Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Political upsets in Malaysia

A ‘political tsunami’ is how the local papers described the Malaysian election result over the weekend.

Malaysian voters turned against their government in massive numbers.

In fact, the government lost the popular vote in peninsular Malaysia, and it was only the states of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia that saved the government from losing the popular vote nationwide.

The government coalition scraped in with 51.5 per cent of the popular vote, but they still managed to retain a comfortable majority in parliament (140 seats to the 82 won by opposition parties) due to the gerrymander – but it was their worst performance since independence 51 years ago.

The 82 seats won by the opposition (up from 19) was enough to reduce the government’s majority to less than two-thirds (thus preventing the government from changing the Constitution at will), and in the process the opposition parties won five states – the most they have ever held.

Many Ministers and high profile politicians lost their seats, and one even died of a heart attack as the results came in and the extent of the opposition’s gains became apparent.

This evening I had dinner with some senior government officials and they were still in a state of shock.

“We don’t understand what happened,” one told me.

I just smiled and bit my tongue. It was clear what had happened – the people of Malaysia didn’t like the way that the government was running the country, and they had spoken. Corruption, cronyism, inflation, security and racial and religious tensions were all issues that had been swept under the carpet by the government during the election campaign.

What was most remarkable about the result was that the government had lost the popular vote on peninsula Malaysia despite its total control of the mainstream media – broadcast and print – which meant that the opposition had no opportunity to raise issues or present policies through the mainstream media.

The broadcast and print media had been saturated with pro-government advertising. The opposition couldn’t buy a second of airtime or an inch of print space – so they had to rely totally on reaching voters face-to-face and through the Internet and text messaging.

I suspect that the government completely underestimated the influence of the Internet (the only medium in Malaysia that is not censored).

Since the last election, nearly a million new voters have been enrolled – all young voters, many of whom would have had access to the Internet for uncensored news. As well, thousands of deceased voters (who in the last election had somehow managed to cast votes for the government from their graves) had been removed from the rolls following loud protests by the opposition parties.

One young Malaysian that I spoke with told me that it was “not fair” that there was a total blackout in the mainstream media on coverage of anything that the opposition does – unless it is something that puts them in a bad light.

“That’s what drove us to the Internet,” he said. “Only the Internet news sites and blogs give us unbiased coverage of what is happening in our country.”

That’s a message that the government needs to take heed of. Whilst I doubt that they will give up control of the mainstream media anytime soon, it will be interesting in the coming months to see how the media will handle the reporting of state government affairs in the five states that the opposition parties now control.

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