ABU’s Anything But Understandable

I wrote the following article on 8 April in response to a video released on 3 April by the Anything But Umno (ABU) movement in which its leader, lawyer and activist Haris Ibrahim, warned certain ‘foreigners’ to stay away from the upcoming general election. The warning was not aimed at me — I don’t have the right to vote in Malaysia — but it offended me. It came across as very xenophobic, counterproductive, and hypocritical. Besides writing this article I also aired my concerns on Twitter and in emails to the Migration Working Groups mailing list. I received some disturbing responses in both forums, but also got a lot of support for my views and had interesting discussions on the issue. On 9 April, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) finally spoke out against Haris Ibrahim’s remarks. It remains to be seen whether there will be any trouble on polling day (which today was announced for 5 May) but since ABU and its hardcore supporters appear ready to do anything to oust Umno/BN from power, anything is possible.


With Parliament just dissolved and the 13th General Election mere weeks away, it is a given that political parties and their supporters will dig in and intensify attacks on their opponents.

One early salvo in this war has been launched by a group that does not support any party but seeks to keep one particular party out of Putrajaya.

Anything But Umno (ABU), which aims to prevent Umno and its Barisan Nasional coalition partners from winning this election, released an explosive video on April 3 in which its leader, lawyer Haris Ibrahim, delivered a warning to ‘foreigners’ who intend to vote. Haris said:

“To foreigners who have been given MyKads, please hear this. ABU has issued warnings to all of you to stay away from our polling stations on PRU13 day. Please take this warning seriously. On polling day, ABU squads will be patrolling all polling stations and they will deal with all foreigners who are intent on defying this warning. Please, I emphasise again, take this warning seriously.”

The remarks touched a nerve with people who work with stateless children, migrant workers, refugees and other foreigners who have had issues related to their status in Malaysia.

Torben Venning, director of the Borneo Child Aid Society, said in an email that the video would be frightening not only to so-called illegals but to all foreign-born people who have obtained Malaysian citizenship.

“The definition of who is a naturalised Malaysian with immigrant background, working and staying in Sabah for 30-40 years, or the Malaysia born children of these, and who is a ‘foreigner’ given a MyKad for unlawful political purpose, is for many locals and immigrants here in Sabah quite fluid,” Venning wrote.

Another correspondent, who works in the human rights field, wrote that Haris Ibrahim and ABU “don’t understand the concept of naturalisation”.

That, indeed, is the main problem with Haris Ibrahim’s warning to ‘foreigners’. While there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the granting of citizenship to so many, the fact is that they are now citizens of Malaysia; technically they are not foreigners, but Malaysians.

ABU’s warning appears to be founded on the assumption that it will be easy to differentiate between foreign-born people who obtained citizenship legitimately and those who were simply handed MyKads and told to vote for BN.

However, as Venning pointed out, the distinction is not always so clear. There is no foolproof way to tell ‘real’ citizens from ‘fake’ ones. This includes the presence of the number 71 on MyKads, which merely indicates the MyKad holders are foreign-born, not whether they obtained their citizenship through legitimate means.

Malaysians are certainly well within their rights to scrutinise the reasons for giving citizenship to foreigners, and the process by which they obtained citizenship, and to demand that government officials responsible for improprieties be held to account.

Yet ABU intends to take things a step further and prevent people who are citizens of this country from exercising their right to vote — a step that may not only cross an ethical boundary, but a legal one as well.

Haris Ibrahim was quoted by Malaysiakini as saying “ABU does not intend to act violently towards anyone. Ours is a peaceful initiative.”

However, he did not make it clear exactly how ABU’s “peaceful initiative” will accomplish its goals without violating the rights of Malaysian citizens.

What is clear is that even if ABU – which accuses the BN government of depriving people of their right to vote – does ultimately prevent some ‘fake’ citizens from voting, it will almost certainly prevent Malaysian citizens from voting as well, through intimidation if not overt violence.

“Squads who ‘peacefully’ intimidate people at voting stations have been seen before in other countries around the world,” Torben Venning wrote, “and giving way to this would be greatly disturbing.”