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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • Int. Solidarity
  • 2013.06.14
  • 2128

Malaysia’s long walk to freedom

Wong Chin Huat (Bersih, Penang Institute Researcher)


Watching how Koreans commemorated the May 18 Uprising on the streets of Gwangju, I could not help but thinking about the May 13 Riot in Malaysia. That happened in 1969, 11 years before the Gwangju uprising. 

The bloods in Gwangju pushed South Korea towards democratisation, with the successor of the military junta voted out 18 years later. In contrast, the bloods in Kuala Lumpur however haunted Malaysia for 39 years, before the spectre of communal violence began to be exorcised by the 2008 “political tsunami”.

Malaysia is a federation consisting of three former British colonies: Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia) and two states on the island of Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak. Malaya was first granted independence in 1957. Six years later, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined Malaya to form Malaysia in a package deal of decolonisation. Two more years later, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia when the island state’s ruling party tried to challenge the Malayan ruling coalition which dominated the entire Federation. 



On May 5, Malaysia had its 13th general election since the independence of Malaya. It has never experienced party alternation since the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its minority allies came into power in the 1955 Home Rule elections. 

And nearly six decades of one-party predominance had landed the UMNO-dominated National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) coalition in the height of corruption, power abuse and arrogance. 

Hence, many Malaysians placed high hope to see a regime change through ballot boxes in this election. The most popular slogan was “Ini Kalilah” (This is the time!)

Thousands of overseas Malaysians flew back from overseas to vote, as most were denied postal voting facility while many qualified overseas voters simply did not trust the system. Millions of Malaysians returned from urban centres to their home town to cast the ballots. The turnout rate was a whopping 85%, the highest ever.

More than just voting, many ordinary Malaysians who were not members of any political parties throw themselves into the armies of election observers, polling agents and even campaigners for the opposition or causes like environmental protection. Malaysians have never been so political ever since the 1969 riot.

The outcome was however disappointing. Thanks to blatant malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies in the First-Past-The-Post system, the BN managed to win 60% of parliamentary seats with just 47% of popular votes. This was the second time the ruling coalition lost the popular votes, the first time being 1969.

More frustrating than that, no one knows the BN’s actual vote share, which may be significantly lower than 47%. 

Not only the campaign had been lopsided with BN controlling all mainstream media and buying votes with generous allocation of public funds to strategic voter groups, free banquets, free concerts and, in many rural areas, cash. The voting and counting process were flawed. 

To begin with, the Election Commission (EC) bowed to public pressure and implemented indelible ink to prevent multiple voting. The EC claimed that the ink would last for five days, it turned out to be washable with normal washing up liquid. This means those voted earlier may return to vote for the second time, impersonating someone else.

A few days before elections, deep throats from airline companies revealed that the Prime Minister’s Department were charting planes to send some 40,000 foreign workers from Sabah and Sarawak to vote in the Peninsula. They were supposedly to vote on the behalves of voters who habitually abstained or simply did not turn out early at polling centres, with matching national identity cards provided by the authorities. This allegation was supported by the sight of foreign workers being transported en mass from airport to military camps and immigration depots. BN eventually denied such allegations completely. However, a minister initially admitted the existence of such charted flights but claimed that the foreign workers were legitimate voters sponsored to come home to vote by some “friends of BN”.  He did not explain why these voters went to some “concentration camps” rather than their individual home. The exposure had perhaps deterred most foreign workers from coming out to vote, but in certain constituencies, foreign workers were still spotted at polling stations.

Fraud and irregularities also emerged in the counting and polling processes. In some constituencies, opposition’s counting agents were denied the tally sheets of their respective polling centres. Most dramatically, power outage suddenly happened in certain tally centres. Allegedly, the tally sheets had been tampered with when electricity resumed. 

The opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, won 51% of the popular votes but only 40% of the federal Parliament seats. Anwar Ibrahim has since refused to acknowledge the BN’s victory. The influential electoral reform lobby, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0 (Bersih 2.0) also withheld the recognition of the BN government. To protest against the election fraud, ten rallies have been held near the national capital city Kuala Lumpur as well as state capitals. These rallies have attracted huge crowds, ranging from 20,000 to 120,000, who were mostly clad in black, the colour mourning for democracy which had died on May 5. Designed by protester-entrepreneurs of all backgrounds, black t-shirts themed on “505” (election date) and “blackout” (reference to the mysterious power outage incidents) sell like hot cakes.

On the BN’s side, its chairman Najib Razak’s reaction to the unprecedented electoral setback was race-baiting despite the talk of national reconciliation. He blamed the election outcome a “Chinese tsunami”, suggesting it was only the ethnic Chinese voters who voted against UMNO and the BN, nearly wiping out UMNO’s Chinese allies. Najib has tried to capitalise on the fact that PR enjoyed as high as 80-90% support from the ethnic minority Chinese (making up 29% of the electorate) as compared to about half of that support amongst the ethnic majority Malay-Muslims (60% of the electorate). He conveniently ignored the fact that, despite this, majority of the PR supporters were still Malay-Muslims and hence PR is not controlled by the ethnic minority. In fact, instead of a “Chinese tsunami”, independent analysts have interpreted the election result as an “urban tsunami” since BN has lost vast majority of support in urban centres where voters do not depend on BN-controlled media for information, while the BN’s rural vote bank was continued to be preserve by digital divide. While majority of the pro-PR Chinese voters are urban dwellers, urban Malay-Muslims also voted substantially against the BN. 

