Kuala Lumpur, 24 March 2017 – The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) today released its first ever national survey on the level of public understanding and attitude towards liberalism in politics, economics and social issues. Among the main findings of the survey was that:

  • Even though the word liberalism is widely used by many people in public debates, the majority of of our population have very little understanding about what it actually means
  • When the word ‘liberalism’ was not used, the majority were actually supportive of many liberal practices.
  • Despite the loud shouting by some, only a small minority actually opposes liberalism.

At an event today to announce the findings from the national survey,  IDEAS Chief Executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan outlined the following:

General understanding

  1. Only 51 percent of the population said that they have heard about liberalism with the rest saying they have not heard it or they are unsure.  The higher the level of income, the more likely it is that they have heard about liberalism, with 76 percent of those in top 20 percent income bracket saying they have heard about it.  However, access to the internet is an important factor because 66 percent of those who do not have access to the internet says they have not heard about liberalism.  It is therefore likely those who are in the lower income brackets and with no access to the internet would not have heard about liberalism and therefore have very little proper understanding about it.
  1. A great majority (78 percent) admitted that they are either unsure or do not understand liberalism at all.  Only 17 percent of Malays and Muslims say they understand what liberalism is.  An astonishing 81 percent of those under the age 40, and 72 percent of those above 40 years old admitted they do not understand liberalism.
  1. When asked to explain what liberalism means, 55 percent of the total said that they are unsure.  When this is further broken down, 64 percent of Muslims and 43 percent of non-Muslims say they are unsure.
  1. Despite the very loud and vocal opposition against liberalism, only a minority of 13 percent Non-Muslim and 29 percent Muslims think liberalism is a bad concept for Malaysia.  The majority is unsure or think it is good.  The main reason for saying it is bad is that liberalism is assumed to be detrimental to religion, particularly Islam.
  1. From those who said that liberalism is bad, 20 percent say they are unsure why they feel it is bad.
  1. When we used different terminologies to describe elements of liberalism, we found that a huge percentage actually support the ideas.  This is further explained below when we look into specific elements of political liberalism, social liberalism and economic liberalism.  This begs the question if the disagreement shown by the minority is caused by a lack of understanding of the meaning of the word, as when we did not explicitly use the word ‘liberalism’, the responses became more positive towards liberal practices.

Understanding on political liberalism

  1. 84 percent supports electoral democracy, including free and fair elections.  77 percent believes Malaysia is ready for freedom of speech and free media.  And overwhelming 91 percent believes that rule of law must be upheld.
  1. But the confusion became apparent when we tested their understanding by asking if they support an illiberal law like the Sedition Act.  Here the answers became more divided, with a majority (60 percent) saying they want to keep the illiberal Sedition Act to ensure peace and stability.  An overwhelming 76 percent of Malays want to keep the Sedition Act.
  1. The different response that we received on the question on Sedition Act highlights the still inconsistent understanding towards liberalism as a philosophy.

Understanding on social liberalism

  1. 65 percent believes we should have the freedom to choose how to live our lives.  84 percent feels there should not be limitation to individual liberty unless the person is physically harming others.  And 65 percent believes no one has the right to impose their way of life on others.
  1. But there is a similar confusion when we tested their understanding by asking whether they believe the government should control the citizens in order to protect Malaysia’s “culture, values and traditions.”  74 percent says the government should control the population.  The highest is among Bumiputras.  87 percent of Malays feel the government should control the citizens, followed by 94 percent pf Malay Bumiputras, followed by 81 percent of Non-Malay Bumiputras.  87 percent of Indians also feel that the government should control the population.  A high percentage of 86 percent of those who work in the government feels the government should control the citizens.
  1. The different response that we received on the test question on government control highlights inconsistent understanding, similar to political liberalism above.
  1. The attitude of Malay Muslim respondents deserves to be highlighted.  57 percent of Malays feel that they should not have the freedom to choose how to live their lives.  And when asked whether they agree that no one has the right to impose their way of life on others, the opinion was split with half saying they agree and the other half disagree.

Understanding on economic liberalism

  1. The opinion on economic liberalism is more diverse.  40 percent feel there should be a bigger government role in the economy.  50 percent feels there should be a more liberal environment with less government in the economy.
  1. A larger proportion of the Malays (49 percent) and Chinese (55 percent) feel that a smaller government in the economy would be more beneficial.  A disproportionate 64 percent of Indians feel that bigger government in the economy is better.
  1. Interestingly, and perhaps naturally, a majority (51 percent) of those who work in government or GLCs feel that more government is good.  This is countered by 53 percent of those in the private sector and 55 percent of those who are self-employed feeling that less government is better.
  1. Support for open and liberalised economy is lower at just 37 percent.  A majority (54 percent) still believes that a protectionist economy is better.  A majority of Malays (59 percent) and Indians (74 percent) believe that protectionism is better.  While among the ethnic Chinese, only 37 percent wants protectionism.
  1. A high 67 percent of those who work in government or GLCs believe that protectionism is better.


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For media enquiries contact Shaza Onn (E: shaza@ideas.org.my M: +6 013 244 9369)



Download survey result here

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