Growing pains of Malaysia’s young democracy

On the night of May 5th, just as the results of Malaysia’s general election were becoming apparent, signalling yet another five-year rule for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), pleas for foreign intervention started going viral on social media. Petitions to the White House as well as to the United Nations were created on Sunday night, with hundreds of thousands of Malaysians sharing and signing them within hours. Memes such as this one were created, urging Queen Elizabeth to take over Malaysia because “I don’t want it independent this way.” Hundreds switched their profile picture to black, mourning what they called the “death of democracy”.

Opposition Pakatan Rakyat supporters cheer on for candidate Hannah Yeoh, defending her seat in Subang Jaya. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

These have been some of the more extreme reactions amidst the collective despair of Malaysians who had voted for the opposition party and who were highly anticipating the end of BN’s 56-year rule. It was crushing for me personally to hear the results, but simultaneously shocking to see how Malaysians were reacting to them. I stayed glued to my laptop that day, watching my Facebook and Twitter feeds refresh with growing wrath in response to the flickering numbers of the election results.

It is a thick wave of disappointment that is being further fuelled by allegations of electoral fraud and sour, divisive remarks by BN politicians. Bersih, a local NGO that campaigns for electoral reform, is withholding recognition of the election’s results as they claim it was “marred with violations of election laws, code of conduct and endless political violence from the beginning to the end”. In response to BN’s worst election showing in history, its politicians have been blaming ungrateful Chinese voters and the Chinese “tsunami“.

Yet these are not new problems. Highly racialised politics and vote manipulation have been around since the country’s independence. Throughout the 60s and 70s, my parents watched their parents and the rest of the neighbourhood’s first-generation Chinese migrants – who barely spoke any Malay – coerced into buses that would take them into the next village. There, they casted their ballots in a process they did not understand and for parties they did not even recognise. They were told that if they didn’t do so, they would be sent back to China.

Malaysians are reclaiming political agency

“Kami mahu ubah” was a key slogan in this year’s election. It translates as “We want change”. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

The real novelty of this year’s election is the startling level of engagement of Malaysian civil society. Voter turnout was pegged at 80 percent, highest in the country’s history. The scale of anticipation leading up to Sunday and the overwhelming displays of collective disappointment following the results that night are unprecedented. Before 2008, the predominant sentiment was “anyone but BN” and then a resigned shrug at the announcement of BN’s expected victory. When BN first lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 most voters were overwhelmingly surprised, almost in jubilant disbelief at the change they brought with their votes.

Expectations have grown exponentially since then. It suggests that the Malaysian electorate is regaining its agency in a political process that was once frozen by soft authoritarianism – a term used by political scientists to describe a system that “softens” authoritarian rule with selected democratic features. Since the previous election people have become more personally invested in nation-building than ever, aligning themselves to movements that purport to oust a corrupt incumbent government. Former colleagues of mine and previously apolitical friends volunteered to be polling agents and independent observers. Many more participated in the huge Bersih rallies leading up to the election and in yesterday night’s post-election rally to protest the results.

Indeed, the despair and extreme disappointment that many felt on Sunday night was the strongest show of solidarity in the country that I have ever witnessed. To me, the extreme and far-ranging reactions towards BN’s latest victory are evidence of Malaysia’s growth pains at experiencing the first election that has ever felt this “real”. By believing in and anticipating ‘ubah’, the Malay word for change, opposition coalition Pakatan’s defeat felt like the first real loss for an electorate that is not traditionally accustomed to political engagement. This is especially true for those in their early to mid-20s, like myself, who anticipated change with their very first vote.

Xenophobia during the elections

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to "prove" he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to “prove” he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

But the freshness of the experience is creating a feverishness that cuts both ways. The fervent political mobilisation across the board is also causing a paranoid wave of xenophobia and fear-mongering amongst voters. Malaysians urged each other all weekend to bust phantom voters or what many were calling “hantu”, which means ghost in Malay and carries derogatory connotations – all in an effort to counter electoral fraud following allegations that Prime Minister Najib Razak had paid for flights to move tens of thousands of voters into marginal constituencies for Sunday’s election.

