1. Background

From August 29th – August 30th a rally entitled ‘Bersih 4’ was held on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and other locations globally.

The demands of the rally were for Prime Minister Najib Razak to step down and a transitional government to be formed. This government would need to implement 10 institutional reforms within the next 18 months to ensure the next General Election would be conducted in a clean, free and fair manner:

  1. Reform of electoral system and process
  2. Reform of the Election Commission (EC)
  3. Separation of Prime Minister and Finance Minister
  4. Parliamentary Reform
  5. Separation of the functions of Attorney General and Director of Public Prosecution
  6. Reform of the MACC
  7. Freedom of Information laws
  8. Asset declaration by Ministers and senior state officials
  9. Abolishment of/Amendment to draconian laws
  10. Establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC)

During the first day of the rally the race of the participants in Kuala Lumpur was raised as an issue by the media and by social media users. It was clear that the majority of the protesters were ethnically Chinese. The ethnic majority was also reported by Malaysiakini [1], Utusan Malaysia [2] and Berita Harian [3].

By our own estimates, 79,919 – 108,125 people attended the Kuala Lumpur rally over the 2-day period. Based on photographs seen during our crowd estimation, we would roughly estimate that 60% – 80% of the protesters were ethnically Chinese.

The race of the protesters became an issue due to media reports and Bersih 4 supporters and detractors highlighting the race of the protesters. This provoked a response by users on Twitter as they tweeted their own opinions on the rally.

2. Our Analysis

We performed opinion-based analysis on 500 users based in Peninsular Malaysia who tweeted about Bersih 4 (and related terms), race (e.g. ‘Melayu’, ‘Cina’, ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’), racism and related terms from August 29th – September 2nd 2015. The margin of error is +/- 4.38%.

Users were selected based on their tweet content and activity during this period. Sampling was done per-state based on the current estimated user population.

Spammers, news agencies and accounts with automated tweets were not included in the sample.

Users who were only observing the number of Chinese present were not included in the sample. This was because we wanted to gauge their opinion on the Chinese majority and whether it was an issue to them.

From this dataset we analysed the individual Twitter user timelines to determine their opinion. This took their tweets, retweets and conversations into account.

One issue we encountered was a lack of users in East Malaysia tweeting about Bersih 4 and racial terms. Both sets of data were too limited to consider using for analysis. For this analysis we only focused on users in Peninsular Malaysia.

Our goal was to gauge the response by Twitter users in Peninsular Malaysia to the race of protesters at the Bersih 4 rally in Kuala Lumpur. Was the race of protesters really an issue, and if so, why?

Based on this analysis we categorised users as belonging to one of the following categories:

  1. Race Was An Issue
  2. Race Was Not An Issue

These were further divided into the following categories:

  1. Race Issue (Too Many Chinese)
  2. Race Issue (Fearful of Chinese Gaining Power)
  3. No Race Issue (Non-issue)
  4. No Race Issue (We Are All Malaysians)

The results are shown in the following charts.



Category Users (%)
Race Was An Issue 222 44.40
Race Was Not An Issue 278 55.60


Individual Category Breakdown


Category Users (%)
Race Issue (Too Many Chinese) 109 21.80
Race Issue (Fearful of Chinese Gaining Power) 113 22.60
No Race Issue (Non-issue) 206 41.20
No Race Issue (We Are All Malaysians) 72 14.40


3. Findings

What follows are the findings for each category. It is important to note that both supporters and detractors of Bersih 4 can be found in every category.

3.1 Race Issue (Too Many Chinese)

109 users (21.80%)

  • 76 male (69.72% of this category)
  • 29 female (26.61% of this category)
  • 4 unknown

These users expressed concern about the number of Chinese at the protest. Disappointment, complaints and fear were among the most common concerns. The ethnic composition was not considered to be reflective of Malaysia’s population.

This also affected some users’ perception of Bersih 4’s cause as it became perceived as a Chinese-led movement. Exaggerated reports on the numbers of protesters (100 thousand – 200 thousand) likely fuelled this sense of alarm.

