Malaysia opposition battles financial odds

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - In a cavernous Chinese restaurant, overlooking the highway and squeezed between tile shops and car showrooms, a celebration is going on.

The lanterns, raucous laughter and banquet-style food might hint at a wedding, but the more than 1,000 guests are being welcomed to a fund-raiser for their local MP, an opposition member standing for re-election in Malaysia's general election.

"We'll probably raise about 150,000 ringgit ($49,000) from this," said Democratic Action Party candidate Charles Santiago, before bounding on stage to tell his audience why he deserves another term. The guests tuck into their Thai-style deep-fried chicken and shout raucous approval. "This is not about politics," Santiago says as he paces the stage. "This is about the future of Malaysia, the future of our country, the future of our children."

Outside, souvenir sellers do a brisk trade in soft toys, t-shirts and books, adding to the party coffers.

For political parties around the world, elections are an expensive business - and Malaysia is no different. Although official campaigning started on April 20, unofficially, it's been going on for months. But beyond a 200,000 ringgit ($65,970) cap on each candidate's official campaign spending there are next to no laws on electoral funding, and no requirements for parties to reveal their sources of funds or publish their accounts.

International IDEA, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, analyses democratic systems and the conduct of elections around the world. Its Asia-Pacific director, Andrew Ellis, is in no doubt about the potentially corrosive effect of the way a country finances its politics.

"Money clearly has the ability to influence elections and even distort outcomes," he told Al Jazeera. "Worldwide, there is more of a realisation that political finance is an issue."

Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world where political parties actually own businesses, notes Terence Gomez, an academic at the University of Malaya and an authority on the subject.

The Barisan Nasional, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has dominated Malaysian politics ever since the country secured its independence from Britain. While UMNO has developed a complex web of businesses, and controls most of Malaysia's mainstream newspapers and television stations, its junior partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), is also involved in businesses from education to media.

Influence over the media

UMNO has its headquarters at the 40-storey skyscraper that's part of the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur. MCA has a prime spot on Jalan Ampang in the city centre. Opposition parties have more modest headquarters in more suburban locales.

In a 2010 report on reforming political financing in Malaysia, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International valued MCA's assets at 2bn ringgit ($659.7m). The party's president, Chua Soi Lek, said it was getting at least 50m ringgit ($16.5m) every year in dividends from its investment in the Star newspaper, the country's largest English-language paper by circulation.

Together, "they control almost all the media in this country", said Josie Fernandez, the secretary-general of Transparency International, who helped draft the report. "They give money to the media, they get money from the media and they have influence over the media. For the opposition it's an uphill battle. Money makes politics possible and elections winnable."

Opposition MP Nurul Izzah Anwar is fighting to retain her Lembah Pantai seat against Barisan's Raja Nong Chik, a man who made a fortune in engineering and investment and was revealed recently revealed to have an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands.

Nong Chik was appointed to the government as federal territories minister in 2009, a job that effectively puts him in charge of Kuala Lumpur. His flags, banners and billboards remind residents of what he's done for the area have mushroomed across the constituency. It's his council that approves permits for such advertising and also his council that's responsible for the upkeep of the area.

Nurul Izzah has no access to the city council, and is so cautious about money that she leaves her car on the side of the road rather than spend a couple of ringgit on parking. Her staff are volunteers.

At rallies there are regular appeals for cash. Volunteers pass a party flag, tied Dick Whittington-style at the end of a bamboo pole, around the crowd. A recent event raised 2,017.20 ringgit ($666). "It's make or break time," she told the few hundred people in the crowd.

Analysts say it was Malaysia's New Economic Policy, introduced after race riots in 1969 and designed to help lift ethnic Malays out of poverty, that helped feed the country's culture of money politics. Aggressive privatisation compounded it.

"Patronage contributed to the emergence of a new breed of well-connected Malay businesspeople with extensive ownership of the corporate sector in the early 1990s," Gomez wrote in the academic journal Modern Asian Studies last year.

"Government leaders who had exploited their influence to help businesspeople expand their corporate interests and cultivated close ties with businesses had an advantage in party elections. Political patronage was a key factor in numerous business scandals."

A slew of giveaways

Such networks have also muddied the separation between what is rightfully the government's and what belongs to the party. Since Najib Tun Razak assumed the premiership in 2009, his administration has offered a slew of giveaways from pay rises to civil servants, cash handouts to low earners, book vouchers for school children and even new tyres for taxi drivers.

Singapore Management University's Bridget Welsh estimates the cost at some 57.7bn ringgit ($18.8bn). Then there's the advertising blitz, not only in the mainstream media, but on roadside billboards, public transport, online and through "promoted Tweets". In March, in the lead-up to the dissolution of parliament, the prime minister's office spent more than twice as much on advertising as multinationals Nestle and Unilever did in the country, according to Nielsen.

Still, some of the incumbent coalition's candidates insist money remains tight come election time. Frankie Gan is battling to take back the Kuala Lumpur city centre seat of Bukit Bintang in Sunday's poll. He's hired a small truck that he can use as a stage and has colourful lights and a sound system. Gan's helpers hand out flags, Barisan-branded clappers , caps and t-shirts to the modest crowd. Those hoping for a spot of karaoke - his team's rendition of "Love is in the Air"- were disappointed, but he has DVDs on hand.

"The party gives me some money but it's not enough," Gan said before rushing off to another event. "We have to get sponsors from our friends and in business."

But with the changing political climate, some businesspeople are beginning to hedge their bets, creating new concerns for those who would rather companies were required to be more transparent about their funding initiatives. Last month, the opposition leadership addressed more than 350 bankers, investors and chief executives at an all-day event in the ballroom of Kuala Lumpur's newest five-star hotel.

Stanley Thai, who heads publicly traded rubber gloves manufacturer Supermax, organised the forum. He says he funds the opposition from his personal fortune and doesn't expect privileged treatment in return. "Barisan's strength is money," he said in an interview in his office on the outskirts of the capital. "Their weakness is corruption. What is the strength of Pakatan? It's the people behind them."

Taking a cigarette break from Santiago's event, small businessman and local resident Richard Teo is at his first dinner. He's pleased with the way in which the opposition has run his state for the past five years and is mindful of the financial challenges the opposition faces. "For Barisan, it's easy," he says. "They have all the corporates. They are using money to give BR1M [a government scheme promising 500 ringgit ($165) to-low income families], buying votes. I'm going to go to the DAP ceramahs [political rallies] and contribute to their funds. I want change in Putrajaya."

On stage, the latest speaker shouts " ubah ", which means "change" in Malay and is the rallying call of the opposition. The crowd shouts back in agreement. " Ini kalilah ," they chant - "this is the time".

The financial odds may be against them, but there's no doubting the enthusiasm of Malaysia's opposition supporters.

Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry

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