KUALA LUMPUR — On most weekends, Sofia Tan – a 36-year-old designer of mixed ethnicity – can be spotted at one of the hip spots in the city.
Sofia, who holds a diploma in architecture from an expensive private college and hails from the posh suburb of Sri Hartamas, has no qualms admitting to taking alcohol or consuming “light recreational drugs” when she parties, and also keeps an open mind about casual sex.
But when asked if she considers herself socially liberal, Sofia paused, then replied: “Not really. My (social) stance maybe but my belief isn’t.”
Despite projecting herself as a cosmopolite, she considers herself a true Muslim.
Come May 9, Sofia will look to her faith for guidance when she casts her vote at the ballot box.
“I’m all for Malaysia being one… but everyone needs to remember and respect that we are an Islamic country and it is tanah Melayu (Malay land). In Islam, religion comes before everything else,” Sofia told Malay Mail.
Sofia is born to a Malay father and a Chinese mother. Her father, a former high-ranking civil servant, died when she was 15. Her mother has dedicated her life to volunteering at the local mosque.
As a voter, Sofia admitted she is open to supporting PAS in principle. Yet she also confessed her unwillingness to support the Islamists because the party lacked credibility.
Segambut is one of the 30 parliamentary constituencies nationwide with a Chinese majority. Malays (33 per cent or 75,631 total number of voters), Indians (12 per cent) according to 2013 electoral data, span from neighbourhoods like Taman Tun Dr Ismail to Sentul.
The forgotten community
Just 15km south of Sri Hartamas, a small community of mostly poor old Chinese folk deal with a different kind of class stereotype.
This community forms a small but visible minority among the highly mixed residents of the San Peng public project housing (PPR) flats, the second oldest city council housing here. They are also likely among the lowest-earning Chinese in the country.
One of them, a 57-year-old pau seller by the name of Siao feels he and his neighbours have less access to welfare or state aid compared to their Malay neighbours.
“I sell pau for a living and I make around RM1,000 or RM1,500 on a good month. If I want to expand my business I am not entitled to any state loans,” the father of two said.
Like all those in his income tier, Siao is a recipient of the 1Malaysia Cash Aid (BR1M), a federal intervention programme that gives cash to households and singles earning less than RM4,000 and RM1,500 a month.
He also gets money from his two children, both of whom work as retail assistants in nearby malls.
“I wanted a good education for them and because they can’t go to public universities, they end up having to work after school,” he added.
The Chinese suffer the largest intra-race income disparity even as ethnic bumiputera make up the most households in the bottom 40 per cent (B40), according to official government data.
Bumiputera households account for 44.7 per cent of the B40 group, followed by Indians at 38.71 per cent, and Chinese at 28.02 per cent.
Constituencies like Cheras and Bukit Bintang, where the San Peng flats are located, are home to many of the city’s Chinese poor and working class.
The plight facing the city’s poor Chinese has also given rise to perceptions that they are fervently anti-government, or are DAP supporters. But Siao disagreed, saying Chinese support for the Opposition is not linked to race alone.
Indian and lesbian
As a 27-year-old Indian lesbian from Jalan Ipoh, Sentul, Syam deals with social persecution daily. Her sexuality is frownedupon by some within her family and she is ostracised by her community.
The graphic designer comes from a lower-middle income family. Her parents are devout Hindus with strict traditional values. But for Syam, May 9 will see her vote to achieve ideals different from the conventional needs of her family and community.
“I want my own life to improve,” said the soft-spoken woman.
“That means I want my rights as a member of the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders) community to be respected, to be protected.”
Syam likely represents a minority among the country’s three million Indians, but underscores the growing exposure to intellectual ideals otherwise unheard of within a community dogged by poverty and the lack of access to education.
Malaysian Indians have the lowest social mobility, according to the Climbing the Ladder: Socio-economic Mobility in Malaysia report published by think tank Khazanah Research Institute in 2016.
Syam is a voter within the Batu parliamentary seat, a large constituency that spans mostly middle- and working-class neighbourhoods. It is also home to some of the city’s poorest people, most of whom are public flats renters or illegal squatters.
Batu had 85,000 registered voters in 2013 and Indians make up 16 per cent of the electorate. Malays, mostly middle and working class, are the majority at 44 per cent followed by the Chinese (38 per cent).
But as much as the economy is important to her and the well-being of her community, Syam felt the fight to earn a dignified place in society is more pressing for the simple reason that LGBTs from the Indian community have been the worst victims of hate crimes.
“No other race has had people murdered because they are gays or perceived to be soft. LGBT Indians have died just because they’re different,” she said.