Election casts spell on streets of Malaysia

Both sides of Malaysia’s polarised political divide feel confident of election victory.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Debates about corruption, racial politics, sex scandals and economic stability are rising over the Malaysian capital like the iconic Petronas Towers ahead of Sunday’s close election bitterly contested between two political heavy-weights. 

Malaysians of all stripes prepared their own roles on Saturday ahead of what the New Straits Times called “the mother of all elections”.

With the election just hours away, both sides are certain of victory. Pre-voting polls say the outcome is too close to call.

The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, believes its record of economic growth, recent social reforms, and nearly 60 years of uninterrupted power will carry the day.

It has played on fears of a financial meltdown and painted the opposition as a fractious bunch of scandal-ridden amateurs who plan to install Islamic law across the nation.

The resurgent opposition, the three-party Pakatan Rakyat, is convinced the country is fed up with the cronyism, economic inequality and pro-Malay quota systems that are associated with the government.

The challengers have a wild card in leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who has come back from six years in prison, on sodomy charges, to regain his position as one of Southeast Asia’s greatest orators.

His personal dynamism is credited as the only thing holding the disparate opposition together. Complicated, polarising and too close to call, in terms of Malaysian politics, tomorrow’s election could probably have never played out any other way.

Ethnic agendas

The capital’s main ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese and Indians, each has its own agenda in Sunday’s vote, and all parties have a lot on the line. Everyone was talking about the election on Saturday.

For nearly 40 years, Raja Kumar’s family has run a shop just outside the Baku Caves, a limestone-built temple to Murugan, the Hindu god of war and victory, and one of the capital’s biggest tourist draws. A third-generation Malaysian, Kumar, 36, is a strong supporter of Najib’s Barisan government.

“I think they will win. They have done a lot under Najib’s leadership. As an Indian, I think Najib had done a lot,” he said. “If the opposition came to power, it would take them two or three terms to work out how to run the country.”

Kumar said Najib had delivered millions of ringgit to improve the Baku Caves. His biggest concern is a rise in street crime, what he called “gansterism”.

“They have to stop crime and corruption. We should be equal to Singapore, where you can’t bribe a policeman. Here, if you give them fifty bucks you get away with anything.”

In a Malay-dominated district a short drive away, Ardly Khairi and two friends are wearing shirts representing the Parti Islam Semalaysia, a branch of the opposition that has been criticised for a hardline Islamic stance.

“Tomorrow is the most important day for the youth of this country. We have been waiting for this chance to change the government,” Khairi said. “They have become arrogant.”

Khairi said social media has made Malaysians of all races “brave enough” to demand change. “We will definitely win. I am confident that we will finally get a new government… if there is no cheating,” said Khairi.

‘Chatty nation’

At opposition headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, a loose group of ex-college debate team members are carrying out what one of their group calls a “mindset revolution”.

This is the social media arm of the Pakatan Rakyat, and no group could better reinforce what Khairi said about social media empowerment.

“Malaysia has crossed the line irrespective of the outcome tomorrow. People are demanding answers and not accepting things as they are,” said Praba Ganesan, social media strategist for the main opposition party Keadilan.

Ganesan and his team, including Logandran Balavijandran, have been at the forefront of Maylasia’s social media movement, one that came of age in the opposition charge during the 2008 elections.

“It’s the people of Malaysia that are driving social media discourse. We are a chatty people. For generations, we sat in coffee shops and talked about politics,” said Ganesan. “Until social media, we never knew we had so much in common.”

The internet has been a game-changer in Malaysia, exposing corruption and galvansing a youthful population, but both sides have used it to their advantage.

Even so, the team at Pakarat headquarters is confident of victory. “If desire translates into votes, we will have the votes. We’re worried about fraud,” said Balavijandran.

Ganesan has a different concern. “We’re going to win. It’s frightening though. We’ve never won. For many people it’s institutionalised. This is the only government we’ve ever had.”

Across the capital, in the majority Chinese district of Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur’s nightlife district, Barisan candidate Frankie Gan Zoon Zin is up against his own historical problems.

Never in the 57 years since independence has Bukit Bintang been won by the ruling party, although a court decision in 1990s awarded it to Barisan. Gan, a third generation Malaysian and member of the venerable Malaysian Chinese Association, is out to change all that.

“This district is 73 percent Chinese, and a high-percentage of Chinese want to change the government. I’m trying to tell them now is not the right time. Malaysia under Najib has grown by at least 5 percent a year,” Gan told Al Jazeera.

Gan is in the minority, some estimates put ethnic Chinese support for the opposition above 90 percent. Many Chinese are outraged at the government’s quotas on business licenses and university placements that favor ethnic Malays.

Gan is also a character. He has put out albums as a crooner, which includes his trademark track “Love is in the Air”.
His message about social relations is less harmonious.

“The opposition wants this country to have Hudud [Islamic] law. That means no gambling, no drinking, and in cinemas men and women cannot sit together. Are you ok with that if this happens in downtown KL?” he said.

“I’m strongly confident of a Barisan victory,” Gan added. “But it will not be easy.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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