Census: When The Counting Matters
“What about this one’s name? You want that too?” the pregnant housewife asked me, pointing at her abdomen. For a moment, I was speechless. Then, as she laughed, I realised it was meant to be a joke and, with a sheepish grin, said: “Of course, at the next census!”
The Population and Housing Census 1970 proved to be fun at work for me, as a 19-year-old census enumerator in Ipoh, and joy for my interviewees – the heads of households and family members.
The episode of the pregnant woman came to mind as I read about the ongoing Population and Housing Census 2020 and the somewhat cool response to the e-Census of gathering information online, given the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced restriction of people movement to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Back in 1970, information was readily forthcoming from the people, no matter their ethnicity. In fact, they went out of their way to make sure that the data collected was as accurate as possible.
When it came to recording names, they would provide the identity cards – the laminated card with a black-and-white photograph and thumbprints – and the paper birth certificates of all members of the household to avoid mistakes in the spelling.
It was totally face-to-face interviews back in 1970, unlike the Population and Housing Census 2020 which also comprises an online census or e-Census.
In 1970, besides the authority/identification card, enumerators were easily identified by, if I remember correctly, a green box folder. Practically, no further introduction was required due to the ‘banci’ (spelt banchi then) (census) promotions over radio and television.
“Banci, banci,” the children would cry out as I emerged from one house and went to the next. Sometimes they would tag along as well and go to the extent of calling out the household members even before I did so.
The doors of the houses were always open and the occupants were hospitable when they knew that it was a census enumerator who was calling on them.
I remember a teenage girl running out to me from her house and advising me to make sure that the identification tag was prominently displayed on my person (which was the case) because “my mother will chase away strangers”.
Some families even went to the extent of preparing tea for me (if it was that time of the afternoon) and the census interview was interspersed with small talk, albeit for a few moments.
Some invited me to stay for lunch as well but I had to politely decline as time was a precious commodity for me then, which they knew as well.
Except for some details such as names, relationship, gender and addresses, all other information was recorded by shading the relevant small rectangular boxes in the census form.
There were notes in the forms to remind us, enumerators, what to do and how to go about collecting the data. For example, one note went like this: A household is a group of people who live and eat together. You may therefore find there is more than one household in one living quarters. (There was, for sure.)
The listing order of the people in any living quarters was provided lest the enumerator forgets the sequence: head of household; wife of head; unmarried children of head; mother and father (and/or grandmother/father) of head or head’s spouse; brother, sister; other married couples and their children; married couples with no children present; other relatives of head; servants; and boarders.
In 1970, the Housing Census or listing of living quarters was conducted from July 27 to Aug 9 while the Population Census or population count was carried out from Aug 25 to Sept 7. Census Day was Aug 25.
The census then used the de facto concept, meaning all persons were enumerated at the place where they were physically on the night of Aug 25. This is in contrast to the de jure approach now being used, which means that everyone is counted on Census Day according to their usual place of residence.
In my opinion, the de jure approach should be more accurate in terms of enumeration. Under the de facto concept, people staying over at a relative’s house on Census Day would be counted there and not in their own home.
It took some convincing to make my interviewees understand how the enumeration was done under the de facto concept. Knowing that they will not remember who spent the night where on Census Day when I get around to them from Aug 25 to Sept 7 for the population count, I had to resort to giving them reminders.
One of these measures was to circle Aug 25 in their so-called kuda calendar (the large one which has the (horse) race days specified) if it was available and advising them to make a note of how many of their household members spent the night at home on that day. This was done during the listing of living quarters from July 27 to Aug 9.
Even then, the accuracy of the information was a matter of concern. It is not that the people wanted to give inaccurate information. They felt that all their household members must be counted wherever they may be on that day. Fortunately, like in any survey, the census too takes into account the margin of error.
After the listing of living quarters, it was found that my enumeration block had more than the usual number of living quarters and I had the assistance of another enumerator to do the population count.
He was Ahmad (not his real name), a retired government employee, who insisted on giving me a ride on his Vespa to and from the enumeration block after I had relied on my old faithful bicycle to transport me during the listing of the living quarters. I was most grateful to Ahmad for that.
Some of the information gathered, such as names, was extraordinary and sharing it here would have made for pleasant reading but such information is confidential and has to remain so, even after 50 years. (We enumerators had taken an oath to keep all information gathered confidential.)
My association with the Department of Statistics did not end with the Population and Housing Census 1970. I was also involved in an agriculture survey for several months in the following year, but that’s another story altogether.
Back to the present, Chief Statistician Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Uzir Mahidin said on Jan 29 that around 10 million residents (or 30.4 per cent of the 32.7 million Malaysian population) were recorded under the e-Census of the Population and Housing Census 2020 between July 7, 2020, and Jan 28, 2021.
He also said that a total of 3.3 million living quarters have been counted under the e-Census which was reopened in view of the COVID-19 pandemic that has prohibited face-to-face contact between enumerators and the people.
Mohd Uzir, who is also the Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2020 commissioner, said 320,000 households comprising 1.2 million residents who had registered for the e-Census have yet to complete it.
Advising Malaysians to complete their e-Census as soon as possible to reduce face-to-face contact, he said: “All residents are urged to participate in the Population and Housing Census 2020 to ensure that no one is left behind. The country’s success and the prosperous lives that we enjoy today are the results of information garnered from the previous censuses.
“Your information is strictly confidential. Your data is our future.”
M. Govind Nair is Bernama’s Special Projects Editor