After witnessing Malaysia’s 2013 election campaign, EDWARD ASPINALL reports that until media bias and the state-party relationship disappear, elections cannot be considered free or fair.
Anyone who doubts the depth of Indonesian democracy should pay a visit to Malaysia. Obviously, Malaysia is not a police state: we don't feel the constant surveillance that was a feature of Indonesia during the Suharto period, nor is there a particularly obvious security force presence. But, there can be no doubt that Malaysia’s elections are less free. In at least two ways, the authoritarian features of Malaysia's politics are obvious.
First, and most blatant, is control of the media. For someone used to the cacophonous and sometimes highly irreverent print and electronic media of Indonesia, it was a shock to read the monotonous and biased fare dished up by Malaysian newspapers on a daily basis.
Through the campaign period, both English and Malay language newspapers churned out a torrent of laudatory reports on the government and highly critical – sometimes laughably hysterical – reports on the opposition. Readers were repeatedly warned that the opposition coalition was a shambles, that it was irredeemably divided, and that chaos would ensue if it won.
No surprise there for anyone who knows a minimum about Malaysian politics. But I have to admit, I was taken aback by the brazenness of the partisanship. Even in the late Suharto years, the Indonesian press was never this bad.
However, as almost everyone – from both government and opposition – told us, such media control is becoming less effective. This is because a growing proportion of the population, especially young people, are turning to social media and online news sources for information.
Even in remote rural electorates in Sabah, candidates employed cyber-troopers – young people whose job it was to promote their candidate and cast aspersions on the opposition. But while social media is extending its reach, it still affects mostly a younger, educated and more urban population: a fact borne out in the sharp urban-rural divide in Sunday’s election results.
Second, there is a fusion of state and party that has no equivalent in contemporary Indonesia. To be sure, we know from many that incumbent local government leaders in regional Indonesia make use of the government apparatus to try to get re-elected; they do so by leaning on village heads to mobilise their communities or by directing their staff to channel development projects to political sympathisers.
But, such leaders do this in ways that are surreptitious, because they know that public servants are prohibited from engaging in politics. This prohibition was a major plank of the "de-Golkar-isation" that occurred as part of Indonesia's post-Suharto reforms. In Malaysia, the boundary between the government apparatus and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is sometimes so thin as to be invisible, and everyone knows it.
This is obvious most of all in the various cash transfers and other populist schemes that the government ran as a major part of its re-election bid. Throughout the country, BN campaigners agreed that policies such as the Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia (BR1M), or One Malaysia People's Aid program – in which households earning less than 3,000 ringgit per month were made payments of 500 ringgit – were a critical part of its re-election program.
But, it was also clear that party and state were all but indistinguishable in the delivery of these payments. We collected many reports of people being required to register for BR1M payments at UMNO or BN offices, or of local BN leaders being appointed as coordinators of the BR1M program. Throughout the election period the country's roadside and media was drenched in advertising promoting the "1 Malaysia" assistance programs, of which BR1M was only one small part.
Similar partisanship in government largesse is visible in the Constitutency Development Fund program, in which federal parliamentarians are allocated 1 million ringgit each to spend on development programs in their electorates. But, such funds are made available only to BN MPs, not those from the opposition. As one former BN MP explained, this targeting is to stop opposition MPs "taking credit" for government development spending.
This sort of fusion between state and party in development programming was a hallmark of the Suharto period in Indonesia, when Golkar was basically the electoral expression of the government bureaucracy. Today, there is still plenty of manipulation of government programs for partisan political advantage in Indonesia, but when it happens it has to take place much more covertly. In Malaysia, the state and ruling party are all but combined.
Once the election results began to trickle in on Sunday night, I couldn’t help being left with an overall sense of irony. In Indonesia, elections are more free and therefore much more amenable to facilitating a real change of government. In Malaysia, the cards are so stacked against the opposition that it now seems hard to imagine a change in national government taking place through an election.
The rural gerrymander alone is enough to keep BN in power with a much smaller fraction of the popular vote than it won this weekend. And yet, it’s in Malaysia that we still find an excitement about electioneering that Indonesia’s experience of democratic government has dulled. But, how long will elections seem truly consequential for Malaysians if the national government can never be changed by them?
Professor Edward Aspinall is an Indonesia and Southeast Asian specialist based at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He recently spent two weeks touring through all 13 of Malaysia’s states as part of a research project monitoring the election campaign.
This article forms part of New Mandala’s analysis of the 2013 Malaysian elections.