Malaysian tank

For the two weeks of Malaysia’s election campaign, I was one of a group of researchers from the University of Malaya and various overseas institutions that toured through every one of Malaysia’s 13 states, witnessing the night time election rallies (ceramah), speaking to campaign workers and candidates, and generally trying to take the political pulse of this highly varied country. It was an exhausting trip, but also a great introduction to Malaysia for someone like me who has spent many years researching Indonesian politics. Indonesia and Malaysia are neighbouring countries, sharing a similar national language and (in part) a Malay heritage, but their politics are very different. Here are a couple of simple comparisons, drawn from the experience of this research trip.

1. Malaysian elections are less free.

Anyone who doubts the depth of Indonesian democracy should pay a visit to a Malaysian election campaign and compare the climate to what one finds in an Indonesian poll. Obviously, Malaysia is not a police state: we don’t feel the sense of constant surveillance that was a feature of Indonesia during the Suharto period, nor is there a particularly obvious security force presence. But 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 daily read the monotonous and biased fare dished up by Malaysian newspapers. 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 internally 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 as a growing proportion of the population, especially young people, turn 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 the results.

Second, there is a fusion of state and party that has no equivalent in contemporary Indonesia. To be sure, we know from many reports of pilkada (local executive government heads) that incumbent local government leaders in regional Indonesia make use of the government apparatus to try to get re-elected – for example, by leaning on village heads to mobilize 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 BN coalition is sometimes so thin as to be invisible, and everyone knows it.

This is obvious most of all in the various cash transfer schemes and other populist schemes that the government ran as a major part of its re-election bid. Throughout the country, BN campaigners agree that policies such as the BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia – One Malaysia People’s Aid) program, in which households earning less than 3000 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 fusion of 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 fused.

2. But elections matter more, and so do parties.

Yet for all this, it is hard to avoid the strong impression that elections are much more meaningful, consequential and competitive political events in Malaysia than in Indonesia. Or at least, that’s how people view them. Of course, elections are the central institution of Indonesia’s new democratic politics, and nobody could deny they are important. But at least since the first post-Suharto polls of 1999, there is never much of a sense that the whole fate of the nation hangs in the balance as the result of a particular poll, as was definitely the case in these 2013 Malaysian elections. Sometimes, supporters of a particular candidate will get very fired up in Indonesia, but rarely are whole communities galvanised.

In Malaysia, nobody attending election events could doubt that this was an election that really mattered: party leaders and campaigners, the press, and ordinary citizens repeatedly stated that the future of the country was at stake. Passions were particularly high, of course, because of the opposition gains in 2008, and because an opposition victory seemed a real possibility. Another important factor is that the country’s parliamentary form of government acts to strengthen party identity: it is the parliamentary elections that have the power to create and destroy governments (unlike in Indonesia where the president is directly elected and coalitions within parliament tend to be issue-based and ever-changing rather than permanent and institutionalised).

Accordingly, parties are more distinctive from one another than they are in Indonesia. They appeal to different ethnic and other social constituencies, and they are also much more programatic. In Indonesia, individual candidates might use local languages and cultural symbols to spice up their campaigning, but there is no party that targets a particular ethnic community and campaigns primarily in that community’s language as in Malaysia. To be sure, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat has made great strides in coalition-building, but witnessing DAP and other party ceramah using the various Chinese dialects drives home just how segmented Malaysia’s electorate is. So does watching the mix of party flags hung along the roadsides altering dramatically as we moved between states.

It was also striking how policy-focused the elections were. In Indonesian elections, campaigners often say it is “figur” — the individual candidate’s personality or charisma — that counts. Most of the election events I witnessed in Malaysia were relentlessly policy-focused. To be sure, campaigners spent a lot of time mocking their opponents’ personal records or characters, but they also dwelled on the government’s achievements or failings, and on their future policy promises. PR campaigners we followed as they went house to house through poor kampung in Sarawak, for example, emphasised policies such as free education and a new pension scheme.

BN used a slick and obviously highly centralised advertising campaign that placed Prime Minister Najib at the centre and used various soft-focus, feel good messages of the sort that will be familiar to most people who have lived through a recent election campaign in a developed democracy. But the content of BN campaigns was also focused on attacking the opposition, and on promoting the government’s development achievements (janji ditepati – promises delivered – was the major catch-cry of the national advertising campaign) and the BR1M and various other benefit schemes.

Overall, however, especially once the results began to trickle in on Sunday night, I couldn’t help being left with a sense of irony. In Indonesia, elections are more free and therefore much more amenable to being used to bring about 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 find 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?

Edward Aspinall is a Professor of Southeast Asian Politics in the Department of Political and Social Change at the ANU. He wishes to thank Terence Gomez, Surinderpal Kaur and Meredith Weiss for their company, guidance and insight during his recent trip through Malaysia.