Meredith Weiss is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Albany.
If all goes according to plan, election-watchers of all sorts will be thick on the ground for Malaysia’s upcoming thirteenth general elections. Admittedly, that plan is dependent upon rounding up and training an extraordinary number of volunteers, and doubtless will be forced to exclude the least accessible, but purportedly most watch-worthy districts. But what tends to get lost in the tea leaf-reading and data-crunching of this long-awaited showdown is the why behind such widespread interest in process and participation, which extends well beyond the polls themselves. Malaysia has seen heightened mobilization since 2008, if not since Reformasi in the late 1990s—part of why the unusually prolonged run-up to the polls has seemed so, well, long. This more sustained mobilization represents a true trend toward “democratization” in Malaysia, beyond the mere act of voting.
Not that voting is unimportant. Former prime minister (and now voluble crank) Mahathir Mohamad insisted that democracy means voting once every five years, thereby giving the government a mandate to rule as it sees fit. Over the longue durée of his premiership, however, voices from a burgeoning civil society, as well as opposition political parties, challenged that reading. Earlier on, Malaysians voiced a wide range of political views and claims, on university campuses, in community organizations, in newspapers, and more. Part of the ruling National Front’s, then Mahathir’s own, consolidation of control from the 1970s on involved tamping down those voices—making contestation seem both needless and inappropriate. Even setting aside the effects of laws curbing press, speech, and association, conventional wisdom suggested Malaysians did indeed lose the taste or habit for political action.
Developments over the past fifteen years, and especially a sustained surge since shortly before 2008’s electoral tsunami swept opposition candidates into federal and state office, indicate otherwise. The infrastructure for this surge includes a combination of headline-grabbing mass mobilization and determined efforts by more professionalized social movement organizations, linked symbiotically with parties of the opposition People’s Alliance coalition. Ongoing mass movements—Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections; the Hindu Rights Action Force, HINDRAF; the environmentalist Himpunan Hijau, or Green Assembly—have articulated clear policy demands to all parties seeking their votes. Other initiatives have built up skills for engagement and critical analysis within the general public, such as NGO Pusat KOMAS’s Freedom Film Fest, now in its seventh year, or the human rights forum/collective LoyarBurok and election-information offshoot UndiInfo. Malaysians overseas have been increasingly energized, too, not least around the elections themselves. The Malaysian Forum, for instance, brings together hundreds of expatriate Malaysians, mostly undergraduates, for ongoing discussions and periodic conferences. (Most recently, in what I think is a first, Singapore hauled up several locally-based Malaysians carrying placards urging fellow Malaysians in Singapore—numbering at least several hundred thousand—to go home to vote.)
And as noted above, election monitoring efforts themselves suggest the extent of popular determination to make democracy meaningful. For instance, Bersih has launched its own volunteer election-watch effort, Pemantau Pilihan Raya Rakyat (the People’s Election Watch, or Jom Pantau—loosely, Let’s Monitor!), supplementing an “official” such effort by four state-selected, but independent, organizations; the Centre for Independent Journalism, National Institute for Democracy and Electoral Integrity, and survey organization the Merdeka Centre have joined forces for an electoral information effort, Info Pilihanraya Malaysia, including an offshoot, “Watching the Watchdog” media-monitoring component; and Facebook pages, Twitter hashtags, and other crowd-sourcing tools are collecting images, complaints, and other information about the conduct of the campaign and polls.
And then there are the media. Online media are now among the primary sources of political news at least among younger voters, surveys suggest (and about half of Malaysian voters are under forty); around two-thirds of Malaysians overall have internet access and half have Facebook accounts, where even if they do not “like” political sites, they are apt to encounter political posts and forwarded news items. Independent radio stations, such as Radio Free Malaysia and Radio Free Sarawak, have impact beyond where internet is likely to reach (albeit both recently jammed). Mainstream media are sycophantically pro-government, to an extent likely to turn off even moderately skeptical voters, so availability of these other sources of news inherently changes the terms of political debate. Moreover, these channels may not just supplement, but retool, the in-person, party-based networks through which Malaysians are typically conscientized and mobilized, not least to vote.
Whichever side emerges the winner on May 5, these deeper, secular trends will not simply stop short. Rather, they suggest we read these polls more as signpost than destination, capturing rather than determining the character of its polity today.