer to return home during CNY rather than during the by-election. Some may also attribute the higher fall in turnout in Chinese majority DMs as being a reflection of the discontent among Chinese voters at the track record of the PH government post May 9th, 2018. Both are not mutually exclusive reasons.

While turnout in the Chinese majority DMs will surpassed the 55% target, turnout in the Indian majority DMs went down to approximately 51.7% while the turnout rate in the mixed DMs hovered closely to the target of 55%

The high turnout in OA majority DMs could be attributed to the higher probability that a higher % of OA voters live and work in the constituency (and hence, fewer outstation voters) and also the fact that an OA candidate is being fielded in a parliament seat for the very first time by any major party in the country.

The different turnout rates among the different communities has the effect of boosting the share of higher turnout voters as a proportion of the electorate (in this case, the OA and the Malay voters) and decreasing the share of the lower turnout voters in the electorate (in this case, the Chinese and the Indian voters). These turnout rates are favourable to the BN which enjoys higher support among the Malay and OA voters and are unfavourable to PH which enjoys higher support among Chinese and Indian voters.

  • Voting by DM Type

Interesting observations were detected when the changes in voting patterns by the type of DM is examined more closely. PH still managed to hold intact its support in the Chinese majority DMs, dropping just slightly from an average of 76.0% in GE14 to 73.8% in the by-elections, or a drop of 2.2%. PH support in the Indian majority DMs increased from 42.6% to 59.0% representing an increase of 16.4%. From the perspective of these results, PH was able to achieve a 70% support level (at least) among Chinese and also among the Indian voters in the by-election.

PH was able to increase its support in the OA majority DMs from 7.2% to 18.5% representing an increase of 11.3% but this was too far off from the 30-40% OA support which PH needed to have a chance of winning this seat. (See Table 3 below)

If there were any silver linings for PH in this by-election, it would be the small success it achieved in increasing its vote share in OA DMs such as Pos Lanai and Pos Titum from an abysmal 0.9% and 3.8% respectively in GE14 to 27.2% and 31.9% respectively in the by-election. But most of this increase in PH support in the OA DMs came from votes which went to PSM and to a smaller extent, PAS, in GE14 rather than from BN supporters switching their votes to PH. This is why the average support for the BN in the OA DMs hardly budged, at approximately 75% in the by-election (See Table 4 below).

PH was not able to make any significant headway in the Malay majority DMs, all of which are in the BN stronghold of Jelai, winning only an average of 9.6% of total votes in these DMs (See Table 8 below).

Table 3: Change in PH support by DM Type

For the BN, it was able to picked up some of PAS’s votes among the Malay community in the mixed DMs, increasing its vote share from an average of 33.2% to 41.8%, or an increase of 8.6%. But where BN really made a big leap was in the Malay majority DMs in Jelai where it increased its average vote share from 47.9% to 86.8%, or a whopping 38.9% increase! This means that almost all of the votes which were won by PAS in these DMs in GE14 were ‘transferred’ to the BN in the by-election (See Table 4 below).

Table 4: Change in BN support by DM Type

PH was very far from achieving the target of 30% support among the OA voters (effective support rate was closer to 20%) and even farther from reaching the 30% support among the Malay voters (still less than 10% in the by-election).

  • Postal and Early Votes

Of the 213 early votes cast in the CH by-election, PH was able to improve its performance by winning 17.7% of total votes compared to 2.3% in GE14, an increase of 15.4%. BN’s share of the early votes decreased from 86.8% in GE14 to 78.1% in the by-election but this was hardly enough to dent BN’s overall lead in early votes.

Of the 122 postal votes cast, 70.3% were won by the BN, an increase of 13.4% while PH experienced a 10% in postal voter support from 13.7% to 23.8%. Most of the PAS support from postal voters went to the BN in the by-election with PH getting the rest of the ‘transferred votes’ from PAS (See Table 5 below).

Table 5: Change in Postal and Early Voting Support, PH and BN, By-election vs GE14

Despite the change in government at the federal level and the fact that almost all of the early and postal voters are policemen, army personnel or civil servants, PH was not able to achieve the 40% level of support in the by-election.

  • Concluding thoughts and moving ahead

Hindsight, as many would know, is 20/20. Once it was clear that PH had failed to win the Cameron Highlands by-election, various reasons started being circulated, discussed and debated to explain PH’s poor performance. Without any systematic survey, it would be difficult to attribute any specific factors to the by-election results.

One thing, however, is clear. Just because PH is in power at the federal level, we cannot assume that there will be a natural shift in support towards the federal government among those groups who have been seen to be more reliant on the support provided by the federal government. This would include the Orang Asli communities and the FELDA settlers, two of the most important voting groups in Cameron Highlands. PH must work much harder and more systematically to win the hearts and minds of these voters. We have another 4 years and counting to take on the lessons learned from this by-election.

Dr. Ong is the Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant National Director for Political Education for the Democratic Action Party (DAP)


[1] https://ongkianming.com/2019/01/12/media-statement-the-first-major-electoral-test-for-pakatan-harapan-ph-is-to-win-the-cameron-highlands-by-election-despite-the-many-challenge