Sinar Project to Provide Malaysian Voters with Info Before Coming Elections

Any day now, elections are expected to be called in Malaysia in what many expect to be the closest, most hard-fought race in the country’s history. Aiming to make a real impact on the information voters can access ahead of the election is the Sinar Project, a nonpartisan Malaysia civic tech organization with a simple, but powerful mission: to use open source technology to make Malaysian government transparent and accountable, and empower citizens to participate and engage with civic institutions and political representatives.

“In order to be able to participate better in the political process and engage decision and policy makers, citizens need to have access to information,” said Khairil Yusof, the coordinator for the Sinar Project. “And this information must also be accessible in terms of understanding it.”

The Sinar Project was founded in 2011, by Khairil and Ng Swee Meng, two Malaysians then working in the IT sector but now focusing on civic tech and open data. Sinar Project works closely with, and is supported by, global open data and governance initiatives, including the World Wide Web Foundation, the Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative, and mySociety. But it is, first and foremost, a Malaysian project. They were one of several Southeast Asian organizations to participate in the Civic Tech Fest held in Taipei, Taiwan, this past September. There, for the first time, civic tech activists from across the region were able to meet, share ideas, and collaborate on cross-border strategies for bringing about change in their countries.

Sinar Project has several initiatives at various stages of development. Some, like AduanKu, a platform to make Malaysian local councils more accountable by monitoring problems such as potholes and faulty street lights on a community-built database, are active and seeking volunteer moderators. They are also monitoring online censorship as part of the Open Observatory of Network Interference project. Some projects, like Open Spending, an ambitious idea to track public finance information, have yet to launch locally due to limited data and nonexistent Freedom of Information Laws.

“We don’t have open data for nearly anything,” said Khairil. “It’s really difficult to build things with open data provided by the government.”

Sinar Project’s strategy is to use Popolo international open data standards to built platforms where anyone, from civil society, media, or regular Malaysians, can input data from disparate local, regional, national, and even international sources. The idea is that by connecting pieces of data, and understanding the collective, missing gaps, they can replicate what the government will not provide. Two ongoing projects using this system to gather data about elected representatives, MyMP and Wakil Raykat, are both active and could form the basis of an election tool.

It won’t be easy. Malaysia’s parliamentary system, based on the British system inherited from colonialism, requires only 30 days between when an election is called and voting takes place. Within that time frame, the actual campaigning period can be incredibly short. For Sinar Project, this means that they’ll need to be ready, and are already working to develop tools that can inform voters as soon as elections are called.

“We are preparing to be able to quickly spin up an election candidates site within a few days,” said Khairil. “This is important, because the Malaysian campaign period can be as short as just 10 days. So we may have just 10 days to make a site that covers 222 federal and 587 state seat candidates!”

Malaysia has been ruled by the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, led by the United Malays National Organization (UNMO), since 1973, making them the longest ruling elected party in the world. For most of that period, they enjoyed a two-third parliamentary majority, meaning they could change the country’s constitution at will. There was little serious opposition in Malaysia, and both the press and civil society are restricted by several laws.

A glimmer of hope came in 2008, though, when in a stunning result, BN lost the both popular vote and its two-third majority, though the gerrymandered seat distribution system meant it still held on to power. It was a sea change that, for many, heralded a new era in Malaysian politics.

“Since 2008, the political landscape has changed with sizable opposition being voted in, and a more politically active society that is demanding more transparency and accountability from their government,” said Khairil.

In 2015, the calls for change grew even louder after the Wall Street Journal reported on how nearly $1 billion dollars from a state-run development company, 1MDB, ended up in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bank account through via “a complex web of deceit.” Najib also happened to be the chair of the 1MDB advisory board. Even today, despite dozens of stories, investigations, and allegations, the truth about the fund and its billions remains unclear.

The government’s response to the scandal was not to open up an independent investigation, but to clamp down on any attempt to tarnish Najib or BN. Though few believe the government’s official story, that the money was a gift from the Saudi royal family, finding out the truth or holding the government accountable remains a challenge.

“If individuals are continuously attacked from speaking out in different ways, from posting content on social media, to screening documentaries and participating in peaceful assemblies, it sends out a chilling message to government critics and reinforces the idea that anyone can be targeted, simply for expressing themselves, or disagreeing with the government,” said Josef Benedict, deputy director for Southeast Asia at Amnesty International.

Sinar Project is uniquely positioned in this space. As a nonpartisan organization, they do not take any position on these issues. Everything they produce is freely available and reusable by all. In theory, this should insulate them from the threats that other civil society organizations, opposition political leaders, and media members face. In reality, due to confusing laws and unclear boundaries, there’s always a risk.

“While we don’t take a position, and let the data or visualization speak for itself, if that data is damning and politically harmful, we may find ourselves in trouble due to these laws,” said Khairil. “We are walking a fine line, and we are not always sure where there line is.”

This is the reality in Malaysia, where the odds are stacked against political change. Besides the fact that the entire state apparatus is in support of BN, even the electoral system is biased, as rural Malay votes count more than those of voters in diverse, urban areas. Moreover, disseminating useful, nonpartisan information for voters is a challenge in a constrained civil space.

“Civic tech tools and open data are enablers for others to use to make an impact,” said Khairil. “If the work of the potential users of our work are restricted, then so will the impact of our work.”

Despite the challenges, there are many reasons to be hopeful. Increasingly, Malaysians are getting information not from traditional media outlets, which often follow the government line, but independent online outlets like MalaysiaKini or the Sarawak Report. Digital penetration in the country is on par with developed countries, with smartphone ownership rate estimated by the Pew Research Center to be 65 percent, not too far behind the U.S.

“Malaysia is now highly connected,” said Khairil. “The digital space is mostly free…for expression and association, and [there] democracy is thriving.”

Moreover, Malaysian civil society, despite threats and even arrests, has not stood down. Bersih (Malay for Clean) protests have mobilized thousands across the country to demand clean elections, and voter registration drives are already taking place. The scale of 1MDB and the obvious crackdown could, some believe, be the final straw that turns even formerly reliable rural Malay voters against BN.

After six years of building their expertise, and learning from the success of partners across the world, Sinar Project is ready, already building a site and crowdsourcing ideas for names. For regular Malaysians, it means that this election, they’ll have more information about their government than ever before. It could be a perfect storm, where higher digital penetration, an engaged civil society, and better data come together and bring about the country’s first ever change in political leadership, and the opportunity to build a better, more open, and transparent future for Malaysia.