The following opinions were also expressed by a subset of this group:

  • 23 users (4.6% of the total) were offended by the rude behaviour of Chinese protesters stepping on a photograph of Najib Razak and Hadi Awang. This was interpreted by some Malay users as an insult to Malays. A few users questioned why nothing was done to stop this act from continuing once it started.
  • 22 users (4.4% of the total) complained about the lack of Malays at the event. Some of these complaints were very critical, particularly of Malays who supported Bersih online but didn’t make the effort to come.

3.2 Race Issue (Fearful of Chinese Gaining Power)

113 users (22.60%)

  • 64 male (56.64% of this category)
  • 46 female (40.71% of this category)
  • 3 unknown

These users were concerned about the number of Chinese at the protest (as above) and specifically expressed fears of the Chinese community gaining too much political power; planning to control the government; or using Bersih to push their own agenda.

The following opinions/sentiments were the most popularly expressed by this group:

  • Feeling glad that Malays did not join in significant numbers, which would make it easier for Chinese to pursue their goals
  • Large percentage of Chinese at Bersih 4 proves that Malays are becoming more aware of the Chinese agenda
  • Pity for Malays who were manipulated by Chinese into attending
  • Belief that the Chinese control the economy already so they shouldn’t take control of the government too
  • Concerns about the DAP taking over the government
  • Concerns about Malay/Bumiputera rights and Muslim rights being affected if too much support is given to Bersih/Chinese community
  • Criticism of Bersih being led by non-Muslim leaders
  • Opinions that images of Chinese offering water for Muslim ablutions were staged to inspire trust from the Malay community
  • Reminding others that Chinese are on our side now (in pressuring Najib to resign) but they need to be watched to ensure they don’t take away our (Malay) rights or threaten Islam
  • Concerns that Malays in Malaysia may one day end up marginalised like Malays in Singapore

3.3 No Race Issue (Non-issue)

206 users (41.20%)

  • 146 male (70.87% of this category)
  • 53 female (25.73% of this category)
  • 7 unknown

These users did not consider the race of protesters to be an issue.

The following opinions/sentiments were the most popularly expressed by this group:

  • There were Malays/Indians/other ethnic groups at Bersih. Their presence (regardless of the small number) meant race was a non-issue.
  • There are Malays who would go if it wasn’t for government threats of action against civil servants and university students who attended
  • We shouldn’t focus our discussions so much on race and instead focus on the issues raised by Bersih
  • Considered the behaviour of non-Muslims by keeping quiet or offering water for ablutions while Muslims were performing their prayers was reflective of racial harmony
  • Views that Chinese cannot become Prime Minister/Deputy Prime Minister (because it is unrealistic or against the Constitution) so there’s nothing to worry about

3.4 No Race Issue (We Are All Malaysians)

72 users (14.40%)

  • 52 male (72.22% of this category)
  • 20 female (27.78% of this category)
  • 0 unknown

These users did not consider the race of protesters to be an issue because ‘we are all Malaysians’ or ‘we are one people’.

4. Additional Opinions

Users tweeting about Bersih and race also expressed the following opinions/sentiments on related topics. This listing was summarised based on a manual reading of a sample of 4,542 users in Malaysia, inclusive of the sample used for the above analysis.

These expressions are not indicative of their views on the issue of race at Bersih 4, but we are including it here for informative reasons.

4.1 Opinions on Bersih

Expression of support for Bersih because:

  • They want the Prime Minister to step down
  • They support anti-corruption
  • They support Bersih’s goal of changing the government
  • They support people’s right to protest

Expressions of disapproval of Bersih because:

  • Protesting through street demos is not right (not our culture)
  • Fear of rioting and chaos in the streets as what happened in previous demonstrations
  • Don’t support Bersih’s goal for Najib to resign/change the government
  • Don’t see the benefit of having a street protest as it achieves nothing
  • Views that Bersih is a Chinese / Non-Muslim protest, therefore it should not be supported
  • Inappropriate to hold the rally near Merdeka Day

Other views related to Bersih:

  • Disagreed with Bersih’s goals but did support their right to protest
  • Wanted Najib to step down, but did not support street protests
  • Wanted Najib to step down, but preferred to wait until the next GE
  • Wanted Najib to step down, but UMNO to remain in power
  • Supported Bersih but did not support the Opposition parties
  • Surprise by a few Malay users who attended the rally because many non-Malays wanted to take pictures with them. Their celebrity status was likely due to the low number of Malays at the rally.
  • Mislabelling of Orang Asli at the rally as foreigners
  • Criticism of the LGBT flag carried by protesters during the rally

