By Jane Barraclough
PHOTO: "I would have faded into the sunset of my old age, an angry man, unsuccessful and unfulfilled," Malaysian expat William De Cruz, pictured last year at a democracy forum at University of Technology Sydney, left his country to seek equal opportunity in Australia, but now he is back home to vote for the first time. (Jom Balik Undi)
When Malaysian expat William De Cruz witnessed the historic result of his country's last federal election, he humbly repented.
"My God. I'm guilty" he thought, glued to his laptop at home in Sydney.
A dramatic swing against the incumbent government had ended 52 years of one-party dominance in Malaysia, setting the stage for democratic euphoria around Sunday's 13th general election.
"I couldn't believe it. People had stayed behind to fight for change, and I should have been there to provide one more vote. But I never thought my vote would matter," says De Cruz who is in Malaysia this weekend atoning for his apathy as one of the 2.6 million first-time voters in Sunday's landmark poll.
The unprecedented spike in voter registration largely reflects the groundswell of activism by anti-corruption NGOs such as the globally-based "Bersih" (Malay for clean), which De Cruz now heads in Sydney.
The movement has galvanised Malaysians of all religious and racial backgrounds who are disgruntled by alleged corruption and irregularities in the electoral system. Their calls for a clean-up of the electoral process, which pressured the government to introduce indelible ink and postal voting, has extended the vote to the Malaysian diaspora for the first time.
Unlike in previous years, there is no guarantee of the incumbent's return to power, prompting fears that Barisan Nasional (National Front) supporters are using desperate tactics to "steal" the election. The opposition party claims civil servants have provided evidence that plane loads of voters are being flown in from Borneo to Selangor to "steal" the election.
While activists remain deeply suspicious about the policing of alleged vote buying, gerrymandering, and abuse of a long list of phantom voters, there is an optimistic sense that this year, every vote will count.
"There was a lot of indifference in the past, but now there is an incredibly positive atmosphere... Everybody is talking about politics," says De Cruz who has been witnessing the electric run-up to Sunday's election in Kuala Lumpur.
The former News Limited journalist, who left in a "brain drain" the opposition's leader Anwar Ibrahim has pledged to reverse if he wins Sunday's poll, had not registered his name on the ballot until after the 2008 election. That was a wake up call, which demonstrated the voting power of dissenters among the "rakyat" (people) could somewhat withstand the alleged corruption.
In a 13 per cent swing against the Barisan Nasional coalition government, a newly formed opposition coalition had picked up 4 of 12 states including the prized economic powerhouses of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, and took 80 of 222 seats from only 20 the election before, denying BN its previously iron-clad two-thirds majority needed for changes to the constitution.
For the first time in Malaysia's history, a strong, alternative contender for government had emerged in the form of the Pakatan Rakyat (the People's Party) coalition - a delicate alliance of the urban, moderate middle-class, conservative Muslim, and pro-secular Chinese voters with one unifying goal - to loosen the leadership's unbroken grip on power.
It was an unlikely, scandal-plagued pact, but reflected the necessity of compromise in Malaysia's multi-racial and multi-religious society. Winning 47 per cent of the popular vote, PR's success was a clear sign that despite the ongoing fear of a political transition, many Malaysians wanted it.
"That night my wife and I decided to register to vote and fly home for the next election," says De Cruz.
Thousands have "balik undi" (gone home to vote) from countries all around the world, including Australia, with some returning back for work the next day. The campaign to fly home started before postal voting was locked in. But many have still returned to see their vote lodged in-person, often going to great lengths.
"People based in Singapore have organised big car pools and private buses," says De Cruz.
Some Malaysians have even sponsored the air tickets of friends and strangers, and one NGO has been raising money to get KL-based workers home to the Borneo island states of Sabah and Sarawak, which are key BN strongholds and critical seats in the election.
Voters are highly informed about the political issues thanks to the internet and "Ceramahs", local gatherings which counterbalance uneven coverage in the government-steered media.
"People have been coming out in the rain at night, sharing umbrellas with strangers to hear what candidates have to say," says De Cruz.
Some of the issues include wage stagnation, government debt and an inflated public service, rising petrol and household costs, and corruption - a problem the opposition pins on the ruling party, but both sides of politics have pledged to tackle.
A recent documentary on widespread corporate tax evasion and cronyism in Sarawak highlighted that even rural Malays, historically the beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, miss out on much of the wealth of the country's resource-rich Borneo.
But the binding issue is racial discrimination, with many calling for an end to "dated" racial quota policies, which Dr Cruz says forced him to make the difficult choice of leaving home for better opportunities.
"The age of 33 is not a good time to uproot and leave your history and all your friends from childhood and young adulthood behind.
"But if I had stayed there, I probably would have faded into the sunset of my old age, an angry man, unsuccessful in my career, and unfulfilled," says Dr Cruz.
He left like many other Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent, who miss out on education, employment and promotion opportunities given to ethnic Malays or 'Bumiputera' (sons of the land) under racial quota policies introduced in the 1970s to diffuse racial tensions.
By creating a Malay middle-class, affirmative action shortened the income gap between the majority Malays and the large minority group of Chinese migrants, with a stabilising effect that many argue allowed Malaysia's economic miracle in the 1990s.
But it also led to deep discontentment among Chinese Malaysians as well as Indians - a smaller but still significant minority with a long history and influence as traders, plantation workers and migrants on the peninsular.
After working in Kuala Lumpur as a journalist for one of the "worst state-run media in town", De Cruz wanted to study journalism. But the quota for people of Indian descent had already been filled.
"I had enough of an exam score to study journalism at university in Malaysia, but the racial quota meant I was out," says De Cruz.
"All of that turned me into a very angry young man, and I did not want my children exposed to these barriers simply because they were the 'wrong race'."
Even as a child, De Cruz "hated" having his race identified on ID cards, and "knew it was wrong".
But running against a culture of divisive race politics, there is also a current of mutual acceptance and egalitarianism in Malaysia, which is becoming stronger particularly in highly urbanised areas.
Last April mixed crowds totalling 350,000 Malaysians flocked to Malaysian cities for Bersih rallies, which were broken up by police using tear gas in KL.
"You go to these rallies, and see Indians, Malays and Chinese holding hands staring down water canons. This has never happened before."
~ Australia Network News