By Debra Chong
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 27 — By a small margin, Malaysians think opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would make a better prime minister compared with Datuk Seri Najib Razak, according to a survey conducted recently by the independent Merdeka Centre.
In the same survey, Malaysians also appear more divided than ever over their support for the country's political leadership.
There are also sharp differences in preferences between the different races, with a majority of non-Malays supporting Anwar, while more Malays preferred Najib.
Between Sept 11 and 22, Merdeka Centre carried out a leadership performance perception on a cross section of 1,002 people of voting age from the three main ethnic communities in the country.
Among the questions asked was: "Between Najib Razak and Anwar Ibrahim, who do you think makes a better prime minister?"
Najib garnered a 33.8 per cent average total support among the three major races. Anwar edged him by a margin of less than six per cent — he garnered an average total of 39.3 per cent.
The difference is more conspicuous when the show of support is broken down according to the ethnicity of those polled.
The split was apparent among racial lines, with Najib drawing as much as 47.3 per cent support from the Malay community. Anwar trailed with just 32.5 per cent.
The opposition leader gained greater support among non-Malays, receiving the support of 37.4 per cent of Chinese voters and a whopping 85 per cent from the Indians.
In comparison, Najib only won the approval of 18.4 per cent of Chinese voters and just five per cent of Indians thought he would make a better prime minister.
Of note was the high percentage of voters who remained non-commital. More than 40 per cent of Chinese voters polled expressed no preference.
Based on the poll results, Malay support for Najib is significantly stronger than that for Anwar.
Political analyst Tricia Yeoh says the party factor is a very strong featuring factor with the non-Malay communities.
"It is possible they view Najib as continuing to perpetuate the same kind of politics that has plagued Malaysia through Umno," she said.
"Anwar will need to fight for Malay support most prominently since Najib may continue to be seen as the final bastion of support for the Malay position," she added.
Another political analyst, Khoo Kay Peng, sees it differently.
"No doubt Najib commands higher support among the Malay community because of the status of Umno as a Malay party. It has been representing the Malays for a long time. But at 47.3 per cent, the support is not really very high for Najib. It's not much off Abdullah's support," he said.
Based on the same Merdeka Centre report, Abdullah still enjoys 50.7 per cent support from the Malays.
"The key is that Najib does not get much support from the Chinese and Indians. Najib is still seen as a Malay leader.
"If you want to be the prime minister, you must have support from across the board," he said.
"Anwar stands a much better chance because he gets support from over 30 per cent of the Chinese and the Indians, predominantly from the Indians, which is consistent with past reports," he pointed out.
In a toss up between who will become the next prime minister, he felt it would definitely be Anwar.
But for Khalid Samad, the Pas MP for Shah Alam and an ally of Anwar, the results are frightening for the Pakatan Rakyat alliance.
He said the results of the survey showed government media propaganda still held sway, especially among the rural Malays.
He is concerned that much of the Malay media has portrayed a negative impression of Anwar as being an "immoral guy" and being a stooge of the United States.
"Basically, Umno-Barisan Nasional has been quite successful in conning Malays into believing that Anwar is selling out the Malays and that is the reason for the low percentage of support for Anwar," said Khalid.
"These are not very encouraging results if it is representative of the entire population. It means there is a problem. Anwar will have to work harder.
"It's important he should have at least a 50-50 situation among Malays. That would suffice," he stressed.
But he does not think that the sample poll is a true reflection of the voting populace.
"I don't think that Anwar in the actual situation is that far behind Najib. I would expect 47 per cent for Najib and 45 per cent for Anwar.
"The difference, almost 15 per cent difference in support from Malays, gives the impression that if Pakatan Rakyat comes to power, the position of the Malays will be jeopardised.
"But no one race will lose out under Pakatan leadership," he said.