Opinion polls suddenly hot in Malaysia

By Reme Ahmad (Straits Times)

THE first time I heard about Merdeka Center for Opinion Research was just after the 2004 elections. The then-Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi had won big-time, and The Straits Times needed fresh analysts to give opinions rather than the same tired names.

A colleague found and began quoting the boss of Merdeka – Ibrahim Suffian, or Ben, as he is known to his friends and the media.

Since then, the name of the independent outfit based in Bangi, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, has kept growing with all manner of talked-about public polling. And while some may question how Merdeka could know the pulse of 27 million people by calling just 1,060 voters, or some such small sample size, most people accept the data as being unbiased and fair.

Last week, two events firmly brought polling and pollsters into the limelight of Malaysian politics – and possibly changed the way public policy issues might be decided in future.

It's becoming more likely that asking the public for its opinion on policy issues (referendum-like) will become a permanent feature of civil society in Malaysia. 

I sure hope so.

This is because in the past, the government sometimes steamrolled public opinion by saying things like: "This is what the rakyat (people) wants!" Or worse: "I don't care whether the public likes it, I know this policy is good for them."

Indeed, Malaysia is not the only country in the region that is seeing the entry of pollsters and public polling. The result of the July 8 Indonesian presidential elections was made known very quickly with the help of exit polls carried out by these polling companies. No one would have paid any attention to them if they had provided poor, inaccurate data previously.

Anyway, back to the two major events in Malaysia last week.

Event Number One:

Prime Minister Najib Razak's popularity was measured by a poll carried out by Merdeka. He scored 65 per cent from the public, compared to 46 per cent just a month-and-a-half ago. The poll became page one news in both the mainstream media and on the internet, for days.

And since Merdeka would have used scientific methods (like random sampling) for its polls, the results have been accepted as the truth.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad used his website to poll the public on what is called in Malaysia as PPSMI – the Malay initials for the policy of teaching math and science in English.

The government decided to scrap this policy after just six years and Dr Mahathir, the man behind the PPSMI, said he wanted to ask the rakyat themselves what they thought. A huge majority, around 85 per cent of 75,000 visitors, is against scrapping the policy. 

Of course, unlike Merdeka's survey, the polling on Mahathir's chedet.cc can be assumed to be less scientific. Why?

(a) His ardent supporters are the ones who visit his website, ie people who tend to agree with his views.

(b) The rule for this polling is one-man-one-vote. But even if there was an electronic block to prevent people from voting twice using the same machine, a person could actually vote at least three times. He can vote once in the office, another time using his home computer, and a third time using his laptop.

(c) Another reason why the voting could be considered un-scientific (ie random sampling): Only parents who are UNHAPPY with the government for scrapping PPSMI would most likely visit chedet.cc to register their anger. Those who are happy with PM Najib's decision may not or not bother to visit the site to click a vote.

(d) Additionally, only people with internet connections can vote. So people in the rural areas would be left out of this poll unlike the Merdeka polls which cover rural areas too.

This means that the results can be expected to be skewed towards those who wanted PPSMI to continue.

Still, for Malaysia, what was unearthed by the two polls was quite revolutionary. 

The polls set off debate about the Najib and PPSMI issues in coffee shops, and the internet version of coffee shops called blogs and chat forums. The polls showed that the rakyat has suddenly been given its voice on two important matter – how the government and its PM is doing, and their views on a key tenet of education policy.

No, this was not the first time Merdeka has made public the results of its polling. And no, this was not the first time that a prominent website had asked for public opinion through mouse clicks.

Also, the Malaysian government uses its feedback unit JASA, plus police and military intelligence to gauge public opinions.

But the fact remains that both Merdeka's and Dr Mahathir's polls, both independent of the government, generated much, much discussion. 

And so, I hope that public polling would soon be as regular as going to the ballot boxes to pick an MP and an assemblyman.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, this year's two elections have led to a boom for polling outfits too.

In the April 2009 legislative elections and July 2009 presidential polls, there was a big rise in the number of political consultants, pollsters, public-opinion gatherers and image-making companies.

Some of these pollsters were paid by the political parties, but still, the media has lapped up and legitimise the more independent-minded ones with reliable data.

For both the elections to pick their MPs and the President, a version of exit polls – called quick counts in Indonesia – were widely-used by the media and the political parties. The quick counts were carried out these pollsters and survey companies and they have often proven accurate.

Perhaps it is early days yet, but for sure sooner rather than later, the independent pollsters with regular accurate data will follow those in the US and Europe closely. 

If so, then whether in Malaysia or Indonesia, the winner is surely civil society.