4.2 Use of racial terms

Racial terms were used in a variety of ways. Among the most common uses we saw were users referring to friends and other people by their race. For example:

  • Instead of ‘man’, they say ‘Chinese man’
  • Instead of ‘man’, ’woman’ or ‘person’, they say ‘Orang cina’ (Chinese person). This removes the gender identifier. In some cases ‘orang’ was dropped and only ‘cina’ or ‘melayu’ was used to refer to individuals.
  • Instead of ‘shop’ (kedai), they say ‘Kedai cina’ or ‘Kedai melayu’

The use of race labels often did not add context to the story they were telling. Such labels were not always used in a negative way. It is safe to say that specifying the race of persons is the normal practice in how users describe experiences and opinions. Ethnic slurs such as ‘sepet’ or ‘keling’ were very rarely used.

Users also wrote tweets perpetuating racial stereotypes, the most popular being:

  • Malays often come late for meetings
  • Malays are unreliable workers / don’t deliver
  • Malays don’t help each other enough in business
  • (all) Chinese own businesses or are involved in some family business
  • Chinese study hard
  • Chinese help their own race more

Another point of interest was the usage of the term ‘Tanah Melayu’. Most users during this period used it to refer to Peninsular Malaysia because of the National Day celebrations on August 31st. The phrase ‘Hari Merdeka Tanah Melayu’ was used to differentiate it from Malaysia Day on September 16th.

However we did observe that Tanah Melayu was also being used to refer to the entire country. This was used as a justification for racial remarks against non-Malays e.g. ‘Tanah Melayu belongs to Malays, so non-Malays need to be careful’.

We don’t know how common this application of the phrase is, but referring to Malaysia as Tanah Melayu would make it easier for influential people to push a pro-Malay agenda.

4.3 Opinions on race

The following opinions/sentiments were expressed in relation to race:

  • Criticism by Malay users of the Malay obsession of judging/criticising other Malays
  • Malays cannot advance if we keep obsessing about race
  • Criticism of the Malay community for continuing to support UMNO. This was balanced out by other users expressing support for UMNO
  • Belief that the Chinese community dominate/control the economy/business sector
  • Concerns about Chinese gaining too much influence/power. This was general sentiment that was not directly related to Bersih.
  • Disappointment in the Malay community (by Bahasa Malaysia speakers) because they are divided, unlike the Chinese community that is united. This applied to political issues and business
  • Calls for Malays to unite to prevent others (non-Malays) from having too much power
  • Reminders to Malays that they should help their own community by buying from Malay-owned businesses or hiring Malay contractors
  • Complaints by Malay users of Chinese people speaking to them in a Chinese dialect instead of a language that they understood. Some of these incidents were due to Malays being mistaken for Chinese
  • Frequent complaints about a double standard being perpetuated: Malays criticising Chinese are called racists whereas Chinese criticising Malays are exercising free speech
  • Criticism of Chinese for not attending Merdeka Day parades each year
  • Criticism of Malays praying in the street when there are mosques nearby

5. About the Population Sample

The results reflect a young male-dominant demographic, by our estimates to be between 18 – 30 years old. The breakdown by gender is:

  • 67.6% male
  • 29.6% female
  • 2.8% unknown


Users were predominantly Bahasa Malaysia speakers:

  • 77% Bahasa Malaysia speakers
  • 19% English speakers
  • 4% Bilingual speakers


Based on Facebook statistics that we previously published, 62.30% of Facebook users in Malaysia interested in Bersih are male and 36.07% are female.

Our sample which is based on Twitter users sharing opinions on the race of people at the Bersih rally has a similar gender ratio. It can’t be directly compared with the Facebook statistics as our sample is a subset of all users tweeting about Bersih. However the similarity does imply that Bersih drew more interest from men in both Facebook and Twitter.

6. Division of Opinions by Gender

The following table lists the number of users belonging in each category by gender.

