'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.
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.'
'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.'
'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.'
'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.