For Malaysians, the more things change, the more they stay the same
May 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
I was born in Malaysia to a New Zealand father and a Chinese mother. That goes some way to explaining why I ended up in New Zealand after my early years growing up in Kuala Lumpur. Even today, the thought of the city fills me with the nostalgia for the country’s staggering diversity – of food, flora, and the people. I went to multi-racial international schools and had classmates from all of Malaysia’s ethnic precincts.
Many of them were, like me, Eurasian, representing a blend of local with the expats that worked and lived there as diplomats and imported foreign talent (like my father who worked as a journalist for the New Straits Times) or hybrids of the three main ethnic groups that make up Malaysia – Malay, Indian and Chinese.
It follows that race is a significant feature of the country’s politics. The indigenous Malay people dominate the politics of the country but the Indian and Chinese minorities are influential in the business sector – especially the Chinese who make up about 25 per cent of the population. Race is a feature of governing Malaysia that needs to be managed with care. The institutional advantages that constitutionally favour the Malays is resented by the other minorities, but successive governments deemed them necessary to head off Malay disenfranchisement and race conflict, as happened in 1969 when 196 people died.
The Kuala Lumpur of my childhood in the 1960s and 70s is hardly recognisable today. There haven’t been any more race riots and the patches of the city that match my memory blueprints are few. But some of the old city is still recognisable – remnants that survived the unremitting modernisation and development that assailed Malaysia in the 80s and 90s.
Chinatown and Little India are now thriving tourist attractions and the Central Market building which used to be a wet market, is now an arts market. While the famous tourist draw, the Batu Caves, has changed little, the city’s signature silhouette is now the 88 storey Petronas Twin Towers, built to represent a new and self-confident Malaysia.
Despite the country’s obvious prosperity, or perhaps because of it, the politics is also very different today. The Barisan Nasional (National Front) governments which are dominated by Malays have governed for 44 years. But that all started to change in 2008 when the opposition coalition began to make significant gains in local and national politics. The Patakan Rakyat coalition fed off the public anger about cronyism, corruption, disparities in wealth, and an electoral system that was heavily loaded in favour of the incumbent parties.
All the signs pointed to last Sunday’s general election being a close run thing and indeed it was. While Barisan Nasional has returned to power, it has been acutely embarrassed. It won 60 per cent of the seats but the opposition won the popular vote – 50.37 per cent to 47.38 per cent. Malaysians are now asking how can the winners claim to have won when by one significant yardstick, they lost the election.
There were many warnings in the lead up that the contest was shaping up to be an unfair one. Patakan Rakyat, led by the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, has been accusing the government for months of gerrymandering electoral boundaries.
It was also up against the government controlled news media which it says is severely compromised by an obvious bias towards government candidates. The opposition used social media and the internet to counter the mainstream media to good effect. Opposition websites like Malaysiakini have been providing a counterpoint to the government perspective for years now.
The opposition also claim the government had organised charter flights for 40 thousand voters to travel to mainland Malaysia from the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to shore up support in some electorates. These dubious voters were said to have been flown on the government owned national carrier, Malaysia Airlines. The government denies this and the electoral commission says the practice is permissible if it is paid and organised by private supporters.
On Election Day, there were also many accusations of electoral fraud. The indelible ink used on the index finger of a voter to indicate they had voted was found to wash off easily. The country’s electoral commission says that’s because the ink’s halal status – to make it acceptable to Muslims – compromised the strength of the ink.
There were also claims that many foreign migrant workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh or Indonesia had been issued with national identity cards and told to vote for the government. But at least one of these claims was found to be false when a photo of an ID card of an Indian looking man with a Chinese name circulated widely. A Singaporean pro-democracy blogger, Mr Brown, deleted a blog post, explaining “he is a real person and not a phantom voter”. It transpired that the voter in question had been adopted by an ethnic Chinese family.
A staggering 80 per cent of the 13 million eligible voters cast their votes in the Malaysian general election. It was a demonstration of how politically motivated Malaysians are now. It is also a manifestation of how a once passive electorate is becoming more rebellious. Young people, urbanites and most Chinese voted overwhelmingly for the opposition. The prime minister, Najib Razak, called it a ‘Chinese tsunami’ and some within the ethnic Malay UMNO party that dominates Barisan Nasional are playing the race card.
But a respected commentator and a former editor of the New Straits Times newspaper, A Kadir Jasin, rubbished the idea that the main swing away from the government came from Chinese voters. He says the shift in allegiance was reflected across all types of voters and points out that nearly three million young people were voting for the first time in their lives.
Is it not possible that this is not a Chinese tsunami or ethnic chauvinism but instead a Malaysian tsunami that is based on new aspirations and reality, especially among the young voters?
Things have now become very messy for the government and a restless thundercloud now hangs over the country. Two coalition partners have abandoned Barisan Nasional. To all intents and purposes, the government lost this election. Barisan Nasional has technically been elected to govern but morally, it has lost all credibility in the eyes of the majority of Malaysians.
The election watchdog, Bersih (Clean), says it is withholding recognition of the government to investigate claims of fraud. It is calling on members of the electoral commission to resign for failing to provide a clean and fair election. Other independent watchdogs say the election was not free and fair which the government claims, but was ‘seriously flawed’.
In the meantime, huge rallies are planned and the opposition will press the government to clean up the electoral system. Maybe proportional representation will become part of the agenda. Until the next election in 2018, Malaysia will continue to be a very polarised place and suddenly, the bucolic country I remember from my childhood seems very different.