KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s navy and police personnel have been told they are free to vote for any political party of their choice in an unprecedented move as they begun early voting on Saturday (May 5) ahead of the general election on May 9.
The commanders’ call came following an open letter posted on Facebook on May 2 by opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad urging the armed forces and the police to ensure that their personnel are able to vote freely in the coming election.
The Royal Malaysian Navy fired the first salvo, telling its men and women they were free to cast their votes as they see fit and not be influenced by any incitement during the general election campaign.
"We are all free to make our own choices when we vote," said navy chief Admiral Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin in a statement posted on the navy's official Facebook page on Thursday.
"Don't be influenced by any incitement that can affect our decision. Use your wisdom based on facts, observations, achievements and our own experiences.
"As responsible Malaysians, vote wisely. Remember, our vote is secret."
On Friday, Inspector-General of the Royal Malaysian Police Mohd Fuzi Harun issued a similar call.
"It is their right to vote for the party they choose," he said at a press conference. "We do not determine which party they can vote for."
The country’s security forces are often perceived as a voting bloc who - according to opposition politicians - typically vote for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) out of fear of being “found out” and losing their jobs if they vote for the opposition.
It is estimated there are more than 100,000 members of the armed forces and over 150,000 police officers in Malaysia.
Mahathir welcomed the navy and police’s move, calling it a “significant” development.
According to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia's (PPBM) Kadir Jasin, a former editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times, such a call by heads of the uniform services had never been issued before.
“This is very significant," he said. "For the first time, the general feeling among police and the navy is that you are free to vote for who you want.”
Kadir added such a move was never done in the past because the security and military services had to abide by a code of conduct.
“The burden of the rising cost of living affects the military and police just as much as civilians ,” said Kadir.
A retired army officer agrees.
“The military personnel cannot keep up with the rising costs of goods," said Anuar Abdul Hamid, a former army intelligence officer.
"They are not asking for higher pay; they just want prices of goods to remain low and not rise as fast as it is doing now."
Anuar, of Mahathir’s PPBM party, is contesting the parliamentary seat of Tanjung Dawai in Kedah which has a large army base.
The ruling BN's cosy ties with China, who has invested billions into the country, also does not sit well with armed forces officers whose predecessors fought against a communist insurgency from 1948 to 1960.
“This is the mindset of the military: Many of them lost their lives fighting the communists in the past,” said a political commentator who declined to be named.
CHINA’S CLAIM OVER SOUTH CHINA SEAS WORRIES MILITARY
Military officers are also worried over China’s claims over the South China Sea, which is also claimed by Malaysia Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.
“Officers and some of the rank-and-file are very worried over China’s incursion into the South China Sea," said Anuar.
"They are unhappy at the government's 'soft' approach with China over its military in those waters."
A regional analyst said “dismay” over the government’s policy toward China’s claim in the South China Sea is not widespread within the defence establishment.
“Yes, there are those who are unhappy - particularly in the middle ranks, but I won’t say that it’s in any way widespread,” said the regional analyst.
Military officers are also unhappy with China’s investments in two massive ports that are being built in Kuantan, Pahang and Melaka.
“The military sees the building of these two ports as a form of new colonialisation by China,” said Anuar.
Salleh Said Keruak, treasurer-general of UMNO, the predominant party within BN, dismissed such suggestions.
“Malaysia, as a country that has been rated as one of the top five to invest in by World Bank, will attract many investors - including China,” Keruak told Channel NewsAsia.
“This is not a form of colonisation, as the investment by China is certainly not the highest when compared to Singapore, which is the largest."
Last month, BN said China made up only 11.5 per cent of the foreign direct investment in Malaysia in 2017.