The disconnect between Malaysia's electorate and political elites

By Benjamin YH Loh
Senior Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication, Taylor’s University Malaysia

Malaysia is having its 15th General Election on November 19. This snap election was called early as Prime Minister Ismail Sabri was pressured by his party to protect many of the party elites facing corruption trials and court cases. The threat of convictions became clear when Ismail was seen as “allowing” embattled former prime minister Najib Razak to be sent to prison last August.

Ismail's party is also seeking to restore their democratic mandate after coming into power through a political coup in 2020 (known locally as the infamous Sheraton Move). This came to be when MPs under the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defected, allowing the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to return to government.

Even before the collapse, the PH government was seen as ineffectual, since it failed to achieve many of its proposed reforms that brought them into power in 2018, ending BN’s over 60-year rule. For some Malaysians, both PH and BN are populated by political elites who are divorced from the ground. Political machinations are seen to take priority over the lived realities of the average citizen.

The flood election

These elections are set to be held at the peak of the monsoon season with expected heavy rainfall and flash floods across the country. The timing is considered strategic as BN often performs well in elections where turnouts are low and this “Undi Banjir” (“Flood Election” in Malay) is believed to be a form of voter suppression. The monsoon season brings heavy rains and floods, both of which make it difficult for returning voters and for voters to come out on polling day.

Malaysians were quick to condemn the timing as just a year ago, heavy rains in December 2021, brought about unprecedented rainfall to Kuala Lumpur that resulted in mass flooding around the Klang Valley. For many who are still living through the trauma of last year’s events, are now made to decide on a new government with fears that their homes and property may get flooded again.

It was in these same floods that the Malaysian government was accused of producing glacially slow, apathetic and ineffective responses, forcing many Malaysians to self-organise - helping people evacuate their homes, providing them with supplies and cleaning up afterwards.

Government agencies were instead seen to be more focused on assigning blame to each other, mobilising support weeks later, and until now have not offered any substantive solutions to mitigate the threat of floods in the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area going forward.

For many Malaysians, this is not surprising as the previous government had a history of focusing on self-preservation rather than citizen welfare. The previous prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, announced a state of emergency for the country in response to Covid but only to restrict parliament and other democratic processes from functioning and maintained a lockdown (that drove many people destitute) just to avoid facing a vote of no confidence.

In times of crisis, it is always the everyday Malaysians who are often forced to step in to help each other; the most apparent being the “white flag” movement during the extended lockdowns in 2021 due to Covid-19. These lockdowns lasted for more than 6 months with limited financial support from the government, and saw many desperate citizens throw up white flags outside their homes as a cry for help.

Through social media, these cries were heard and resolved by caring Malaysians who assisted where needed. The campaign was one of the main driving factors that forced Muhyiddin to eventually resign, becoming Malaysia’s shortest serving prime minister.

A man gestures while speaking at a lectern
Muhyiddin Yassin suspended democratic processes in response to Covid-19. Pic credit: Perikatan Nasional Malaysia

When any general election is called in Malaysia, the biggest concern is often for outstation voters to return home to vote. While this upcoming election has allowed for Malaysians in foreign countries to do postal voting, the same is not true for domestic migrants. This is especially daunting for Malaysians from the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak, who are based in Peninsular Malaysia for work but will need to fly home to vote.

In the previous general election in 2018, Najib Razak’s administration announced a polling day that fell on a Wednesday; the main goal was to dissuade outstation voters from returning to vote. Traditionally, elections are held on Saturdays to allow out-of-town voters some additional time to travel before and after voting, without requiring additional days off. By having it on a Wednesday, this was seen as a highly cynical move to dissuade overseas voters from returning home to vote.

But as we have witnessed in the recent years, the public response has been immense and driven as many civil society groups such as “#UndiRabu” (Wednesday elections), “#PulangMengundi” (Return to vote) and #CarpoolGE organized ways to collect funds, distribute financial aid and arrange for transportation. These groups were largely credited with galvanising support and were influential in increasing voter turnout.

With the new Flood Elections coming up, many of these groups have banded together under the #UndiBanjir hashtag to support outstation voters in their right to vote. The group has expanded its efforts to also bring back postal votes (for fear that postal ballots may arrive too late for voters to mail home, which affected many in the last election) and to be on standby for any voters affected by floods. This involves working with newer groups that formed around the pandemic and flood relief like #KitaJagaKita [We Protect Each Other].

Supporters of Barisan Nasional at a political rally
Supporters of Barisan Nasional attend a rally. Pic credit: Firdaus Latif/Wiki Commons

Even as these groups are fighting against voter suppression tactics from the BN government, they remain objectively steadfast in remaining nonpartisan. The main focus is to ensure that people can exercise their right as Malaysians to vote in this general election, being extra careful not to appear anti-government or pro-opposition.

The opposition is seen as being somewhat complicit due to their role in “supporting” the government with a special Memorandum of Understanding to ensure more stability and to pass an “anti-party hopping” law to ensure governments can remain stable and reduce the destabilising effects of mass party defections.

While this law was eventually passed, the past year saw minimal shifts in Malaysia’s legislative sphere as all sides were gearing up for this election with many civil society organisations feeling especially disenfranchised as the PH opposition seemed to have abandoned many of its original proposed reforms.

Civil society action versus electoral politics

Going into this election, the perception was that BN would solidify its position in government with the opposition still finding its footing. But calling elections during a contentious flood season might have driven public sentiment away from them (similar to calling elections on a Wednesday in the previous election).

The Malaysian grassroots are doing all they can to prevent political elites from stealing this election. They do this by instilling the idea that progressive change can come from the grassroots and not just from political parties.

Political disillusionment among Malaysians is high since the Sheraton Move. The silver lining is a more organised and impactful civil society that has filled the many gaps in government coverage as a result of the volatile political environment.

Whoever wins the vote, Putrajaya will not only need to contend with their immediate voters but these strengthened, emboldened and popular organisations who will not allow the new political elites in government to do as they please with impunity.

Banner image: High-profile politicians including Wan Azizah, Mahathir Mohamad, and Muhyiddin Yassin attend an event. Source: CSI Prop/


politics; election Politics; Election southeast-asia; malaysia Southeast Asia; Malaysia

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