COMMENT: Why Malaysians are increasingly unafraid to say whom they voted for

A voter's finger with indelible ink at a voting station
A survey by YouGov showed that 46 per cent of Malaysian voters are not afraid to reveal who they voted for. (Photo: Getty Images)

Winston Churchill once opined that democracy is defined by the act of secret voting, to protect voters from attempts of blackmail, scare mongering or other means of voter influencing.

But in the historical 15th General Elections (GE) in Malaysia, the Malay tsunami not only brought about a rising religious sentiment with PAS - the pro-Islamic state party - winning more than twice the seats it won in GE14, it also presented a shift in voicing out personal political opinion.

In a YouGov survey conducted during the election campaign period, it revealed that 46 per cent of Malaysia citizens are not keeping their vote a secret among people within their circle.

While many may think that it is the senior citizens who would hold tight to the principle of “your vote is a secret”, the survey showed that 55 per cent of those aged 50 and above are most likely to share their choice of politicians with friends and families.

Compared to the yesteryears when Barisan Nasional (BN) used to win landslide victories in every general election and public sector employees would quietly cast their ballots, the public sector of today have no qualms in sharing whom they support.

In Putrajaya, where incumbent former minister of federal territories Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor was expected to secure his seat, with the constituency being seen as a “safe deposit” for BN, voters in the administrative capital - consisting mostly of public sector employees - voted for Perikatan Nasional's (PN) former senior minister of the education and social cluster Mohd Radzi Md Jidin instead.

A friend who lives and votes in Putrajaya showed me the local community WhatsApp chat which was flooded with messaging from local constituents supporting DRJ, as Radzi is affectionately known.

Why then are people so emboldened to reveal whom they voted for today, knowing very well that the paradox of privacy in social media does not exist and, someday, their actions may come back to bite them?

Prevalent freedom of expression post GE12

The 2008 GE was a watershed election which saw sweeping victories of the Opposition. In the context of free speech, GE12 demonstrated the role of the Internet and SMS in the dissemination of alternative sources of information, and how BN’s overwhelming control of conventional media was neutralised.

Five months before GE12, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) held its first rally, demanding for clean and fair elections. The courage of the protesters, who faced tear gas and chemical-laced water cannons, showed that many others feel the same way, and this inspired the four subsequent Bersih rallies between 2011 and 2016.

Come GE14 in 2018, the downfall of BN was proof that Goliath could be brought to his knees, and it also meant that BN’s grip on people’s freedom of expression and speech has loosened.

A malay lady, chinese man, and an indian lady holding the Malaysia flag over their heads.
In multi-racial Malaysia, a clean election has been the demand of most for the longest time. (Photo: Getty Images)

In December 2019, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government scrapped the Anti Fake-News Act 2018 and sedition charges against political cartoonist Zunar and prominent civil society leaders were dropped.

Though it failed to repeal the Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 - all of which have been used in the past to investigate, harass, and prosecute individuals - it signalled to the public that critical discourse and free speech, though not absolute, is suppressed to a lesser degree.

The LGBTQ community, which has been shunned for decades, has also gradually opened up about sexuality, gender identity and gender expression.

Such is the case with Muslim transgender entrepreneur Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman, who has been in the limelight with her huge social media following. Last year, she openly showed the doctor’s report on her sex change and pictures of her in the hijab, and then fled the country from charges of insulting Islam.

Nur Sajat is not the only Muslim transgender in Malaysia. Religious authorities have a tacit understanding that as long as these communities keep their lifestyle under wraps, without flaunting and promoting “gender confusion” as described by the Department of Islamic Development, one is safe to reside peacefully in the country.

Speaking out loud on social media

As political analyst Bridget Welsh pointed out, the voting pattern this GE15 is increasingly based on ethnic lines - non-Malays for PH and the Malay electorate for PN, and these two parties relied heavily on social media for voter outreach.

Research has shown that people’s willingness to speak out on social media increases because there is a perceived sense of power when there is a similar opinion among the users.

PN - with PAS as part of its coalition - mobilised young Malay influencers for its PN Best campaign on TikTok, and it was a huge success because of the religious undertones in its messages.

These influencers were fearless in speaking out because Islamic preaching is encouraged in this country, and PAS embodies the idea of clean and stable Islamic state. In the eyes of the influencers, this was not only about earning money but also religious propagation.

On the other hand, PH leaders were showcased speaking in English on daily YouTube advertisements during the campaign period, while TikTok was laced with their Mandarin speeches.

Since GE14, PH’s messaging evoked provocative emotions among its non-Malay voters. All of its leaders sang the same tune of removing corrupted BN leaders, and capitalised on Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s court case by planting the idea that he might become prime minister had BN won the election.

PN went on the angle of anti-corruption too, with influencers speaking out on clean “ulamas” (religious leaders) in the party. Interestingly, voters who rejected BN based on the narrative of corruption, supported PH in urban areas and PN in rural areas.

Fuelling emotions for political gains

There have been many studies about emotional campaigning, but if there is one emotion more pervasive than fear, it is anger, as is America in the politics of Donald Trump.

PH has managed to capture the minds of the non-Malays by feeding on their raw emotions of fear, pride and hate.

When powered by emotions, non-Malays young or old alike can be extremely vocal about ridding the country of nepotism, cronyism and corruption. And political rage is equivalent to a wildfire, uncontrollable and unpredictable.

Such anger exacerbates political bias, and so does religious righteousness. While the non-Malays fed off anti-corruption emotions to mobilise friends and families to vote for PH, the Malay support for PN’s Islamic agenda swept Malaysia silently, just like how religious nationalism helped Trump to win the US presidency in 2016.

From travel bans for immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries, to opening an embassy in Jerusalem, the Trump administration has had many impactful religious moments, all of which kept his popularity till today.

Religion and politics have a long and inseparable history, and a political system with religion gains the legitimacy of the people by claiming to have a moral authority to govern.

In the view of the PN supporters, supporting a religion-based political party openly is equivalent to preaching, and preaching should never be a secret.

Whether the “your vote is a secret” principle still stands depends on electorate maturity. As Malaysians move on to a new phase of democratic maturity, transparency in voting will change with time.

From the series of events unfolded in the last decade, it can be assumed that voters will openly try to keep this new unity government in check for freedom of expression in the next five years. And if newly-appointed Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim fails to uphold this democratic right, we can expect this vocal trend of politics to continue.

Christine YP Cheah is an irreverent storyteller who works in the areas of development and sustainability. She is on a mission to address the elephants in the room, and to make politics interesting for young people. All thoughts are the writer's own.