Category Users M F Unknown M (%) F (%)
Race Issue (Too Many Chinese) 109 76 29 4 69.72 26.61
Race Issue (Fearful of Chinese Gaining Power) 113 64 46 3 56.64 40.71
No Race Issue (Non-issue) 206 146 53 7 70.87 25.73
No Race Issue (We Are All Malaysians) 72 52 20 0 72.22 27.78














One point worth noting is the high percentage of women who expressed fear of Chinese gaining power. This was a pattern we noticed as well in the manual reading of the sample of 4,542 users. Women were more likely to express concerns about the Chinese gaining power. Based on their names, appearance and how they expressed themselves we can estimate that the large majority of these women were Malay.

7. Scale of Importance on Twitter

This network graph shows how Twitter users in Malaysia tweeting about Malays and Chinese from August 29th – September 2nd were connected. This is limited to users that we have identified who retweeted or had conversations with each other. Not all users are tweeting about Bersih, and not all mentions of race are racist in nature. This graph helps visualise the scale of the conversation on race.


There are 22,796 users with 28,518 connections in this graph. Each user is represented by a node (circle) that is coloured based on the number of their tweets that were retweeted and the number of tweets sent to them. The more attention they receive, the larger the node. Any node that retweets another node or tweets to another node is connected.

Nodes are positioned based on their connections to other nodes – strong connections pull them closer. Large nodes are considered influential within the network. We have coloured the nodes based on a scale of blue (least influential) to green; yellow; orange; red; and purple (most influential).

What is worth highlighting is the large outer ring consisting of pairs of users. These are the personal conversations about race that people were having during this period.

8. Conclusion

The analysis indicates that a slim majority of 55.6% of Twitter users in Peninsular Malaysia found race to be a non-issue during the Bersih 4 rally in Kuala Lumpur.

Only 14.4% of users found it to be a non-issue because protesters were Malaysians. The common use of racial terms in describing people combined with this low percentage shows how important race is to the youth.

Reports of the high percentage of Chinese protesters at the rally did influence opinions about Bersih’s cause. The racial mind-set among the users caused them to factor in the race of Bersih 4 protesters when evaluating Bersih’s goals. If the crowd had been more ethnically mixed this could have been avoided.

The well-publicised behaviour of Chinese protesters stepping on the photograph of Najib Razak and Hadi Awang also made an impact. Having rally monitors intervene when such acts occur would help reduce backlash in future rallies.

The belief that the Chinese community control the largest share of the economy is still strong among users, particularly Bahasa Malaysia speakers. 22.6% of the total users expressed genuine concern about Chinese gaining political power, due to fears that Malay/Bumiputera/Muslim rights will be affected in future. The other 21.8% were concerned about the number of Chinese.

While fear of the Chinese community gaining power is real, the phrases ‘Cina DAP’, ‘DAP Chinese’ and ‘DAPig’ in reference to the protesters did not gain traction among users. There were more users responding negatively to such phrases than users supporting or promoting its usage. Negative feedback was due to the phrases being illogical (not all Chinese are DAP members) or hateful. Both Bersih supporters and detractors could be found giving negative feedback.

50.7% of the female users found race to be an issue and 40.7% of users concerned about Chinese gaining power were women. This trend among women even in the larger dataset examined implies that young Malay women will be harder for Chinese-based Opposition parties to win over.

This applies not just to the DAP but their partners within the Opposition as long as the DAP is perceived as a Chinese-based party with a strong influence.

Generally speaking, users who found race to be an issue at Bersih 4 or were concerned about Chinese gaining power were not racist in the sense that they openly hated Chinese or wished harm on the Chinese community.

Their opinions are influenced by fear, distrust and the belief that Malays and Chinese must play certain roles in our society. Whether this will change with time remains an open question.

9. Location of users

Based on geo-tagged tweets, we are able to determine where users often tweet from. This is indicative of where they spend most of their time e.g. work-place, university or residence.

Blue markers = Race Was Not An Issue; Red markers = Race Was An Issue

9.1 West Malaysia


10. References

[1] (2015, August 29) Racial Imbalance, predominantly Chinese at rally. Malaysiakini. Retrieved from http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/310400

[2] Bakar, Z. (2015, August 30) DAP kuasai perhimpunan haram. Mingguan Malaysia.

[3] Wartawan BH. (2015, August 30)Bersih 4 gagal capai matlamat. Berita Harian.

Published On: October 8th, 2015 / Categories: Analyses / Tags: , , , , , , , , /