Malaysian Malaise

Letter From Kuala Lumpur

A worker cleans up a pool inside the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin mosque in Putrajaya, October 9, 2013 Samsul Said / Courtesy Reuters

Almost half a year has passed since Malaysia’s contentious general election, in which the country’s ruling party, Barisan Nasional, or National Front (BN), lost the popular vote for the first time since it took power in 1957 but managed to secure a narrow majority in parliament. Even that victory, many believe, was won through fraud: The oppositions alleges that the BN gerrymandered and flew in phantom voters. When the election results were announced, Malaysians of all stripes took to the streets in protest; an estimated 120,000 showed up at a stadium outside the capital on May 8, the largest demonstration in recent memory. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, vowed never to surrender the fight, and in the months that followed, thousands gathered under the slogan “Black 505,” referring to the date of the election, and wore black as a sign of mourning. Those who participated, and even some nonpartisan observers, believed that some form of political reform was just around the corner.

But the revolutionary spirit has largely died. Last week, Bersih, a nongovernmental organization campaigning for fair elections, set up a weeklong publicly funded People’s Tribunal to hear from anyone willing to speak about their experiences with vote rigging, vote buying, and intimidation. In three months’ time, it will produce recommendations about how to improve the electoral system. However, since the tribunal has no legal standing and the government has criticized its proceedings, change seems far-fetched. Bersih’s latest effort is a last-ditch attempt on behalf of Malaysian citizens to articulate their grievances after months of more aggressive tactics that went nowhere.

After Malaysians fought so hard to oust the BN at the ballot box (an extraordinary number of opposition supporters canvassed neighborhoods throughout the country and took to the polls), it is strange that they would give up so quickly -- and without a violent crackdown. The reversal seems all the more puzzling given the government’s recent adoption of an increasingly conservative brand of Islam that many

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