Foreign workers Malaysia

In case of doubt: blame the migrant – the debate on foreign phantom voters in the 13th Malaysian general election

A case in point of these shifting boundaries in re-defining ‘we’-groups and the fact that these processes are not limited to the powers-that-be and their possibly ulterior motives is the framing of foreign migrant workers as one of the reasons why PR failed to secure an overall victory in the recent elections. While it is not the first time that migrant workers have been used as scapegoats in Malaysia’s ethnicised system in order to create a ‘we-‘group, this has usually been a discourse pushed forward by the BN government. In this case, however, the same lines of argument are being used by some sections of PR (or their supporters) who depict the foreign migrant worker as one of the root causes for losing the elections rather than focusing on the electoral or political system that allows for manipulations through phantom voters – whether existent or not – in the first place.

Much has been written about phantom voters and the threat they pose to democratic and fair representations in parliament, making use of a systemic “fault” in the Westminster-based electoral system in which the first past the post renders all other votes cast in a certain district irrelevant. More serious than disproportional representation in parliament through the electoral system per se, however, are the loopholes that allow for “adjusting” the results by adding a few voters here and there to tip the balance in constituencies that could fall to either side of the political divide.

During the run-up to the elections in the last two decades there has always been talk of busloads of voters arriving at a certain polling station to cast their vote.[1] Others have claimed that dozens of people have been registered in the electoral roll under one and the same address, sometimes just a small house.[2] New on the agenda of election watchdogs and activists this time are above-mentioned voters who are supposedly not Malaysian and whose citizenship status is questioned.[3] Certainly, if any of these allegations were true then this could have resulted in skewed election results by tipping the balance in seats too close to call.

The (overestimated?) impact of phantom voters

But before taking a closer look at the alleged ‘illegal’ voters supposedly from abroad, let’s have a look and assess the impact of phantom voters in the current Malaysian electoral landscape. For long there seemed to be a clear indication that BN had the upper hand in so-called “mixed” seats. More homogeneous seats were difficult to predict and the opposition had a better chance there, through PAS or DAP (Loh 2003: 102-104). Phantom voters would have therefore made sense in relatively clearly identifiable constituencies. The importance of these clearly identifiable seats is not to be underestimated as the effort and logistics necessary to deploy a sizable number of voters to a certain district is quite substantial. These voters would be ‘wasted’ if they were used in constituencies that are already ‘safe’ or ‘lost’ for the party in question.

Since 2008 things have significantly changed: no longer are mixed seats a safe bet for BN, but rather the domain of Pakatan Rakyat which bagged 21 mixed seats from Peninsular Malaysia compared to only nine that BN won.[4] In addition, a number of BN big-wigs both as incumbents as well as challengers surprisingly lost their seats, such as Ali Rustam, Abdul Ghani, Nong Chik or Kong Cho Ha. Bringing in real-life phantom voters in large droves therefore either seems to be too difficult to accomplish[5] or their impact too minor to make an effort – because obviously the leaders would take care of their own districts first.

As there would be more effective measures to ensure victory – for example through gerrymandering or malapportionment of constituencies or (of course only hypothetically speaking) bringing in a few extra ballot boxes worth a few hundred voters during a black-out – the question remains why the issue of phantom voters has been given such massive attention during the last election. While highlighting any kind of electoral irregularities is of course any citizen’s duty, things took an uncomfortable turn when calls were made in the social media to identify foreigners (or people who supposedly look foreign) who (again: supposedly) had no right to vote and stop them from casting their ballot.

Migrants as convenient scapegoats

This was not just a buzz by overzealous netizens fed up with the current government as even scholars-cum-activists, called upon their hundreds of followers to make a “citizen’s arrest” for example on “Indonesian-looking” or “Indonesian-sounding” people who were about to vote. Others came up with a call to go to the polls by showing an image of a dark-skinned person, captioned “Saya dari Bangla, saya boleh undi” in order to prevent foreigners to determine the outcome the elections. Among the possible options on election day to determine whether the voter was a ‘genuine’ citizenship was therefore not the voter’s identity card but measures such as letting the person sing the national anthem or recite the Negaraku. The effect of applying these ‘tests’ on election day was that a number of eligible voters who did not ‘look’ or ‘sound’ Malay(sian) enough were barred from voting by overzealous citizens, sometimes even by physical force.

