Electing a new people in Malaysia: illegal naturalisation and election fraud

Malaysia is going to the polls on May 5th, and for the first time in perhaps living memory, there is a real chance that the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) will not be returned to power. BN is currently the longest-ruling political party in any of the world’s democracies, and its leaders will not be happy about losing their power and privilege should the election fail to go their way. Unsurprisingly, it turns out they have resorted to the easiest way out: importing foreigners, registering them as voters, and paying them to vote.

To be fair, the only evidence that has emerged thus far is that the Prime Minister’s office has been arranging an unusual number of charter flights for voters. It’s clear that these are meant for people to vote — the government has denied official involvement with these charter flights, claiming that friends of the party have paid to ensure their supporters are able to vote. It remains to be seen whether foreigners will turn up in large numbers to vote on May 5th, and what sort of papers they will have.

In my opinion, the relevance of this to open borders as far as policy goes is absolutely null. No sensible democratic government that plays by the rules would do such a thing as this. BN is only trying this because the party and the state in Malaysia are so unhealthily intertwined. I am no Islamist, nor am I a socialist, but in this election I voted for the Islamic party to represent me in Parliament and a nominally socialist party to represent me in my state legislature. I and even a Malaysian libertarian friend donated money to a particularly vocal socialist candidate. The current government of Malaysia doesn’t stand for anything other than its own corrupt self-interest, and kicking it out to put us on the road to a two-party democracy is the only realistic choice.

In any case, I’m not aware of any open borders advocate who favours immediate naturalisation of immigrants. If anything, we tend to urge a disentangling of the relationship between citizenship and residency. If you want to give foreigners a way to naturalise, that’s up to your country. But it would be a good idea to follow the rules, which the Malaysian government is blatantly not doing: an ongoing Royal Commission is currently investigating allegations of past illegal citizenship grants in the state of Sabah. And all evidence released so far strongly points to the government’s culpability.

However I do think discussing this story is relevant to open borders, in the sense that it illustrates some real problems standing in the way of open borders as a societal and policy reality. The reasoned and sensible thing to do in response to this evidence of election-rigging would be to demand an investigation and establish a process to ensure voters’ documents are in order. Fortunately, such a process does exist, and opposition parties are able to appoint their own agents to monitor the polling and counting processes.

But quite a number of people have gone further and embraced outright xenophobia in the guise of protecting Malaysian citizens and Malaysian democracy. I have seen people urging Malaysians not to give foreign workers Sunday the 5th off, lest any of these foreigners vote. I have a friend who personally saw people, without provocation, verbally assaulting foreigners at the airport. Banners have been erected warning foreigners attempting to vote illegally that if they are caught, they will be reported to the police — and “While waiting for police arrival, your safety is not guaranteed.”

Growing up as an ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, it has always grated on me that the government sees me as something of a second-class citizen. Chinese and Indians have often been told by those in power: “If you don’t like it, go back home” — as if Malaysia isn’t our home. And now, support for the ruling party has collapsed as a new generation of voters don’t feel ethnic Chinese and Indians are any different from other Malaysian citizens. That banner hinting at lynchings of illegal voters was signed by a group calling themselves Kami Anak Bangsa Malaysia — We are Children of the Malaysian Nation (“Bangsa Malaysia” implying a demand of full equality for Malaysian citizens regardless of race).

I am all for protecting the democratic process — which yes, means ensuring that only citizens can vote. But violent extrajudicial lynchings can only mar the democratic process. And I find it hard to believe that this sentiment isn’t driven at least in part by simple anti-foreign prejudice — not when I’ve never seen threats of physical violence against other illegal voters (most of whom in the past have been Malaysians, whose votes were bought outright by the ruling party). Not when the same people bemoaning being told to “go back to China” are now hurling ethnic slurs at Bangladeshis and telling them “go back to Bangla”. As one of my friends put it: “did someone really just try to tell me that a group of dark skinned people have no right to be in a Malaysian airport?”

We’ve previously noted at Open Borders the odd finding that Malaysians are perhaps the country most opposed to open borders in the world. But my personal observation has been that Malaysians in general are actually very tolerant of immigrants and happy to have them working with or for us. Even the anti-foreigner venom I’ve seen in this election has focused purely on the issue of voting rights. Immigration is not a hot-button issue in Malaysia for the masses — the cost of living, political corruption, and administrative ability are the issues this election is being fought on. Although I’ve been disappointed at how quickly people have resorted to racial epithets ostensibly in the name of defending democracy, I’ve also been inspired at how many Malaysians I’ve seen have been quick to embrace the spirit of human equality that demands both a fair democratic process and open borders. In closing, here is one note I’ve seen making the rounds on social media, authored by one Nathalie Kee:

In the midst of increasing evidence that BN is using foreign workers to win the elections, let us remember that a Bangladeshi on the streets of Masjid Jamek does not equate to the demise of democracy. A man from Myanmar, lining up on polling day, is not the real one to blame, although he does have to take some flak. These two men know nothing about BN, PR and their respective ideals and have been played into the hands of corrupt individuals, probably promised things that they would have otherwise gotten by working for two months. We welcome the Indonesian, Burmese, Filipino and Bangladeshi brothers and sisters, as long as they respect the laws of this land.

I can’t abide the demise of a fair and open political process in my country. But neither can I abide closing our borders for the sake of satisfying anti-foreign prejudice. And neither do I have to for the sake of democracy. Open borders is not about letting governments “elect a new people” to maintain their stranglehold on power. Open borders is about welcoming all our brothers and sisters of the human race who respect the laws of our land.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


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