MALAYSIA: Views from the Street on Our Political Future

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Voters from all sides of the spectrum offer their views in the wake of Malaysia's historic election.

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The dust is settling on a surreal week in Malaysian politics, and the country is starting to take stock.

When polling for the 14th general election (GE14) closed on May 9, and the votes were finally tallied after seemingly interminable delays, Malaysians witnessed a regime change for the first time in their nation's history.

The unprecedented, whirlwind result has earned the monikers "Malaysian Tsunami," "People's Tsunami" or "Mahathir Tsunami" after the country's new prime minister.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Razak, 64, saw his Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition crumble, managing to win only 79 seats out of 222 parliamentary seats while 92-year-old Dr. Mahathir Mohamad's Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) secured 113 seats, just enough to form a federal government.

The News Lens spoke to a several Malaysians who are each trying to find their footing in the midst of this sweeping political change.

Community reunion

Unlike some constituencies that saw ruckus, rows and fights, voting was more of a party for those turning out in the Puchong parliamentary seat in the state of Selangor, close to the southern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

The seat has been held by Pakatan Harapan alliance party DAP (Democratic Action Party) since the 12th general election in March 2008.

For voter Visithra Manikam, the occasion featured a long-awaited reunion with an assortment of familiar faces.

“I don't live in the area any more. Most of the time, I only see my old neighbors and friends during general elections. The voters here have no qualms about going up to representatives to air their grievances, no matter which coalition they represent.

“Voter turnout here is always more than 80 percent. In a way, we still have a small town feel where everyone knows everyone.”

The atmosphere was so upbeat that Visithra and some friends went around several polling stations in the constituency to take pictures, meet with new and old faces, and even chat to on duty police and polling personnel.

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Photo Credit: Visithra Manikam courtesy of Khaw Chia Hui
Malaysian voter Visithra Manikam takes a selfie at her polling station in Puchong, a parliamentary constituency in Petaling District, Selangor, Malaysia.

“I think we all understand that we are still neighbors and friends after the election. It is not about tribal politics here,” she said.

As for the bigger picture, Visithra was not surprised that PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party) managed to win 18 of the 222 seats in Malaysia’s bicameral parliament, and 90 of the 505 state seats up for grabs – retaining control of the state legislature in Kelantan in the northeast of peninsula Malaysia, and wresting its neighboring state Terengganu convincingly from Najib's Barisan Nasional.

In her opinion, most voters were united in their dissatisfaction with Najib, his administration, and the allegations of corruption that plagued them both. But like many, she had predicted that BN would retain federal power, albeit with a smaller majority.

“I don't think PAS should be ignored as they have a huge number of silent supporters, evidenced by the seats they won this time. As Malaysians, we cannot deny there will be people who are conservative Muslims that will continue to vote for PAS.

“Instead of making fun of them, we should have a discourse. Understand their needs as well. After all, having PAS also keeps alive the democratic process, by offering a dissenting voice in key states and in parliament.”

PAS has often borne the brunt of criticism from urban Malaysians riled by its ultra-conservative stance and support for hardline Islamist polices.

As for the future, Visithra hopes to see more female representation at federal and state levels, seeing as 50.6 percent of the electorate or 7,557,187 voters are women. In GE14, only 75 women vied for federal seats, and 176 competed at the state level – just over one in 10 of the total candidates.

“We need better laws to ensure gender equality and protect women against discrimination and abuse. I hope Dr. Wan Azizah will not be a chess piece for Pakatan's top leadership. She should not be a seat warmer for her husband. Why can't she pick up the deputy prime minister mantle [which Mahathir has voiced support for giving her] and see it through, instead of vacating her post when Anwar is released from jail?”

I hope Dr. Wan Azizah will not be a chess piece for Pakatan's top leadership. She should not be a seat warmer for her husband. — Visithra Manikam

Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is the current PKR (People’s Justice Party) president and wife of the former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. She is tipped to be the deputy prime minister as her party won the most parliamentary seats at 48 for Pakatan Harapan, but is widely expected to eventually make way for Anwar, 70, provided he is secures a full royal pardon for the five-year prison term he is currently serving for sodomy, and is allowed to stand as a Member of Parliament in a by-election.

Visithra, who is of Indian descent, hopes to see more being done for her community, which is stuck in a cycle of poverty and crime, with no opportunities to advance.

“Both coalitions did not offer real change for the Indian community. We may be small in numbers but lifting the community out of poverty contributes to nation-building. Reduced poverty with better economic opportunities means reduced crime and dependence on welfare. Wouldn't that be good for Malaysia, regardless of who is ruling the government?