Individuals were singled out and harassed based on their appearance, with vigilante “ghost-busters” circulating videos and photographs of them and their identity cards widely online. In one viral video (pictured above), a suspected fraud voter was forced to sing the national anthem in front of a crowd of Chinese voters to “prove” he was Malaysian. He slipped up on one word, causing a man to jump belligerently on the mistake and a whole group of people to roar at him to get lost. He is one of many alleged Bangladeshis, referred to derogatorily as “Banglas” by many Malaysians, who became a victim of discrimination and harassment on Sunday.

In the heat of the moment, the irony of trying to oust incumbent BN with its race-based policies while hunting down Bangladeshis appear to have been lost on many over-enthusiastic voters. Part of the reason was the spread of unverified information and fear-mongering claims through social media and mobile technologies, causing paranoia and fear amongst many voters. These messages fuelled public insecurity and motivated excessively aggressive behaviour towards the ‘other’ – i.e. non-Malaysians.

Lack of reliable information

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Indeed, reliable and level-headed information was a rare thing on Sunday. A stampede of alarmist pictures and messages claiming all sorts of things including the arrival of buses of Bangladeshis at various voting stations, suspicious blackouts across the country, and the “magical” appearance of ballot boxes were viralised online as well as through texting and Whatsapp, fanning public rage. Most of this information continues to be unverified and a concrete link to the doctoring of election results has yet to be proven.

Even the numbers of the election results were disputed across different sources throughout the night, creating confusion amongst the electorate. Suspicious of mainstream media, some did not know where else to go to consult live updates of the election results. Facebook user Jason Lim wrote on Sunday: “This election is so freaking confusing and non-transparent. I can’t find impartial information anywhere, even if I were trying to just find the facts. How come the Counting Agents are silent? Why are numbers different depending on the sources I visit?”

A handful of websites such as MalaysiaKini and the Democratic Action Party‘s (DAP) ubah.my provided live coverage of the results, but these were reportedly too slow and inconsistent. No organisation managed to pick up on and address the tide of rumours spreading online.

Growth pains of moving away from soft authoritarianism

These are growth pains of Malaysia’s slowly maturing civil society. After 56 years of BN’s rule, people are emerging from the trappings of soft authoritarianism to increasingly participate in the political process, whereby people mobilise, express political beliefs, and protest for positive change. From the many comments on social media, it was clear that many still do not fully grasp the concept of democracy as their own, calling it a “first world mentality”, and misunderstanding it as a status that could be earned by a country’s economic and social merit.

In view of the xenophobic and often racist comments flooding online feeds, some claimed despairingly that Malaysia did not “deserve” democracy. In view of what many saw as unfavourable election results, some claimed melodramatically that democracy was “dead”. For outsiders to Malaysian politics who were seeing such exchanges online (like the viral pleas for Queen Elizabeth to reclaim her colony) for the first time, most Malaysians must have appeared desperately passionate and simple.

Yet there is a lot to commend in terms of how far Malaysian civil society has come. The swift outcry and mobilisation in response to the election results is yet another sign of the increasing progressiveness of the electorate. Just five years ago, I could not comment publicly on Malaysian politics without my parents hushing me, saying that I was asking for trouble. This cautiousness has since evaporated. My father was one of the most active Facebook users on Sunday, spreading and sharing any information related to the election (yes, even the rumours).

Democracy is far from dead in Malaysia. In fact, it is more alive than ever. Certainly more is happening on the ground than ever before. Malaysians were hoping for a change in government, but this is ‘ubah’ too. And it is coming from the bottom-up. Can BN, the longest ruling coalition in the world, meet them halfway?

Note: Originally posted here.

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2 comments
  1. Mei Yan lee said:

    Getting an independent, reliable source of information (especially in print, for Malaysians who aren’t avid users of social media) is the most important step to take next. I agree with you that it was incredibly frustrating when I tried to follow political events back home, and the only source of information that I had about the alleged ferrying of foreign notes into our country to vote was a chain email from my mom and rumors on Facebook. It makes me think that this is one of the reasons urban and rural voters had such different inclinations, their sources of information (social media vs. BN controlled mainstream media) are so different.

  2. Kenny Wong said:

    Always proud of my bibi!

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