In the closest election in its history, Malaysians are standing at a giant crossroads, with just an ‘X’ between themselves and a new direction.
But not everyone is feeling history’s calling.
(LIVE BLOG: Malaysia goes to the polls in GE13 – Saturday)
Among the young voters I’ve talked to in the southernmost state of Johor, there is a groundswell of support for Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the People’s Alliance. The rallies that have been held this week have rocked this Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) stronghold to its core. There is a strong sense of intent, but a level of caution, too.
Believe it or not there are those who are taking no part in Sunday’s election at all. I spoke to a young student from Malaysia’s University of Technology (UTM) yesterday, who was gutted that she failed to enrol.
Lee Chuan Hau, 24, and another UTM student says he will be sticking with Prime Minister Najib’s BN coalition even though most of his friends are about to back the Opposition. About “three or four out of ten” of his peers will stick with BN, he says.
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“Most of them want to change this government, and if the new government doesn’t do the job, then they’ll change it back,” he says.
It gives a sense that not all of the more than 2.5 million new voters in 2013 are singing from the same songsheet. Not all young voters are confident or convinced that the change is right.
“I don’t think the Malaysian government needs to change,” Hau argues, “I just think it needs to change some of its politicians, the ones who haven’t worked as they promised the last time around.”
He cites Johor’s successful Iskandar economic development corridor and the business and investment that has come to the state under Najib. Those business leaders, the logic goes, must be fans of the ruling party because they’ve benefitted so much under its tenure. But therein lies the problem.
On corruption and cronyism he joins other voters here in Johor, who don’t necessarily think a change in government will change that systematic problem. Hau says it is endemic in all governments: “Where there are politicians, there’s corruption – it’s the same everywhere,” he says.
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Transparency and accountability are both pillars of Anwar Ibrahim’s campaign to change politics in Malaysia. But Hau says these are just words.
“In my mind, transparency is impossible – can you make every government transparent? Can you name one government for me that is transparent?” he asks me. Unfortunately, I can’t.
Deborah Augustin, a 24-year-old expat Malaysian living in New York, says she has cast a postal vote for change. “I think we have reached a point where Malaysians feel that they have ownership of their
country,” she says. “The last general election certainly made people feel like their votes mattered, and now that sentiment has increased.”
“None of the parties that make up the ruling coalition truly represent me. Beyond that I feel that race politics are impeding our progress, BN’s success depends on creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality… racial and religious tensions are increasing in Malaysia, and the ruling party continues to politicise issues of race and religion.”
She wants change, but her vote won’t be an angry one: she does credit BN with economic growth and trying to address Malaysia’s ‘brain drain’ and thinks Malaysians are looking for a genuine two-party system, with more “checks and balances” and more “multi-racial policies”.
The question is whether voters believe that after six decades in power BN is able to bring about that change.
“The problem is,” Augustin says, “it feels like it’s too little too late.”