Every four or five years since they won independence from British rule in 1957, Malaysians have shuffled off to the polls. Every four or five years, they have woken up the next morning with the status quo intact. The country’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, has been in power for every one of the past 56 years.
Malaysia goes to the polls again on Sunday. But many of the country’s citizens are buoyed by an unfamiliar sentiment: hope for change.
In the past six years, many previously apathetic Malaysians have been politically galvanised largely by two things — the internet, which provides an unregulated forum for opposition, in stark contrast to the neutered mainstream media; and the efforts of Bersih, a non-governmental organisation preaching electoral reform that has organised three hugely successful rallies, some in the face of heavy-handed reactions from the authorities.
These contributed to the results of the 2008 election, in which Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time, along with its often-exercised power to make unilateral amendments to the constitution. Next week it may lose more still, in an election expected to be the tightest in Malaysia’s history.
Rumbles of dissatisfaction have grown loud in the 15 years since Anwar Ibrahim, now the leader of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, served jail time and a decade-long ban from politics after a trumped-up sodomy conviction. Anwar was ousted from his position as then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy; his calls for reform, and the word itself, were turned into a slur against the government. This was reasonably successful — in a country that has only had one government and a chokehold on the media, supporting the opposition is tantamount to treason.
Online, however, the tales of corruption and abuse of power that never made it into the local papers grew into tangible, pointed coverage. Current Prime Minister Najib Razak has faced continued allegations and international attention regarding his involvement in the murder of a Mongolian socialite. The family of Taib Mahmud, the Barisan Nasional-loyal chief minister of Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, has allegedly been profiting from under-the-table dealings for decades. Teoh Beng Hock, a journalist and opposition political aide, died under highly suspicious circumstances. Gerrymandering is rife.
While the scandals make headlines, many Malaysians also speak of a constant stream of frustrations — from the endemic corruption that resulted in the country being ranked third in the world in terms of illicit capital outflows, to a sharp rise in crime rates — and the populace has grown more invested and interested in politics than ever before.
These aren’t just younger Malaysians. There will be 2.6 million first-time voters on Sunday, up from 638,000 new voters in 2008, a sizeable increase in a country where voting is not compulsory. Some are old, some are not, but most are better informed and more vocal than the generations that preceded them. Responding to public pressure, Malaysia has opened up postal voting to all eligible citizens living overseas. Previously available to only a select few, the million or so Malayians living overseas were able to have their say on April 28.
In Melbourne, home to the largest Malaysian community in Australia, about 1700 Malaysians registered to vote at the consulate on St Kilda Road. Some queued for hours, or travelled to the other consulates in Perth and Canberra; one man flew from Sydney to Perth to vote because of a mix-up on the electoral roll.
There are an abundance of Facebook and YouTube postings from Malaysians abroad travelling home to vote and exhorting others to do so. The government’s unsubtle efforts to purchase votes have also been enshrined on social media — anonymous texts and pre-recorded phone calls urging support for Barisan Nasional, cash handouts, and a performance by Korean superstar PSY that ended up as a public embarassment for Najib.
More recently, there have been accusations that illegal immigrants have received citizenship on the condition they vote the government back in to power. The latter carries with it the unsavoury undertone of racial prejudice that still haunts Malaysian politics — there are Right-leaning elements in both the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat coalitions, and tit-for-tat social media campaigns pointing this out have done neither side any favours. Also worrying was an explosion at a Barisan Nasional operations centre that injured one person.
Still, more prosaic concerns over Sunday’s elections remain — lingering fears over tampered ballots, phantom voters, and that new favourite national oxymoron, delible indelible ink. The opposition has called for reform, away from cronyism and corruption. The government has tweaked draconian internal security and media laws.
Come Monday, Malaysians will have decided what flavour of change they desire.