Stan, a 35-year-old bank worker, did not bother to vote in 1995, the last time Malaysia held an election. But after the tumultuous events of the past year--including the firing, jailing and beating of the country's popular deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim--Stan is certain to go to the polls this time, if only to vote against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
"I'm so fed up with the BN," he said, using the initials for Mahathir's ruling coalition. With the pliant local press featuring pro-government campaign stories, Stan visited opposition party offices today to pick up information on their candidates. "Just look at the media coverage of the campaign," he said. "It's sickening."
Monday's national elections are shaping up as a contest of the generations. Most people here expect Mahathir's coalition to glide to another victory, albeit by a smaller margin than last time. But the campaign has energized many young, educated Malaysians, many of whom never bothered to participate in politics before. This new wave of voters is clamoring for a more open, tolerant system in a country dominated by Mahathir for the past two decades.
Mahathir, 73, has been prime minister since 1981, making him Asia's longest-serving elected leader. He and his allies represent Malaysia's past. In their speeches and advertisements, they emphasize their track record of impressive economic prosperity and political stability following devastating race riots of 1968. It is a theme that is believed to play particularly well in rural areas.
But the younger generation is less interested in the government's claims of past success. They are more educated, more urban, more wired to the Internet than their elders. They identify themselves less by race than their parents do, and they are more concerned with issues like judicial independence and abuse of power.
Many were apolitical until Anwar was dismissed last year, put on trial and sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges. Now, they appear attracted to the recently formed National Justice Party, led by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail.
Most of the leaders of the party, known as Keadilan, are political newcomers. Azizah is an ophthalmologist. The party's deputy president, Chandra Muzaffar, is a longtime critic of government human rights abuses who was fired from the University of Malaya for his political views.
At the Keadilan offices, young supporters sit on the floor, sorting campaign literature and wearing buttons and T-shirts featuring the infamous black eye Anwar suffered in prison.
"It's a movement of the young, this movement for change," said Chandra, who is running for a parliamentary seat in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. "Therefore, no matter what the outcome of this election, the Old Man and what he stands for are doomed--authoritarianism, dictating things. It's a paternalistic attitude, to put it in a nutshell--political paternalism, economic paternalism."
Chandra was cruising through his district in the back of a green van, greeting well-wishers through an open window. "Reformasi!" shouted a group of children as he passed, using the catch phrase meaning "reform" that has come to encompass much of the younger generation's grievances.
Many analysts said it was that fear of the youth vote--with 680,000 voters due to come onto the rolls in January--that prompted Mahathir to call the election now. Many of those 680,000 are believed to be young people who would have favored the opposition.
"There is a disconnect between the younger generation and the government," said Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. "The government is not realistic toward the connected generation. The government thinks they should be grateful. But the young of today, the digital generation, doesn't give a toss about being grateful."
"Most of these young guys form the core of that 680,000 who cannot vote," he added. "The battle is not this election but the next election, when the digital generation becomes larger and larger."
The ruling coalition, which dominates the media here, has fallen back on tactics and strategies that have worked in the past. They have run a series of vicious full-page newspaper ads maligning key opposition figures, and surreptitiously released a new videotape recounting sodomy allegations against Anwar.
Meanwhile, opposition leaders said a major newspaper refused to run their ad featuring Anwar with the black eye.
That kind of bias has prompted many younger Malaysians to seek out news on the Internet, where several new sites offer alternatives to the mainstream press.
One such site is malaysiakini.com, meaning "Malaysia now," started last week by Steven Gan, a journalist who left his newspaper because of censorship by his editors. After Anwar's arrest and trial, Gan said, "we realized there was a need for an independent, alternative media in Malaysia."
So far, his site has gotten about 50,000 hits. But Gan and others say the impact is far wider. While Internet use here is limited, political activists are printing stories from the Internet and passing around photocopies.
"In politics right now, the divide is a generational thing," Gan said, noting that his reporters are all in their twenties, most of them recent college graduates at their first jobs. Still, he has no illusions that younger voters will make an impact this time around. Real change, he said, may have to wait until the next election, due in five years.
CAPTION: Wan Azizah Ismail, leader of the newly formed opposition party known as Keadilan and wife of jailed ex-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, addresses her supporters.
CAPTION: Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose coalition is expected to win Monday's election, campaigns in Penang. Mahathir has been prime minister since 1981.