Why does Malaysia’s federal election matter?

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Alert global citizens will notice that Malaysia had a long-overdue federal election last Sunday. Opposition to the incumbent UMNO party has been surging in the last few years and many citizens of the country had hoped that they might see the first change in government since the formation of Malaysia as an independent nation in 1963. Instead the election seems to have returned the ruling party to power amid extensive allegations of electoral fraud.

I am an adopted part of a Malaysian family. My partner Min is a man of Hakka Chinese heritage from the eastern state of Sarawak in Malaysia and I have enjoyed many long, furious conversations with him and his sisters and brothers about entrenched government corruption and racialised policies designed to advantage Malay and indigenous citizens over those (like Indian and Chinese citizens) whose heritage lies elsewhere.

These policies rely on a system which classifies people as either “bumiputera” (son of the land) – basically ethnic Malays or local indigenous people – or not and then gives a range of comprehensive advantages in financial support, property ownership and education to anyone who is bumiputera. The policy has been assembled over several decades to address economic and social disadvantage among Malay and indigenous people to some positive effect. The trigger for some of these policies initially was anti-Chinese violence in the late sixties – the government at the time reasoned that reducing the economic gap between different groups would also reduce violence.

This sounds like the “affirmative action” policies of other countries, but in this case the advantaged class is a little over 60% of the population rather than a minority. Malays in particular dominate the political sphere. Despite this many citizens, whether of Malay, Indigenous, Indian or Chinese heritage feel strongly that, whether or not they were originally helpful, these policies are now out-dated. The neighbours are starting to talk.

From my own experience, I’m aware that many Chinese people in Malaysia now feel effectively oppressed by these policies. They feel shut out of a political system designed to enfranchise and advantage an elite class of primarily Malay people (with the usual token members of other racial categories so it’s not too obvious). Most of Min’s family haven’t bothered voting for years, because it’s seemed futile, hope of change has seemed naïve and stupid.

It seems unfair to me that my nieces and nephews, whose great-grandparents committed their future to Sarawak and whose grandparents and parents have all inhabited that land, contributed to its well-being and see their future there are effectively discriminated against by their own government.

The other side to this is the fairly predictable effects of one political party holding power for fifty years. I lived in Queensland during the more than thirty-year rule of the National party and the entrenched corruption of that state’s political system, police force and business dealings were legendary. From what I’m told (and I’m no investigative reporter), the effects in Malaysia are similar – entrenched corruption of public institutions and shady business deals all advantaging the elite political class.

It’s this emergence of a power elite that starts to make it look like the racial stuff is less about actual racist commitments on the part of the government and more about galvanising the ethnic majority of Malaysia to keep the ruling UMNO party in power so the heavyweights (all puns intended) of the party can keep the cash flowing. This kind of power and corruption, set next to alleged electoral fraud and the type of authoritarian behaviour that jails opponents and uses intimidation to control the press is the type of thing that begs the rest of the world to call you a “regime” rather than a “government” and bluntly, that’s what it is.

The thing is, we know that when a regime resorts to the kind of heavy-handed tactics that it seems that the incumbent party in Malaysia has, while opposition may seem pointless, it’s actually so, so very close to change. When a party like that is actually all-powerful you don’t even see this kind of stuff, this sort of overt tampering only shows up when they’re desperate. This is not the time to give up, this is the time to stand firm and agitate more strongly for change. It’s always darkest just before the dawn.

I’m not a Malaysian citizen. I’m white, I’m Australian and I really have no business choosing sides in a national election of another country. But I care what happens to Malaysia. I care that my adopted nieces and nephews grow up in a place where they stand next to every other Malaysian citizen as equals. I also care that Malay kids stand next to their classmates as equals, without a blanket of legislated privilege. I care that governments protect and help disadvantaged citizens, regardless of where their great-grandparents were born and I care that my fellow planetary citizens in Malaysia get to have a transparent society where things are as fair as they can be, a society where they can feel their government stands for them, not against them, in which voting doesn’t seem useless, a society in which hope doesn’t seem stupid.

So that’s why I want to do what little I can to at least voice support for real democracy in Malaysia. I want my friends in Malaysia to know I’m with them, on the side of justice and a change for the better. I want them to know it’s not stupid to hope and that change is possible. More than that, I want them to know it’s close.

In a world in which injustice seems rife, it’s easy to turn off and avoid noticing. Please notice that this is happening and keep our fellows in Malaysia in your thoughts (and prayers, if that’s your thing) as this situation evolves. Hope along with me, along with them for a transparent, just and equitable society for all Malaysians.

UPDATE: Please consider adding your voice to this Change.org petition.

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