Malaysia GE14: The Big Data Election?

09 May 2018

Today, Malaysians go to the polls in what is shaping to be one of the most hotly contested elections in the nation’s history.

The incumbent leader, Najib Razak, who has led the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition since 2009, will face a strong challenge from opposition leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad, of Pakatan Harapan. Once Najib’s mentor, the 93-year-old left politics in 2003 after serving as Prime Minister for over two decades. This year though, analysts say Mahathir has a slim chance of overturning Barisan Nasional’s government.

Najib was implicated in a major corruption scandal while in power, which has led to a decline in his standing within the country. In 2015, Najib was alleged to have embezzled funds from 1MDB, a government-run development company. It is alleged that Najib transferred over RM 2.67 (around USD 700 million) from 1MDB into his personal bank accounts.

The scandal severely affected Najib’s popularity and prompted Mahathir’s return to politics.  

A panel of experts from the ANU Malaysia Institute discussed the fraught politics of the upcoming elections at a seminar on Monday night. The Institute, which is based at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, connects researchers and students focused on Malaysia at the University.

The panel was made up of speakers Dr John Funston and Dr Amrita Malhi from Coral Bell School at ANU, and Dr Ross Tapsell, ANU Malaysia Institute Director

According to Dr Tapsell, new media forms have been central to the GE14 election campaign.

“Malaysia has been a crucial site of new media campaigning – in large part because the government owns and controls most, if not all, of the mainstream media,” Dr Tapsell explained. “The Internet has been a site for alternative news and commentaries, and has been crucial to activism,” he added.

The importance of social media in deciding election outcomes became clear during the last general election in 2013. In rural areas, where access to the Internet and alternative news sites remained limited, voters favoured the incumbents. In urban areas though, the opposition’s social media-driven campaign resulted in a more even distribution of votes.

But much has changed since 2013. This year, Harapan and Barisan Nasional have capitalised on Malaysia’s growing Internet penetration to gather information about voter behaviour.

“The Barisan Nasional has their own big data companies,” said Dr Tapsell. “They buy data from Facebook – some if this is aggregrated data, but it turns out that when you merge location, interests, demographics, behaviours and friend circles you can actually find out quite a lot about someone, and you can target them individually, largely through Facebook ads, but also through other forms of campaigning online,” Dr Tapsell added.

The opposition has its own big data companies as well. The most famous of these is Invoke, a tech company established in 2016.

Invoke’s analysis of data has assisted Parakan Harapan in building a targeted campaign.

“Their aim is to identify fence-sitters,” Dr Tapsell explained. “They estimate that around 1,000 to 1500 fence-sitters are located in each constituency.”

Last month, Invoke predicted victory for Parakan Harapan.

“Everyone is saying this is the WhatsApp Elections, and a lot of that is true…but I would say 2018 is actually the big data election,” Dr Tapsell said. “I think this is a referendum on to what extent big data can change votes,” he added.

One thing is for certain: it’s going to be a close race.

By CAP Student Correspondent Dot Mason

Image credit: Harris Hamdan / Shutterstock

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team