National elections in Malaysia

With all the world watching a seemingly endless election campaign in the United States, who would turn toward Malaysia, a Southeast Asian nation with only 25 million residents?

Malaysia’s national elections (voting is scheduled for March 8 ) have much to teach us about new democracies, in my opinion. For one thing, the press (both print and broadcast) there is strictly controlled by the government, but the Internet is ostensibly unregulated. Three experienced Malaysian journalists have set up a new Web site, Malaysia Votes, to provide election coverage. Using a basic WordPress installation, they are posting news, commentary and citizens’ questions related to the elections in a free and open format.

As far as complex plural societies go, Malaysia has to be one of the most complex and plural societies in the world at the moment. There are few countries with a racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious mix like Malaysia’s, and I have to confess that I am more than annoyed when I meet Middle-Eastern friends who occasionally offer me nuggets of wisdom when they pontificate about how religious pluralism can and should be managed in Malaysia. … [Note: About 60 percent of Malaysians are Muslims.]

This pluralism is perhaps one of the greatest assets Malaysia possesses and is blessed with. It is certainly not a problem and thus should never be pathologised as such. Religious diversity is not an illness that infects the body of the state or nation; nor should it be seen as a handicap.

But what the state has to do in such a context is to play the role of honest broker and to create those vital common public domains where interaction, cooperation, respect and recognition can develop. For any state to appeal and cater to the demands of only one group, and in particular the majority, reeks of bias and uneven compromise; which in turn can only lead to further majoritarianism dominating the arena of national politics. (Farish A. Noor)

Meanwhile, Malaysiakini, a long-established online-only news site that charges for subscriptions, has taken the surprising step of offering its Bahasa Malaysia version and its brand-new Tamil version free of charge. The site, which is unable to attract enough advertising to cover expenses because of political repercussions (or fear of them) against advertisers, has kept its articles behind a pay wall for several years now, and the strategy has enabled it to survive. It began as an English-only news publication online and later added a Chinese version.

In August, Malaysia celebrated 50 years of independence from colonialism. Its first half-century as a nation has been tense and sometimes precarious under a single ruling party that retains power through a complex and careful balance of mutual favors and back-scratching among political parties that represent the major ethnic groups that compose the electorate — ethnic Malays, who are defined by the government as Muslim; ethnic Chinese, who might be Buddhist or Christian; and ethnic South Asians, who are mostly Tamil Hindus.

The Cicak and Malaysia Today are two other independent English-language sites that are covering the elections closely.

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