If all goes according to plan, election-watchers of all sorts will be thick on the ground for Malaysia’s upcoming thirteenth general elections. Admittedly, that plan is dependent upon rounding up and training an extraordinary number of volunteers, and doubtless will be forced to exclude the least accessible, but purportedly most watch-worthy districts. But what tends to get lost in the tea leaf-reading and data-crunching of this long-awaited showdown is the why behind such widespread interest in process and participation, which extends well beyond the polls themselves. Malaysia has seen heightened mobilization since 2008, if not since Reformasi in the late 1990s—part of why the unusually prolonged run-up to the polls has seemed so, well, long. This more sustained mobilization represents a true trend toward “democratization” in Malaysia, beyond the mere act of voting.
Not that voting is unimportant. Former prime minister (and now voluble crank) Mahathir Mohamad insisted that democracy means voting once every five years, thereby giving the government a mandate to rule as it sees fit. Over the longue durée of his premiership, however, voices from a burgeoning civil society, as well as opposition political parties, challenged that reading. Earlier on, Malaysians voiced a wide range of political views and claims, on university campuses, in community organizations, in newspapers, and more. Part of the ruling National Front’s, then Mahathir’s own, consolidation of control from the 1970s on involved tamping down those voices—making contestation seem both needless and inappropriate. Even setting aside the effects of laws curbing press, speech, and association, conventional wisdom suggested Malaysians did indeed lose the taste or habit for political action.
Developments over the past fifteen years, and especially a sustained surge since shortly before 2008’s electoral tsunami swept opposition candidates into federal and state office, indicate otherwise. The infrastructure for this surge includes a combination of headline-grabbing mass mobilization and determined efforts by more professionalized social movement organizations, linked symbiotically with parties of the opposition People’s Alliance coalition. Ongoing mass movements—Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections; the Hindu Rights Action Force, HINDRAF; the environmentalist Himpunan Hijau, or Green Assembly—have articulated clear policy demands to all parties seeking their votes. Other initiatives have built up skills for engagement and critical analysis within the general public, such as NGO Pusat KOMAS’s Freedom Film Fest, now in its seventh year, or the human rights forum/collective LoyarBurok and election-information offshoot UndiInfo. Malaysians overseas have been increasingly energized, too, not least around the elections themselves. The Malaysian Forum, for instance, brings together hundreds of expatriate Malaysians, mostly undergraduates, for ongoing discussions and periodic conferences. (Most recently, in what I think is a first, Singapore hauled up several locally-based Malaysians carrying placards urging fellow Malaysians in Singapore—numbering at least several hundred thousand—to go home to vote.)