Saturday, March 08, 2008

Malaysia goes to the polls

Today Malaysians vote in a general election – but the result is a foregone conclusion. The present government has been in power for more than 50 years and it is likely to be many more years to come.

I had always believed that the main reason the opposition parties could not make any headway was that because the government controlled the domestic media – print and broadcast – which meant that come election time, the government gets pages and pages of space and hours of airtime devoted to reports about how good a job it has done, but the opposition gets zilch.

The concept of ‘right of reply’ is unknown in Malaysia, so government Ministers can attack opposition leaders in the press and broadcast media (and some of the attacks are unbelievably venomous) knowing that the electorate will only hear one side of the story.

And newspapers, TV channels and radio stations daren’t accept any advertising bookings from the opposition parties, otherwise they would run the risk of losing their licences.

Opposition candidates have to reply on old fashioned door-knocking and local rallies to get their messages across.

As I said, I’d always believed that the lack of access to the media was the reason why the government had been able to stay in power for so many years, but it appears that is not the main reason.

Whilst I was reading Michael Backman’s book ‘Asia Future Shock’ during the week, I noticed his website address on the back cover flap (www.michaelbackman.com), so logged onto it and found some interesting articles about Malaysia to supplement what was in the book.

One article, written only last week for the Melbourne Age, explained that Malaysian electorates are severely malapportioned, with the smallest rural electorates (which favour the government) having only a sixth of the voters of the largest urban electorates.

According to Backman, this resulted in the government picking up 198 or about 90 per cent of the parliamentary seats on just 64 per cent of the popular vote, and the opposition being rewarded with just 21 or about 10 per cent of the seats with 36 per cent of the popular vote.

A very good definition of a gerrymander in anyone’s terms.

But what amazes me about those figures is that the opposition can still manage to pick up 36 per cent of the popular vote without any access to the mainstream media (apart from the Internet that is, which is becoming increasingly influential amongst urban Malaysians).

That would suggest a very large level of dissatisfaction with the way in which the government is running the country.

In his Melbourne Age article, Backman asks the question whether the government should be re-elected for another term.

He details a whole list of scandals (most of which relate to corruption and cronyism) that have beset the government since the last election, and says the answer is no.

He then asks whether the opposition should be elected, but again says no, describing the opposition as “a shambolic assortment of the disaffected rather than a competent alternative government.”

“In no way is it ready to govern,” he adds.

So where does that leave Malaysia?

In a bind I suppose.

I’m reminded of the expression: “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

Today a lot of people will vote for the devil they know, but I think there will be a large number of people voting for the opposition to send a message to the government.

A stronger opposition would help to improve transparency and governance as well as breaking down the media censorship that constrains freedom of speech in Malaysia.

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