Australian Senator Nick Xenophon flew into Kuala Lumpur in mid-February. He was detained and deported back to Australia as he posed a “security threat” to the country. He was roundly condemned by the Malaysian Home Minister, the Election Commission and the media for his interference but received favourable support overseas and from the opposition parties, civil and human rights groups in Malaysia. He was blacklisted for participating in an illegal rally for free and fair elections in last April’s Bersih 3.0 rally and “tarnishing” Malaysia’s image. His summary deportation has cast further doubts about the fairness of the coming general election, probably in June this year.
The government can usually ignore protests about unfair elections as it has great influence over radio and television channels. Many of the main English, Malay, Chinese and Indian newspapers are owned by supporters of the the Barisan Nasional (BN) the major governing party. The BN is a coalition of UMNO, MCA, MIC and some smaller parties.
For 40 years, Malaysians have put up with rumors of election fraud but have been dismissed. In 2004, the voters gave BN a strong mandate to support the new PM Abdullah Badawi after two decades of authoritarian rule. Although the country was prosperous and peaceful, the ethnic minorities felt marginalized in government, business and education. Government affirmative action policies favored the Malays and Muslims and minorities felt deprived and discriminated against. The festering discontent was too strong to contain, and the Chinese and Indian partners in the BN, the ruling coalition, were blamed for not fighting for the rights of their constituents. UMNO (United Malays National Organization) too lost touch with the grass roots. It is alleged that UMNO Putras (the elite) got all the contracts and perks while the UMNO base was neglected.
To try and beat back the opposition to its money politics the leader of Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Anwar Ibrahim was charged and later acquitted on what many regarded as trumped up sodomy charges.
The opposition parties exploited this discontent in the BN. A large number of Chinese switched allegiance to the DAP (Democratic Action Party), and the Indians to PKR. PAS (Parti Islam Semalaysia) made inroads into the religious heartlands in the country where UMNO was strongest. The political advantage held by UMNO in gerrymandering in favor of Malay rural constituencies became less relevant as PAS mounted their challenge in these staunchly Muslim areas. In the 2008 elections, BN was devastated by the electoral swing to the opposition. BN lost five States to the opposition and only strong support from Sabah and Sarawak saved them from losing the Federal Government.
The next General Election has generated a tremendous interest .The opposition is optimistic about winning the Federal Government and several State governments. This will depend on whether the loosely knit coalition is able to stick together. Bickering over seat allocations, differences on religious and social issues, unless dealt with maturely, may cause an erosion of confidence amongst voters.
Sabah and Sarawak still hold the key to success. They have 56 parliamentary constituencies and they have been loyal BN states. The predictions are that the BN will lose urban seats in Sarawak but the bulk of the rural seats are safe for the BN. This time Sabah is a problem. The presence of illegal immigrants in the State has been an open sore. For decades, the government has denied political gifting of citizenship to immigrants in exchange for their vote for the BN. Evidence presented at the Royal Commission of Inquiry recently confirmed that this occurred. In Parliament, it was alleged that about 700,000 immigrants were given citizenship and of these, about 200.000 were registered as voters. These numbers have changed the demographics of Sabah drastically and increased BN’s and UMNO’s dominance.
The global scrutiny of the elections and pressure at home to deflect growing concerns of massive electoral fraud motivated the PM Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to sign the Transparency International (TI) Integrity Pledge on Wednesday 20 February declaring that the governing parties would uphold integrity and reinforcing his commitment to fight corruption. The Opposition parties did not participate in this pledge and continue to insist that all members of the administration declare their assets and wealth. It is unfortunate the pledge comes at such a late stage of the election process, but it is a positive message from the PM that “money politics”, a euphemism for corruption, a long standing scourge in UMNO politics, will not be tolerated.
Money politics in other parties also is common where the “frogs” (party hoppers) are enticed to switch camps after the elections for large sums of money betraying their parties and their constituents. There have been cases where State Governments have fallen due to these turncoats.
Senator Xenophon’s deportation may not have been unexpected. The bungling officials may have scored an own goal. It has only attracted more international attention which will no doubt please Anwar Ibrahim the leader of PKR and more broadly the coalition of opposition parties (Pakatan Rakyat). He needs to win an additional 34 seats. It is a big ask but not impossible.
El Tee Kay, Kuala Lumpur