Foreign Meddling Ahead of Malaysia’s Elections

Xenophon: The Not-so Impartial Observer 

February 20, 2013 (Nile Bowie)
– Malaysia’s decision to detain and deport Australian Senator Nick
Xenophon has become a hot topic of discussion across the nation’s
blogosphere. Xenophon came to Kuala Lumpur as part of a seven-member
international team of election observers invited by de-facto opposition
leader Anwar Ibrahim. Xenophon attended the Bersih 3.0 street rally
during a previous visit to Malaysia and criticised the government for
being “authoritarian” in handling the demonstrators. Xenophon was barred
from entering Malaysia under the Immigration Act 8(3), and the state’s
official statement claimed that Xenophon was deported as “a result of
his participation in an illegal street protest in Kuala Lumpur last
year,” referring to clauses in the Peaceful Assembly Act which prohibits
non-citizens from participating in unauthorised public gatherings.

Local analysts have criticized Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s de-facto
opposition leader, for his alleged history of appealing to foreigners to
legitimize his positions. From the hardline Muslim
Brotherhood-affiliated theologian, Yusuf ‘Abdullah al-Qaradawi, known
for controversially inciting sectarian divisions throughout the Muslim
world, to the likes of Al Gore and Paul Wolfowitz – Anwar is widely
credited in the Malaysian press with harnessing foreign influence to
bolster his own political talking points. Ibrahim previously called on
the Australian government to monitor Malaysia’s upcoming general
elections, although Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr declined to
send observers, stating that Australia had no intention of influencing
Malaysia’s elections.

Australian responses to Xenophon’s expulsion have varied; Peter Hartcher
of the Sydney Morning Herald scolded Malaysia for lacking a “mature
democracy,” stating, “The reason [for Xenophon’s deportation] is that he
is an international observer campaigning in favor of a free and fair
election. This is not a threat to Malaysia’s national security, but it
is a threat to the ruling party’s grip on power.” On the other end of
the spectrum is senior commentator Greg Sheridan, who questioned
Xenophon’s partiality, stating that he is “campaigning for just one side
of Malaysian politics – the opposition. He might reflect on the fact
that the side he supports contains, as perhaps its strongest element,
the most extreme Islamist party in mainstream Southeast Asian politics

A vocal minority within Malaysia feels that Xenophon’s deportation was
an abuse of power, but the fact is that had Xenophon intended to observe
the elections, Malaysian law requires him to formerly submit an
observer application to do so. The nation’s Electoral Commission has
confirmed that they have not received any application from any
international observer. Additionally, representatives of de-facto law
minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz confirmed that Xenophon was
in fact not included in the bipartisan delegation set to meet
government officials, as Xenophon had claimed in his statements to the
Australian press. Xenophon’s status as an independent observer in
foreign media should not be reported as fact; local analysts have
acknowledged his long-standing support and affiliations with members of
Malaysia’s opposition – such affiliations would negate the legitimacy of
an election observer anywhere in the world.

In the hot-tempered run-up to Malaysia’s upcoming general elections,
figures from all sides of the political spectrum have questioned the
opposition’s links to foreign-funders in Washington, reinforcing popular
suspicion against foreign figures like Xenophon. Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti
Keadilan Rakyat has bore strong criticism for accepting funds and
training from US Government-linked foundations such as the International
Republican Institute (IRI), chaired by US Senator John McCain.
Bangkok-based analyst Tony Cartaucci writes, “Senator Xenophon’s visit
to Malaysia was not one of ‘monitoring,’ but of checking up on a group
of clearly compromised, openly foreign-funded, subversive elements
operating behind the guise of disingenuous principles – making the
Malaysian government’s claims that Xenophon constitutes a security risk
absolutely justified.” Bersih coalition leader Ambiga Sreenevasan also
conceded that her organization accepts funds from US Government-linked
foundations. Malaysian authorities are rightfully concerned that these
recipients of foreign capital have based their programs around casting
doubt on the nation’s Electoral Commission, and thus, the very
legitimacy of the ruling party and the democratic process.

The Electoral Commission has provided consistent and sound refutations
to the allegations of electoral discrepancies made against them by
several US-funded NGOs. Malaysia’s parliamentary select committee agreed
upon implementing recommended electoral reforms addressed by civil
society groups and has since passed 18 amendments to the electoral roll.
One could deduct that Xenophon’s participation in the Bersih street
rally, and his concerns regarding issues pertaining to electoral reforms
translate into an attempt to falsely downplay the validity of the
Electoral Commission. The United Nations has confirmed that Malaysia is
completely in-line with international norms and electoral standards, and
commentator Greg Sheridan is quite right to state that Malaysia is “one
of the most democratic and freewheeling nations in Southeast Asia. Its
elections are certainly not perfect, but they are better than in most
parts of the world. Indeed, its very openness allows people such as
Xenophon to grandstand there.”

Opposition backers appear to be quick to dismiss the ruling party via
social media, and eager to welcome rhetorical support from ambiguous
foreign political personalities without hesitation or distinction. A
notable segment of Malaysian society believes that opposition
politicians have aligned themselves with civil society figures to
deliberately distort political discourse and the legitimacy of the
Malaysian authorities. Mr. Xenophon’s expulsion was an unfortunate
incident, but as someone with a background in law, he should have
adhered to the stipulations required within Malaysian law by applying to
be a recognized observer if he sought to be one. A notable excerpt from
Peter Hartcher’s opinion piece cites a conversation he had with
Ibrahim, where the opposition leader states, ‘‘in a fair and free
election, I am absolutely sure we will win.” Such a statement duly
notes the rationale of Malaysia’s fiery-tongued opposition leader and
reinforces the opinions of those who accuse the politician of only
claiming the game is fair when he himself is the victor.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer
based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at