On Sunday, more than thirteen million will vote in what is likely to be the closest election in the history of Malaysia. About 2.5 million of these voters are believed to be under the age of 30 and pro-opposition, a wildcard that Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Alliance (PR) is counting on to bring Prime Minister Najib Razak’s National Front (BN) coalition down after ruling since independence in 1957. Both Southeast Asia and the United States have a stake in this election’s outcome. If Anwar’s coalition wins, a rocky power transition could threaten to destabilize Malaysia and the region’s economy. It is a tough to tell the direction that Anwar would take if he wins this election. He was been known as pro-West during his tenure as deputy prime minister in the 1990s but has increasingly leaned towards Islamic politics. Alternatively, Najib has shied away from former Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad’s look-East policy encouraging Asian countries to divide from the United States. Instead, he has indicated the United States as a crucial partner for Malaysia and joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement discussions. A Najib win can ensure the United States an important partner in the near future especially with its rebalance to Asia.
However, the BN’s power has weakened in recent years after it suffered the worst electoral results ever in 2008, allowing the opposition party to hold more than one-third of Parliament’s seats and control four of thirteen states. The pro-opposition sentiment has since grown due to a thorough lack of government transparency, public discontent about corruption, and widespread belief and allegations of BN’s vote buying and fraud in the electoral rolls since last year.
If Najib is reelected, how can his coalition keep the larger population satisfied with the necessary changes to its racial policies? He has a tough road ahead to regain youth votes and those that are disheartened by the BN’s deeply rooted corruption within most of its institutions and pro-Malay rights rhetoric.
On the other hand, if the opposition miraculously wins this upcoming election, how can the occasionally fractious PR that includes Anwar’s multi-racial party (PKR), a secular party dominated by ethnic Chinese (DAP), and a conservative Islamic party representing Muslim Malays (PAS) govern Malaysia in unity? An opposition win would bring enormous uncertainty to Malaysian politics, shaking up five decades of comfortable relations between government and business that promoted prevalent corruption. Moreover, will DAP be able to come to agreement with PAS regarding enforcing the Islamic law of hudud if PAS insists on it? It is also questionable if the opposition could deliver on their promises to reduce corruption and the cost of living and schooling, and strengthen minority rights.
Denied access to government-controlled traditional media, many Malaysians have utilized social media to voice their views that in order for the country to get its economy on track and compete with Singapore, China, Japan, and South Korea, the government should change its policies internally by first taking care of the country as a whole (including Chinese and Indians), and not implementing racially divisive policies to favor the Malays. In fact, the surge of Malaysian Facebook and Twitter users has been tremendous since the 2008 elections, and Najib in February called this Malaysia’s “first social media election.” For instance, Facebook users have increased from 800,000 during the 2008 polls to 13 million now. A host of independent news sites like MalaysiaKini also have emerged in recent years as political agenda-setters, revealing allegations of corruption and other abuses. Malaysia’s youth have especially been empowered in this election after a history of political apathy blamed on the campus politics ban imposed in the 1970s.
This historic surge of social media use and individual empowerment in Malaysia has unnerved the traditional political climate there and infused a much needed healthy competition into this election. Last year, street protests for electoral reforms were even labeled by Anwar as a “Malaysian Spring.” It may serve as a wake-up call to neighboring countries like Singapore, which has been dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since the 1959 general election, and China, which has witnessed a remarkable swell in its Weibo users. This trend will continue to amplify and is becoming increasingly tricky for semi-authoritarian governments like Malaysia to handle. After May 5, the newly elected government needs to stop playing the race card and leverage the brain power and unique quality of multi-racial Malaysia to advance and get rid of the dirty racial politics that is threatening to derail Malaysia’s progress. It is time to embrace change, and this goes to both the BN and PR coalitions.
HuiHui Ooi is an assistant director with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.