Few expect Malaysia’s ruling coalition of Barisan Nasional parties, which have effectively governed since the country’s independence, to lose the country’s upcoming elections. But though the outcome of polls, which must be held by August but are expected sooner, might be quite predictable, thereby rendering the event a relatively dull affair, there has been some predictable hype around the notion of “foreign interference”.
Both the ruling party and the opposition in Malaysia have at various points used “foreign interference” to boost their own position at the expense of their opponent, to distract from substantive challenges that they have, and to sow confusion around clear concerns that are being posed. But things have unsurprisingly heated up as we move closer to polls.
On Tuesday, the UMNO Grassroots Movement filed a police report claiming UK-based magazine The Economist was attempting to overthrow the Najib Razak government after publishing a piece on March 8 exploring the 1MDB corruption scandal and gerrymandering. The report, filed in the country’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, would ostensibly allow authorities to investigate opposition figures who UMNO members claim are involved.
Under the headline ‘Malaysia’s PM is about to steal an election’, The Economist piece lays out a clear case on how Barisan Nasional has used gerrymandering and malapportionment to make it easier for government candidates to win. According to the constitution, The Economist notes, each electorate must be approximately the same size population but recent delineation moves are a farcical violation of the requirements.
Data gathered by The Economist shows the proposed redrawn constituencies range from 18,000 to 146,000 voters, with Barisan Nasional holding the 15 smallest and opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan 14 of the 15 largest. Furthermore, The Economist investigation found on average each government coalition seat has 30,000 fewer voters compares to Pakatan Harapan seats.
The report contained arguments and statistics that some other scholars, experts, and commentators have cited as well, including in these pages. And it has found support among some political commentators as well, including the Penang Institute’s Ooi Kok Hin whose research report published earlier this week for New Naratif provides data heavy evidence of the claims made in The Economist piece.
For its part, predictably, the government-appointed Election Commission, which has been tasked with rolling out the delineation, denies the accusations. The current boundaries are the second attempt by the Commission, with the initial boundaries seen by some as a blatant abuse of power in favor of Barisan Nasional.
“The EC denies claims that there is manipulation in the electoral system and in the redelineation exercise to ensure the victory of specific parties in the 14th general election. The EC feels that the statements made are slanderous in nature and are not based on concrete evidence and are meant to confuse,” Election Commission chairman said Mohd Hashim Abdullah following The Economist piece going to press.
UMNO Vice-President and Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is apparently taking the threat of interference seriously, telling a press conference over the weekend “I do not dismiss the possibility of certain parties who are willing to use external powers to undermine our position.”
The comments transparently tap into anti-Western and anti-Chinese sentiment and suspicions both or either are intent on infiltrating the country. These sentiments are a genuine concern for many in the electorate and are being cynically exploited by candidates for votes over maintaining social cohesion, as seen recently with a split between UMNO and fellow Barisan Nasional member party Malaysia Chinese Association over comments made about Chinese-Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok.
Accusations of teaming up with foreign forces to influence elections have taken on a fresh degree of import this week as well after the Cambridge Analytica scandal spread from the United States to Malaysia, which saw accusations leveled across the political divide. The analytics firm has since confirmed it did work for Barisan Nasional during the 2013 general election in the state of Kedah where, their site claims, it “supported Barisan Nasional in Kedah state with a targeted messaging campaign highlighting school improvements since 2008”.
Any schadenfreude on the behalf of Pakatan Harapan was short-lived, with UMNO immediately and conveniently suggesting the hiring of Cambridge Analytica was done by then-Barisan Nasional head and now opposition stalwart Mukhriz Mahathir. Mahathir has denied any wrongdoing, telling Channel NewsAsia that “any claims otherwise is a misrepresentation of the facts intended to divert attention away from the possible use of illegal campaign tactics as admitted by Cambridge Analytica for BN.”
With neither side likely to admit wrongdoing – and an election date still unannounced – “foreign interference” will likely dominate much of the campaign in the coming weeks. And for a disengaged electorate largely interested in strengthening the economy, it’s probably just another reason to switch off.