Taking the cue from the 47%-minority “Prime Minister” Najib Razak, UMNO’s top mouthpiece Utusan Malaysia, has been fanning up Malay-Muslims sense of insecurity for a month, starting with a provocative front-page headline “What else do the Chinese want?” two days after the election. UMNO’s frontline organisations have joined in this anti-Chinese campaign, with a Muslim consumer association calling for boycotts of Chinese businesses and a retired judge calling to impose a 67% quota for the ethnic majority in all important aspects of public life, from education, employment to equity ownership. When Azlan Osman-Rani, the CEO of budget airline AirAsia X and an ethnic Malay himself, posted on his Facebook “I am Malaysian. I am anti-racism. I am disgusted by Utusan's editorial stance”, he came under heavy attack and was labelled as traitor to his own ethnic community by Utusan and its allies, who even started a boycott campaign against his company.

Meanwhile, state agencies have also been targeting political dissidents. Speakers and organisers of the black rallies have been charged for violating the sedition and public assembly laws respectively. The new Home Minister urged those who are critical of Malaysia’s First-Past-The-Post electoral system to leave the country. The Immigration Department Director General warned that Malaysians who protested against Malaysia in other countries might have their passports terminated. The Home Ministry and the internet regulators are also stepping up their surveillance on netizens after witnessing the power of internet beat BN’s mainstream media hands down.

Recognising the growing unpopularity of communal politics especially within urban and young voters, Najib is toying with the suggestion of turning BN from a coalition of ethnic parties into a single multi-ethnic party. He also conceded to the pressure of the Black Rallies and announced the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee to oversee the Elections Commission, whose partiality towards the BN has been characterised by many as “more BN than the BN”. Earlier, he has also co-opted two NGO leaders into his administration. 

However, none of these so-called “reforms” will likely bear fruit as UMNO deep down still refuses to accept the fact that the hey days of its electoral one-party state is over and a two-party system is here to stay. Until then, failing to compete democratically, UMNO will prevent its defeat by all means, from election fraud, vote buying to race baiting.

On the surface, Malaysia’s prospect on democratisation is dim. The opposition parties tried hard to end UMNO-BN’s rule in 1990 and 1998 but failed, so, the 2013 is actually the third strike and the third failure. Will they ever succeed?  A new constituency redelineation is scheduled for end of the year and if the UMNO gets its way with worse malapportionment and gerrymandering, PR might not be able to dislodge BN even if it wins 55% of popular votes. And it is not within sight that UMNO-BN will soon lose its control of the rural constituency.


The picture becomes less depressing if one looks at the historical context. Malaysia is a classical example of a multi-ethnic society, and many believe democracy requires cultural homogeneity. When the British left Malaya in 1957, they made sure that their conservative successors were multi-ethnic to prevent ethnic conflict, party alternation was not in the British’s plan. The Labour Party that ruled UK then did not prepare or encourage a counter multi-ethnic alternative to compete with the UMNO-led coalition. If there was such an alternative to the aristocratic-administrative elites in UMNO and their Chinese and Indian capitalist allies, it would like be a left-leaning one, which the British in the Cold War years feared greatly that would give rise to communism eventually.


When the ruling coalition lost substantially to both the Malay- and Chinese-based opposition in 1969, UMNO conveniently interpreted that as a Chinese rejection of Malay dominance, not too different from what we are witnessing now in 2013. Not surprisingly, soon Sino-Malay crashes broke out in Kuala Lumpur, which paved way for an emergency rule and a party coup. The then Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein, the father of Najib Razak, and his hardliner supporters conveniently seized control from the country's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. 


With the unchecked power in Emergency Rule from 1969 to 1971, Abdul Razak successfully transformed Malaysia into an electoral one-party of UMNO, with communal division and fear of violence as its main pillars. By treating the class contradiction in the Malaysian society from a communal lens and introducing a series of pro-Malay-Muslims policies, Abdul Razak turned the Malay-Muslims a captive constituency for UMNO. Abdul Razak also deliberately depoliticise Malaysia, on the ground that democratic participation would lead only to ethnic tension and conflicts: "… in our Malaysian society of today, where racial manifestations are very much in exercise, any form of politicking is bound to follow along racial lines and will only enhance the divisive tendencies”. The spectre of May 13 Riot was used in almost every election after 1969 to tell voters to just continue for the BN if they wanted peace. The Chinese were especially told off not to join any protests.


Abdul Razak’s legacy began to crack in 2008 when the opposition made surprising breakthrough – denying the BN its customary parliamentary two-third majority and controlling five state governments – but the “promised riot” did not happen. Meanwhile, winning power at state level has enabled the opposition parties – Anwar’s centrist People’s Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) and the multicultural Democratic Action Party (DAP) – to work closer and move their constituents away from communalism. 


To the frustration of Utusan Malaysia and UMNO, their post-election race-baiting efforts in 2013 have failed to cause any tension. Multiethnic youth flooded the Black Rallies as if they were going for street parties. If anything, inter-communal solidarity has only grown stronger after the disputed election result. When a Malay student leader Adam Adli was arrested for inciting protest and held in a police station in a Chinese-majority neighborhood, many locals joined in the four days of vigils. When 18 of his supporters were arrested, tellingly 15 of them were ethnic Chinese.  


While we Malaysians have yet to attain freedom, perhaps not long from now, we too will be able to deal with our nation’s dark history. The day will come when we may seek truth and reconciliation on the May 13 Riot and other political tragedies, much like what the Koreans are doing today with the May 18 uprising.


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