Blaming migrants – even if just partly – for PR’s failure to capture Putrajaya may be a convenient way to avoid examining one’s own failures. It also saves PR supporters of the various ethnicised groups from seeking the blame with each other and possible infighting. Othering against migrants who are depicted as an external threat for a Malaysian democracy worthy of its name can therefore lead to an – albeit temporary and shallow – feeling of unity and cohesion.

But addressing one’s grievances with the electoral system by going against a group that is already marginalized and weak is not only a questionable endeavour because it fails to hold responsible those who would be behind such a substantial move to rig the elections.[6] What weighs more is that establishing one’s “citizen-worthiness” through the stereotyping of minorities based on superficial criteria – such as skin colour, language capabilities or the ability to sing the national anthem – also reinforces the same divisive patterns of ethnicisation that many within the opposition wanted to overcome in the first place.

These criteria are the daily fare of ultra-nationalists in the Malaysian political arena in their attempt to define who is a “real” Malay/Malaysian and who is not: you don’t speak or look like a Malay? You are not a Malay(sian). You do not honour Negaraku? You risk being stripped of your citizenship as almost happened to rapper Namewee a couple of years back.

In an even larger context, references to skin colour, language capabilities and supposedly national cultural heritage such as anthems are part and parcel of the establishing of ‘we’-groups that also deny both Malaysia’s as well as the wider region’s long historical traditions of exchange, fluidity and permeable boundaries. They are key elements in establishing artificial purities and creating divisions.


On a more abstract level, these examples here show that three major identity-building boundaries exist in the contemporary discourse. Firstly, the colonial ethnicised divisions that form the basis of the ruling coalitions predominant component, UMNO. Secondly, the division between Muslims and non-Muslims which is intrinsically linked to the ethnicised categories and whose increasing significance has to be viewed in the light of ethno-nationalism. Thirdly, and this is the main point we want to stress in this article, there is the nationalist ‘we’-group emphasised in the notion of citizenship and Malaysian-ness. This group is admittedly more inclusivist than the ethno-nationalist ideas of Malay supremacy but it runs the risk of swapping one racism for another and to exclude those members of society who have either arrived rather recently or who are part of the society but have not yet passed the bureaucratic hindrances that lead to citizenship. On a more concrete level, this does not mean that the discourse on phantom voters must not be held, but it raises important questions concerning the tone and directions of the debates and demands awareness regarding the depth to which patterns of exclusion are an intrinsic part of daily communication on both sides of the political divide.

[Note: Part 2 concludes this article. Part 1 is available HERE.]

Frederik Holst is a senior research fellow at Humboldt-Universit├дt zu Berlin. He holds a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies and an MA in Communication Studies, forming the basis of his research interests which focus on aspects of identity construction as well as the role and impact of media and technology in post-colonial societies. Regularly returning to USM for the last 15 years, Penang has become his home away from home. Saskia Sch├дfer studied Southeast Asian Studies and Political Science at Humboldt-Universit├дt zu Berlin and USM in Penang before completing her doctorate at Freie Universit├дt Berlin. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.

[6] At least to our knowledge no “citizen’s arrest” has been carried out against a returning officer of the election commission in one of the districts where phantom voters were supposedly sighted.

Publication references

Appadurai, Arjun (2006): “Fear of Small Numbers. An Essay on the Geography of Anger”, Duke University Press, Durham.

Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth, et al., eds. (2001): “Post-Colonial Studies – The Key Concepts”, Routledge, London.

Holst, Frederik (2012): “Ethnicization and Identity Construction in Malaysia”, Routledge, London.

Levitsky, Steven; Way, Lucan A. (2002): “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism”, Journal of Democracy 13(2): 51-65.

Loh, Francis Kok Wah (2003): “A New Politics in Malaysia: Ferment and Fragmentation”, in: Barlow, Colin; Loh, Francis Kok Wah: “Malaysian Economics and Politics in the New Century”, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham.

Sch├дfer, Saskia L. (2009): “Racialising Religion in the Debate on Religious Freedom in Malaysia”. In AlтАРJami’ah: Journal for Islamic Studies 47 (1).