Malaysia’s strange history of importing votes

The kind of electoral fraud Malaysia's newly reelected Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has been accused of seems too elaborate to be true.

The opposition is alleging that BN brought in foreigners -- mainly from Bangladesh, Burma, and Indonesia -- to supplement the party's vote counts. In addition to these so-called "phantom voters," the opposition has accused BN of flying voters from its eastern strongholds of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo to vote in mainland states where victory was less assured. (BN leader and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied the accusations.)

The plot is certainly convoluted: It involves complicit airline companies and suspicious groups of foreigners arriving on chartered flights prior to the election. But even if the accusations turn out to be rooted in paranoia, there's good reason for them: Malaysia -- and BN in particular -- has something of a spotty history when it comes to importing votes from abroad.

A Malaysian Royal Commission of Inquiry, for instance, is currently investigating so-called Project IC, a notorious program in which the BN -- which gets the bulk of its support from the ethnically Malay, Muslim population -- allegedly provided Muslim immigrants -- mainly from the southern Philippines and Indonesia -- in Sabah with identity cards in exchange for votes.  These immigrants, already ethnically similar to Malays, were assimilated, and Sabah -- once a non-Malay majority state where BN faced electoral threats -- has been something of a party fortress ever since.

As John Pang recently wrote in the New York Times:

In one of the most brazen examples of manufacturing ethnic identity for political gain, Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister from 1981 to 2003, imported about 700,000 Muslim immigrants from the southern Philippines into the Malaysian state of Sabah. They were secretly issued Malaysian citizenship in order to create a "Malay" Muslim vote base for Mr. Mahathir's party.

Pang's description may be a bit premature, as the inquiry is still ongoing. But several members of the UMNO, the ruling Malay party at the time, were detained for their involvement in falsifying identity cards in the late 1990s, with one former member of the project claiming that in 1985 alone, 130,000 illegal immigrants received identity cards.

Accusations of bringing in Bangladeshis by the thousands to cast votes certainly go beyond your standard ballot-box stuffing. But in Malaysian politics, stranger things have happened.



The 'Onion' latest victim of Syrian Electronic Army's fat jokes

This afternoon, the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of hackers supportive of Bashar al-Assad's regime, appeared to briefly hack into the Onion's Twitter feed. Over the course of about an hour, the SEA tweeted seven times from @TheOnion, and claimed responsibility for the attack on the Onion's @ONN account (the satirical newspaper's parody of 24-hour news networks) before the messages were deleted.

You could say the SEA's attacks have been a bit hit or miss over the past several months. The group's members promoted an alternate narrative of the Syrian civil war when they hacked into @60Minutes last month, but also tweeted fat jokes about the emir of Qatar, a backer of the opposition, when they hacked the BBC's weather account ("Earthquake warning for Qatar: Hamad Bin Khalifah about to exit vehicle").

In one of their strangest strikes yet, the SEA broke into the Twitter feed of the television channel E! on Sunday to "out" Justin Bieber and then to tweet, "Angelina Jolie admits, in E! latest issue, that Jordan is to blame for the Syrian refugees' atrocious conditions" -- a sentence that  under no circumstances would ever appear on E!

Today, the SEA fell back on fat jokes about Qatar's ruler ("NASA: 9th planet discovered and identified as the Qatari Emir") and also took a few jabs at Israel -- "UN's Ban Ki Moon condemns Syria for being struck by Israel: 'It was in the way of Jewish missiles;'" "The #Onion CEO: 'We regret taking zionist money to defame Syria. now the hackers are up our ass;'" "Poland to double flights from the Middle East, anticipating Israeli mass exodus. 'The bagel bakery ovens are working over time' ~ Larry" -- after the Israelis reportedly launched two airstrikes against weapons depots in Damascus in the past week.

Whoever was behind the hacking demonstrated a fairly proficient knowledge of the Onion's style (for example, attributing a quote without context to "Larry") and included a well-timed "Futurama Fry" meme as Twitter followers wondered if @TheOnion had been hacked, or if the tweets were simply more satire:


Though the Onion is first and foremost a satirical site, it has also hosted some of the most trenchant commentary on the Syrian civil war, leaving little doubt about why it was targeted. Darkly humorous articles from the past year and a half have included titles such as, "'Help Has To Be On The Way Now,' Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed,"  "Having Gone This Far Without Caring About Syria, Nation To Finish What It Started," "Target Pulls All Sponsorship From Publicly Ignored Syrian Conflict," "Alien World To Help Out Syria Since This One Refuses To," and an op-ed by Bashar al-Assad titled, "Hi, In The Past 2 Years, You Have Allowed Me To Kill 70,000 People."

So perhaps it's not a surprise that when the news outlet finally regained control over its Twitter feed, it had this to say: