Malaysia Elections: A Paradigm Shift?

In 2013 election, for the first time ever, the grip on power of the National Front (Barisan Nasional – BN), the coalition that has ruled the country for several decades, was on the brink of collapse.

On the other hand, the Peoples’ Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat – PR) – a three-party coalition formed by the People’s Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party’ was poised to take control of the Malaysian parliament.

On Election Day, however, things went rather differently. The voter turnout was a record 85 per cent of the 13.6 million registered voters. The opposition claimed people went to the polls because they are hungry for change, yet the Barisan Nasional was once again the winner.

Narrowing the Gap
For decades, elections in Malaysia have been nothing but a smoke screen because the election laws look and feel democratic, while, at the very core, are authoritarian. The National Front has won every general election since 1957 thanks to, among other things, favourable constitutional reforms, media control, electoral fraud and strong influence on the electoral commission.

 Malaysia’s 2013 general elections have come and gone. The elections  promised to be the most exciting electoral race since the country’s independence from Britain in 1957.
 Despite the National Front clout on Malaysian politics, in the last two elections, the opposition has succeeded in narrowing the gap. In the 2008 elections, the National Front was unable to retain its two-thirds majority in the parliament ‘an essential prerequisite to amend the constitution. The BN won 140 seats, as the remaining 82 went to the opposition. The PR coalition was also able to secure control in five of Malaysia’s thirteen states. This trend has continued this year: the BN won, but for the second time in a row it failed to secure the two-third majority. The ruling coalition took 133 parliamentary seats, while the opposition increased its tally to 89.

More than half of the BN seats came from rural states whereas the majority of urbanites preferred the opposition parties. This seemed especially true for the ethnic Chinese which account for about 25 per cent of the Malaysian population and live mainly in urban areas. This time, they voted, mainly, for Democratic Action Party – a member of the PR coalition – which increased its seats. Prime Minister Najib spoke of a ‘Chinese tsunami’ but this tsunami was triggered by the government’s highly divisive policies on affirmative action.

Furthermore, the Barisan Nasional failed, unprecedentedly, to get majority in the popular vote. This year, the BN couldn’t convince more than 46.6 per cent of the voters.

The many years of tinkering with the electoral district boundaries and the electoral laws means that the PR came home with less parliamentary seats than the BN. Still the results are an important reminder of the declining popularity of Najib Razak’s government.

Media: Traditional vs. New
Most of Malaysia’s traditional national media is owned by or associated with people close to the ruling coalition. Open public discussion through these traditional media is strictly regulated and controlled. Mainstream media coverage is never critical of the government, while the views of the opposition parties are usually given limited space. In this year’s Press Freedom Index, ‘Reporters Without Borders’ ranked Malaysia 145th.
 Prime Minister Najib spoke of a ‘Chinese tsunami; but this tsunami was triggered by the government’s highly divisive policies on affirmative action.
 With the mainstream media kept on the leash by the National Front, civil society and opposition parties have increasingly turned their attention to the Internet and mobile phones to network with others, reach out to the electorate, denounce government corruption and promote political platforms.Before and during the 2008 election campaign, online independent newspapers such as Malaysiakini, popular blogs such as those of Raja Petra Kamarudding or Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang (prominent figures of the opposition) and video sharing platforms like YouTube became instrumental in voicing dissent against the government and reaching out to the wider public. New media were also crucial in helping citizens to organize, coordinate and publicize mass public protests.

This trend continued steadily in the last five years, aided by the fact that the Internet penetration rate has spiked from 25 per cent in 2009 to 60 per cent in 2012. By the end of 2011, the number of subscribers for mobile phones was over 36 million and almost three million had broadband.

More importantly, for a country with a median population age of about 27 and nearly 2.6 million first-time voters in the last election, the Internet and mobile phones are a media particularly relevant to the younger generation. Today social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have become the prime destination of Malaysia’s growing Internet population. At the end of 2012 Facebook had over thirteen million Malaysian subscribers. 51 per cent of Malaysians Internet users have active YouTube profiles and the site accounts for 67 per cent of all online videos watched in the country.New Media, New Politics of Resistance
These changes have not gone unnoticed by the Barisan Nasional. After an early attempt to censor the online media content, it has followed the example of the opposition and increasingly engaged with online publics. The Government employs a growing number of ‘cybertroopers’ or Internet users to generate content, rebut criticism and attack the opposition. Nevertheless, the opposition parties and grassroots organizations seem to have kept a clear edge in this realm, as became apparent in the aftermath of Bersih 2.0, a 2011 rally organized by the Bersih coalition as a follow-up to the 2007 protest. On that occasion, in response to the biased reporting of the event by traditional media, social media became the essential tool of resistance for the protestors to offer the country a wholly different version of the facts. Several hundreds of videos were quickly uploaded on YouTube, thousands of images were shared on Facebook and a petition asking the Prime Minister to resign gathered over 200000 signatures in a matter of days.

The bond between the new media and the new politics of resistance has grown even thicker during the recent months. From the opposition parties, independent media and many activist groups came a shared call to action for citizens to go to the polls armed with phones and cameras and report any sign of fraudulent activity. Since then, many photos and videos of alleged bribes, suspicious ballot boxes and evidences of all other kind of frauds and rigging have flooded the Internet.

Malaysiakini published several articles and uploaded videos on its YouTube channel. In one of these videos, the online newspaper showed evidence that the allegedly indelible ink used in the General Election to stain voters’ fingers as a measure against fraudulent multiple voting was, in fact, easily removable only a few hours after being used. The videos ignited public accusations against the National Front attempting to rig the elections.

The Sarawak Report used crowd-sourcing to report on election bribes and abuse throughout the country. During and after the elections, users were able to quickly insert live updates on an interactive map of Malaysia, reporting instances of corruption or fraud simply via the website or by sending an SMS to a specific phone number.

On May 5, despite the Election Commission’s reassurances, there were still several reports of phantom voters . Anwar Ibrahim – the opposition leader’ said his party had collected tangible evidence of the government using thousands of migrants with illegal identity cards’ workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar’ as ‘phantom voters’.

Paradigm Shift
The narrowing gap between the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat and the new media trends paint a whole new picture of Malaysia’s status quo. Malaysian politics is in a paradigm shift of the way power is contested. As it has already happened in other parts of the world, in Malaysia digital networks such as the Internet and small but powerful communication devices such as smartphones or tablet computers, coupled with the exponential growth and rising importance of social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, are becoming the foundation of a new style of politics.

In the heated aftermath, it was tempting to write off Malaysia’s 13th General Election as nothing but a missed opportunity to change the chronic status quo of the country. Appearances, however, are often deceptive. Malaysia has entered a new political phase, one in which reversal of power is no longer utterly unthinkable, thanks to the growing relevance of ‘networked’ acts of resistance in the mechanics of the country’s politics.

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