GE13: A Returnee Gets Election Fever


The last time I was around for a Malaysian election was 1999.

Anwar Ibrahim had been sacked and was proving a major thorn in Umno’s side, rallying young people, awakening the politically passive, and other inconvenient things. The economy was in trouble. Chinese Malaysians were worried about racial riots. Mahathir was on the warpath.

This time around, everything’s different. Oh, wait…actually….nevermind.

Living in the US for a decade, I missed the 2004 and 2008 elections. On election day in 2008, my family and I were having dinner with friends at a Vietnamese restaurant in St Paul, Minnesota. Immersed in our American life, I’d not kept up with news from home. After all, there was a pretty exciting election in the US that year too, if you remember.

It was our American friend, a college professor – who, of all things, once interned at the Star newspaper in PJ – who checked his cellphone just before the beef pho arrived and excitedly told me a political tsunami had hit my country. (Hi, Tom.)

We moved back to KL in 2011. It’s been heartwarming, happy, frustrating and depressing all at the same time.

So much has happened in the world. The United States elected a black president – twice. China overtook Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy. India was opening up. Myanmar held its first election.

Yet Malaysia seemed frozen in time, or sliding backwards. Our schools, our newspapers, our roads and a government that’s been in power since independence from the British in 1957.

We waited, in suspended animation, for an election that never seemed to come.

Now it’s here.

Campaigning is in full swing for a vote on May 5. In towns and villages around the country, people are thronging  political rallies, waiting hours in fields under the stars to hear a vision of an alternate Malaysia. In affluent Bangsar, they’re gathering to sip wine and discuss corruption and illicit capital outflows, salon-style.

Malaysians abroad, from Sydney to Singapore to Shanghai, who left for better careers and a better future for their children, are getting on planes, trains and buses and carpooling to make it home to vote.

Everywhere, there are fluttering blue, green and red flags and a feeling that maybe this time, things may change.

(Pic by Kean Wong of a Bangsar roundabout where landscape architect Ng Seksan and friends planted thousands of “flowers” to signify a Malaysian spring. A few hours after they went in the ground, DBKL (City Hall) officers drove up in a van and started removing them. Residents ran out to save their flowers. DBKL relented and gave them back. Residents replanted them. April 2013.)

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