SINGAPORE: On Wednesday (May 9), global attention will be on Malaysia not for its successful “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism promotion campaign, but for the 14th General Election (or GE14).
Najib Razak, who became prime minister in 2009 again leads the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its partners in the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition to seek a new mandate, following a successful election in 2013.
Polling Day in Malaysia, as in other countries around Asia that directly or indirectly elect legislatures, heads of state, or heads of government, is generally peaceful.
It’s what comes after an election that bears watching and prompts questions about public safety which I have been receiving this week from corporate travel departments, travel agencies and individual travellers.
POLLING DAY TRAVEL AND SAFETY
For travellers who will be in Malaysia on Polling Day, it is a public holiday, which may impact the availability of counterparts for business meetings. Tourists should check operating hours before visiting popular attractions.
As many overseas Malaysian voters are reportedly planning to return to Malaysia to vote in person rather than cast postal votes, congestion on key routes and at road crossings is likely given the large number of eligible voters who reside in Singapore.
Air tickets out of Malaysia might be difficult to obtain or change for several days post-election.
Security agencies will deploy in force on Polling Day with official forecasts for 67,000 full-time and 4,600 volunteer personnel on duty for the period of election. Keep in mind also that although people can participate in election rallies, Malaysia has strict laws that prohibit non-citizens from participation in political activities and public protests.
WIN OR LOSE, BIG PUBLIC EVENTS LIKELY
Regardless of who wins or loses, voter enthusiasm, whether for the BN or the Pakatan Harapan coalition, is likely to manifest itself after the election in victory rallies or protests.
If post-election protests to GE13 are a guide, a number of issues might fuel these rallies.
In April, a “anti-fake news” law came into force, with substantial fines and prison terms which could become a point of dispute post-election if groups opportunistically spread views casting aspersions on the results. Negative international media headlines about Malaysia’s past elections may be run.
In Kuala Lumpur, the Petronas Twin Towers, Merdeka Square and political party headquarters are possible locations for mass mobilisation events and should be avoided. In recent years, outdoor events in Kuala Lumpur to protest government policies have attracted a large number of attendees even when not concurrent with an election.
Pre-election rallies this year against redrawing constituency boundaries and the anti-fake news law also attracted large numbers of participants.
Close election results are expected in constituencies throughout Malaysia including in Kedah, Johor, Penang and Selangor, so travellers to these areas over the coming weeks should seek updates on the likelihood of public rallies, especially as these might impact domestic travel.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT PROTESTS
Public protests, if any, are likely to be peaceful, but should be avoided as mass gatherings increase the risk of violence with little or no warning.
Criticism of Malaysian security forces' past use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse protestors such as those against Bersih supporters in 2012, is unlikely to deter the use of such methods if crowds get rowdy and the situation escalates.
If caught in a tear gas attack, immediately flush your eyes with water, and wash with soap and water any skin that came into contact with the gas. Breathing difficulties must be treated with oxygen or asthma medication.
Never touch a tear gas grenade even after it has released gas. Water cannons are indiscriminate, and injuries are possible from the pressurised water as well as from the chemicals dissolved in the water.
BE MINDFUL OF SECURITY CONCERNS
Malaysia’s security agencies have developed a reputation for their strong track record in taking action against terrorists, including the arrests of terror suspects in recent years. However, Malaysia remains at risk due to its proximity to terrorist activity in Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand.
Malaysian counter-terrorism officials also cite global events such as the battle against the Islamic State as a potential motivating factor for recruitment (which includes Malay-language recruitment videos) or the recent plots that police successfully disrupted. Kidnappings in Malaysian waters off Sabah, attributed to Abu Sayyaf, are an ongoing threat and is something travellers engaging in water sports and diving must be aware of.
At the same time, other potential security threats bear watching, namely disturbances to civil and racial harmony. Travellers to Malaysia should always keep in mind that regardless of public reaction to GE14, Malaysia’s northern states, especially those that enforce Islamic law, observe stricter cultural practices than other parts of Malaysia even though these don’t apply to non-Muslims.
GO, BUT STAY UPDATED
While foreign governments have not issued official advisories against travelling to Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Peninsular Malaysia during the election season, foreign governments’ embassies in Kuala Lumpur, international media, and security professionals will closely monitor developments in the coming weeks.
Whether for international conferences in Kuala Lumpur or other parts of Peninsular Malaysia, business meetings, or leisure travel, there’s no reason to disrupt your post-election visits to Malaysia.
However, visitors should check daily whether their travel plans and itineraries will be impacted by post-election victory rallies or protests by supporters of the other side, or other adverse developments, and generally exercise caution in the near future.
Ross Darrell Feingold is head of business development at SafePro Group, a consultancy that advises corporate clients about safety during periods of security uncertainty and natural disasters around the world.