“I want to see more NGOs being funded to help at-risk children and women, and those such as MySkills, which is helping to educate the underprivileged. I hope the representatives remember why we voted for them.”

New opposition

For 44-year-old Baddrul, who asked to be known only by his first name, being a BN supporter has always been challenging. During this GE14, he was torn about the coalition he supports as he disagreed with how its leadership had been running the country.

“I’m not blind to how difficult life has been. I see that household items and groceries are way more expensive these days. Although I’m living in the city, I’m feeling the pinch, and feel for those in lower income groups.”

Malaysia’s consumer price inflation hit a near nine-year high of 5.1 percent on year in March 2017, according to the country’s Department of Statistics, but has since fallen steadily to a more benign rate of 1.3 percent in March 2018. Pakatan’s messaging also focused on the country’s economic woes, gathering debt burden and involvement in big ticket projects with foreign partners, especially China.

“The older generation accepts there are small forms of corruption rampant among politicians. Many will choose to ignore it if the people’s livelihoods are not affected. As long as these politicians do their part in improving the country, many BN supporters will remain loyal.”

On polling day, he observed a bigger crowd of young voters as compared to previous general elections. Even his children of 22 and 23 years old were excited to go out to vote for the first time.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
An election worker dips a voter's finger in ink during the general election in Alor Setar, Malaysia, May 9, 2018.

“While identity politics, race and religion are important points for baby boomers, the millennials are concerned with jobs, economy, corruption and so on. Hence, Pakatan’s messaging resonates with them.

“Anyway, BN has been in power for too long,” he added, referring to the coalition’s previously unbroken six-decade grip on power.

Baddrul also felt that Najib’s removal of local BN leaders who spoke about his involvement in the 1MDB scandal and other alleged instances of corruption in Johor, the southern Malaysian state bordering Singapore, and Sabah, on Borneo, angered the party’s base.

“When Najib sacked them, many BN supporters I spoke to felt there would be diminished support. I felt it was uncalled for. It is probably why BN voters in those states went with Pakatan.”

He also mentioned the strength and draw of Mahathir among the Malay community.

“When he joined the Pakatan fray, Najib and BN had no choice but to put up roadblocks for his party and demonize him in the mainstream media. They have no idea how to counter Mahathir, especially when Pakatan, this time, had clear messaging and appears more united than before.”

Moving forward, Baddrul hopes to see UMNO and other BN component parties work out their differences and become a strong opposition force.

“I don’t foresee BN getting back control of the government in the next general election. They need to evolve and change their top leadership. Supporters are weary of the same old faces. We have lost trust.

“Perhaps allow the younger generation to take charge of selected committees. BN needs a clear succession strategy to re-instill faith and trust among supporters," he said, adding "and get rid of the soap opera politicking. I think Malaysians are mature enough to see through the nonsense. We now want accountability, too.”

Youth movement

It has been a disappointing general election for 22-year-old Ainina Sofia Adnan. The psychology student at International Islamic University Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur registered to vote after her 21st birthday on Sept. 27 last year.

But when she checked with the Election Commission (EC) in March, officials told her there had been a bantahan (an objection), and she was told she would not be eligible to vote in GE14.

“When I found out about the objection, the EC told me my name would only be in the electoral roll in the next update. I was disappointed as I had been wanting to take part in the voting process,” she told The News Lens.

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Credit: Ainina Sofia Adnan courtesty of Khaw Chia Hui
Ainina Sofia Adnan leads a demonstration for academic freedom during the 'Rapat Umum Malaysia Muda', a mobile demonstration and art exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in December.

According to the EC, before new voters are included in the electoral roll, their names and details are publicly displayed for 14 days and a public hearing will be held to hear any objections against those names. Appeals can be made against further objections.

However, Ainina did not take a back seat. Instead, the student activist continued to organize her social movement programs off-campus. Often, she invites veteran activists to speak to university students in the hope of raising political awareness.

“My activities have gotten me into trouble with university authorities before. I only have a year left before I graduate, so I want to do my best to encourage people my age to participate in social movements.”

With Pakatan Harapan now in charge, she hopes that university campuses across the country will allow open discussions, ease the organization of political awareness programs and fair student body elections, as well as dispel the climate of fear.

“The campus police in my university have confronted and threatened me many times with suspension under the pretense that my activities cemarkan nama (taint the name) of the university.

