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Malaysia’s strange history of importing votes

Malaysia’s strange history of importing votes

The kind of electoral fraud Malaysia’s newly reelected Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has been accused of seems too elaborate to be true.

The opposition is alleging that BN brought in foreigners — mainly from Bangladesh, Burma, and Indonesia — to supplement the party’s vote counts. In addition to these so-called "phantom voters," the opposition has accused BN of flying voters from its eastern strongholds of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo to vote in mainland states where victory was less assured. (BN leader and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied the accusations.)

The plot is certainly convoluted: It involves complicit airline companies and suspicious groups of foreigners arriving on chartered flights prior to the election. But even if the accusations turn out to be rooted in paranoia, there’s good reason for them: Malaysia — and BN in particular — has something of a spotty history when it comes to importing votes from abroad.

A Malaysian Royal Commission of Inquiry, for instance, is currently investigating so-called Project IC, a notorious program in which the BN — which gets the bulk of its support from the ethnically Malay, Muslim population — allegedly provided Muslim immigrants — mainly from the southern Philippines and Indonesia — in Sabah with identity cards in exchange for votes.  These immigrants, already ethnically similar to Malays, were assimilated, and Sabah — once a non-Malay majority state where BN faced electoral threats — has been something of a party fortress ever since.

As John Pang recently wrote in the New York Times:

In one of the most brazen examples of manufacturing ethnic identity for political gain, Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister from 1981 to 2003, imported about 700,000 Muslim immigrants from the southern Philippines into the Malaysian state of Sabah. They were secretly issued Malaysian citizenship in order to create a "Malay" Muslim vote base for Mr. Mahathir’s party.

Pang’s description may be a bit premature, as the inquiry is still ongoing. But several members of the UMNO, the ruling Malay party at the time, were detained for their involvement in falsifying identity cards in the late 1990s, with one former member of the project claiming that in 1985 alone, 130,000 illegal immigrants received identity cards.

Accusations of bringing in Bangladeshis by the thousands to cast votes certainly go beyond your standard ballot-box stuffing. But in Malaysian politics, stranger things have happened.