On April 16th, 2011, the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, conducted regional elections that were marred by widespread claims of cyber attacks and infiltration of opposition party’s websites. A National election is planned for 2012, although it can be called for sooner by the ruling party, the political bullying and turmoil that surrounded the regional elections may foreshadow widespread cyber attacks and political crackdowns as national elections draw nearer.
In the election, Sarawak’s Chief Minster, Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has ruled since 1981 was re-elected. Mahmud’s party, the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, is an important coalition member of the nationally ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) Party. Although the BN has monopolized political authority in Malaysia, ruling as a super majority coalition since the country gained independence in 1957—BN operated as the Alliance Party from 1957 until 1973—the 2008 national elections challenged BN’s seemingly impenetrable authority over political power. There were multiple surprising outcomes of the 2008 national election. First, for the first time in the nation’s history, BN lost its super majority control of Malaysian politics. After the votes were counted, BN won eight of thirteen Malaysian states—an obvious majority, but not quite a super majority—members of the BN coalition parties only constituted 61.5% of the elected government. In response to the growing support of opposition parties, two Members of Parliament who constituted one of the BN coalition parties—the Sabah Progressive Party—announced a political separation from BN and began a crusade of independence in the federal government. Additionally, the surprising penetration into the BN super majority encouraged greater propaganda from coalitions of opposition parties in two states—Sarawak and Sabah—that encouraged greater autonomy from the federal government.
The growing support for opposition politicians, especially in Sarawak where Abdul Mahmud has ruled for 30 years, instilled great fear in BN officials. This fear materialized in the April 2011 Sarawak regional elections when opposition and independent media websites experienced cyber attacks, website hacking and mainframe hacking. The cyber attacks were not intended to steal confidential documents; they intended to (and succeeded at) interrupting website service, disrupting the distribution of information and corrupting files crucial to reporting claims of government corruption and widespread urban support for opposition parties. The attacks were nearly impossible to trace, but many rumors and allegations have spread that either sympathizers of the BN or BN itself, possibly both, initiated the cyber attacks. Multiple DDOS attacks were routed through China, Brazil and Russia, but the origins of the attacks are unknown and extremely difficult to track. Government authorities have not received any official accusations, but due to previous censorship of print media and historical harassment of investigative and subversive—as deemed by the government—journalists by the ruling regime, speculation is abound that the ruling BN coalition played a crucial role in the DDOS attacks leading up to and on April 16th, 2011.
Political leaders have adopted the DDOS attacks as part of their anti-ruling party political platform; in Selangor, one of the states that did not elect the BN in 2008, the Chief Minister, Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, blamed the ruling coalition and its sympathizers for the attacks. Ibrahim included a stern warning to the ruling regime about future attacks, he warned that government suppression of political rights and the media were two of the catalyzing forces behind the ongoing unrest in the Middle East.
As China’s sphere of influence continues to grow in the South China Sea, Malaysian political and social traditions of racial stratification—with ethnic Chinese and Indians at the bottom rung of society’s ladder—political turmoil and corruption may put Malaysia’s national security at risk.
The success of the BN in the Sarawak regional elections demonstrates the inability of the opposition party to convince the large ethnic Chinese population in that state that opposition rule provides a realistic and beneficial change from the status quo that would increase the social standings and civil rights of the degraded community. Yet, with elections not scheduled until 2012, opposition parties in Sarawak and other states still have an opportunity to appeal to ostracized ethnicities, solidify their political cohorts and ranks and appeal to China for financial and strategic support and mentorship. But, Malaysia has historically suppressed opposition parties and media outlets and the recent cyber attacks may simply be foreshadowing the corruption by the ruling BN and sympathizers that is to prelude the 2012 national elections.