“I respectfully disagree. My programs are non-partisan, not aimed at indoctrinating ideas of any political party. They are to highlight institutional failures, student concerns, human rights and academic freedom. Students need a safe space to explore these ideas and not be demonized.”

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Credit: Ainina Sofia Adnan courtesty of Khaw Chia Hui
Ainina Sofia Adnan holds a sign protesting the shallow thinking of university students during a protest rally. The tape across her mouth refers to the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, which protesters argue prohibits students from taking an active part in politics. Pakatan had pledged to repeal the Act prior to the GE14 vote.

Her biggest hurdle came when she invited activist Fahmi Reza early this year to share the history of student protests in Malaysia. She was detained and questioned by campus police for three hours, during which time she “was intimidated and made to promise not to organise such activities.”

Like many Malaysians, she is realistic about the pace of change. While she is unlikely to see immediate change before her graduation, she feels optimistic about the future of youth participation in social movements.

Political literacy

For the old hands, like one senior government official who told The News Lens she had never skipped a general election, polling day is an eagerly anticipated event.

Though she no longer resides in her urban constituency, like many Malaysians the official, who asked to remain anonymous, returned to vote there. When the results were unveiled, Pakatan Harapan won by a landslide in her parliamentary constituency.

“I'm not voting for myself anymore, but for my children and grandchildren. They must have the opportunity to experience a regime change. That is what true democracy is about," she said.

“It also gives them the opportunity to increase their political literacy, which I benefited greatly from. As a young woman, my rights as a voter were inculcated in me, [as was] the importance of every vote.

“The young cannot be ignorant of politics. There is already an overload of information over social media. If they are not wise to what to read, they will fall for propaganda and fake news. Read your candidate's manifesto and analyze the points for yourself.”

After standing in line for more than two hours, she felt great satisfaction in being able to cast her ballot. She later went to Lembah Pantai, a tight marginal seat in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

“I like to chat with voters, polling agents, and so on. You'll find we all share the same concerns over the cost of living, economic development, education.

“The Mahathir factor is a great pull for a lot of people. He has strategy and experience, whether you agree with his decisions and policies, and has shown us examples of his successes. Civil servants will follow the government of the day, but we have to ensure good governance and integrity.

“The public has to be able to trust us to carry out our jobs without favor. We are accountable to the people.”

Sabah conundrum

While voters in Peninsular Malaysia bask in the reverie of change, those in the Bornean state of Sabah have an a less settled weekend ahead. No single party has the outright majority required to lead the state government, which triggered intense negotiations among both sides to determine which coalition they should support.

Representatives on both sides attempted to declare themselves the winner of the hung state, though BN managed to have their man Musa Aman sworn in as chief minister for a fourth term by the Sabah governor on May 10.

However, Pakatan Harapan filed an objection, claiming that a number of MPs had switched sides and declared support for their man, Shafie Apdal, leader of the Warisan Party and a former Najib minister and ousted BN figurehead.

Amid the confusion and backdoor negotiations, Sabahans are angry and confused.

“It's embarrassing. Many of us are fed up with BN and their promises but this chief minister issue is making us a laughingstock. The members of parliament should get their act together and present the right chief minister,” said Azlina, a long-time voter in the town of Papar on the west coast of Sabah.

Meanwhile, election watchdog Bersih, was quoted by The Star as calling for an end to the outdated “frog” culture of switching allegiance at the drop of a hat, and its replacement with a principled culture of ethical governance.

“Sabah Bersih would like to remind all political party candidates to hold on to [their] principles and trust from the rakyat (people), who voted for them based on the [party affiliation] that they contested for.

“Frog culture only serves to destroy democracy because the rakyat will judge the political candidates as dishonest opportunists, [who] have betrayed the voters’ mandate.”

Nor are Sabahans entirely at ease now that Mahathir is back at the helm.

The two-time prime minster has historically been accused of denying the special privileges accorded to Sabah and Sarawak as stipulated in the Malaysia Agreement 1963, such as invoking the Internal Security Act against parties who openly stood against his policies.

Moreover, Mahathir is viewed as intimately bound up with Project IC, a long-running initiative during his first stint as prime minister under which it is alleged that non-Sabahans were given local citizens' identification cards in order to shift the demographic balance in favor of Malays and Mahathir’s then ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party.

Azlina said, “I hope to see autonomy returned to us. There should be more job opportunities for Sabahans in the government departments here, instead of West Malaysians filling up those positions.”

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Editor: David Green

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