Malaysia’s May 5 national elections are taking place against the backdrop of the most rancid ethnic and political atmosphere since 1969, when race riots shook the nation and led to the deaths of hundreds of ethnic Malays and Chinese.
Campaigning, which technically is limited to the period after the election commission sets the date, has been going on for as much as two years as the ruling Barisan Nasional slugged it out with the Pakatan Rakyat. With 13 million voters registered, an estimated 25 percent of them are going to the polls for the first time, delivering what has been called a real wild card. While inflation, educational opportunity, corruption and crime are issues, they pale against the questions of power and race.
Two NGOs held a joint press conference Wednesday, asking the Australian and UK governments and the United Nations to put pressure on Malaysia to ensure that the elections will be fair and free. The government has refused to allow international observers and in February stopped Australian senator Nick Xenophon at the airport and expelled him when he tried to enter the country after producing an international fact-finding report that accused the election commission of gerrymandering districts in favor of the government.
The organizations are the international wings of Bersih, the election reform NGO, and Suaram, a human rights NGO. Supporters of the Barisan Nasional allege that the two organizations are closely aligned with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, which both vehemently deny, saying they are independent bodies seeking to clean up politics.
In the press conference, the two groups alleged that political violence, death threats and widespread electoral fraud are escalating, which is clearly true although seasoned political observers in Kuala Lumpur say things aren’t as bad as the two say, and that in fact those committing the ugly acts are a small minority who do not appear likely to infect the larger society.
"There’s truth to many of the things they said at the press conference," said a longtime political observer. "But I think they are stretching it a little too much. At the end of it, Malaysians in general – across all religions and races – have shown they won’t be baited by these guys. I am hoping that the vast majority will remain this way despite the provocations. Still, there is an imminent threat that things may turn bad."
Still, that observer said he and others with the means intend to vote early and leave the country in case of violence, staying away until they see how things shape up.
Much of the problem stems from perceptions of the closeness of the race – although polling is problematical at best – and the ethnic makeup of the Barisan Nasional, whose component Chinese and Indian parties are near collapse. That means that in order to win, the United Malays National Organisation must appeal to as many ethnic Malay voters as possible. UMNO has sought to do that through what amounts to outright bribery through government grants and subsidies, and through seeking to frighten rural Malays with the specter of a new government that would be dominated by the Chinese.
The situation has been tightening for more than a year. One UMNO operative angrily told Asia Sentinel that both sides are equally to blame for the situation, with members of the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party insulting ethnic Malays as well, urinating on pictures of UMNO figures. Firebrands in UMNO and other organizations have returned the favor. Opposition figures have complained that motorcycle gangs have disrupted rallies and threatened violence.
Among more notable threats, last year Mohamad Aziz, a senior UMNO member of parliament, suggested on the floor of parliament that Ambiga Sreenasan, the former head of the Malaysia Law Society and current head of Bersih, should be hanged for treason.
Eggs and stones have rained down on opposition ceramahs, or "lectures" that are thinly disguised political rallies, since political rallies have been banned in advance of the formal election period, which started yesterday. Both sides have defaced election pictures of the other.
In Penang last year, a group that opposition leaders described as members of the UMNO Youth wing and the NGO Perkasa attacked a group protesting the operation of a rare earth processing plant, injuring two reporters.
Much of the tension has been fomented by Ibrahim Ali, the firebrand leader of Perkasa, a Malay supremacy group demanding that privileges for ethnic Malays enshrined in the Constitution and the New Economic Policy passed in the wake of the 1969 riots be left in place. Ibrahim is strongly backed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who recently said the country needs another 40 leaders like the Perkasa boss.
Perkasa members last year, among other things, wreathed a flower garland around a photo of Democratic Action Party leader Lim Guan Eng, a funeral ritual which was likened to a death threat.
In more recent weeks, as the two organizations pointed out, Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi wrote on Twitter on April 3: "We shall move to the warzone to kill all adverse political intruders." Then, last month, they said, at a rally led by Home Affairs Minister and UMNO vice-president Hishammuddin Hussein, supporters threatened to kill Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president Tian Chua, chanting "Kill Tian Chua" after the opposition MP hinted that a recent invasion of Sabah by Filipino supporters of the Sultan of Sulu might have been a plot on the part of UMNO to whip up patriotic fervor.
"Zahid’s tweet was because the guy speaks bad English," the political observer said. "Hishammuddin’s act was bad but it was a paid crowd and the sentiment against Tian Chua is not widespread. Mahathir is fear-mongering, yes, but he is not finding much traction."
Zaid Ibrahim, the former Law Minister for the Barisan Nasional and now a leader of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, said previously in an interview that he doesn’t expect the kind of racial blowup that characterized the 1969 election.
He points out that the tensions in 1969 between Malays and Chinese have been muted and that there are now ethnic Malays on both sides of the electoral divide. Pakatan Rakyat is led by an ethnic Malay, Anwar Ibrahim, who heads Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or the People’s Justice Party, which is made up largely of young, middle class urban Malays. The second party in the coalition is Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which is made up of rural Malays.
In the meantime, numbers of Chinese have fallen as emigration and low birth numbers have taken their toll. Ethnic Chinese peaked in 1972 at 37 percent of the population and have fallen today to 24.1 percent according to the CIA World Factbook.