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Malaysians Vote in Large Numbers After Quiet Campaign

Malaysians are going to the polls to choose their next government. And although attention is focused primarily on the fate of hundreds of candidates, non-Malaysians are struck by the tenor of the campaign, which is different from those in most other emerging democracies in the region.

Malaysians take their elections seriously. While political campaigns in other places, like Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines are boisterous celebrations with rock bands, cheering crowds, and horn-honking parades, the campaign in Malaysia is subdued.

At rallies, supporters sit, the men separated from women and children according to custom in this predominantly Muslim society. When a candidate makes a good point, they applaud politely from their seats.

A professor of public administration at the University of Malaya, Norma Mansor, says this is part of the tradition.

"I think it is culturally, and religion too, that Malaysians, when we are happy, we do not really go out and shout in triumph, and when we are sad, too, we try to rationalize," she said.

Professor Mansor says there is also a fear that too much exuberance could lead to electoral violence, which is common in other democracies.

Although the majority of the population of 25 million people is ethnic Malay, ethnic Chinese and Indians who arrived centuries ago are significant minorities. No one wants to see a repetition of the ethnic violence that raged across the country in the early 1960s.

Although the tone of the campaign is subdued, colorful posters assault voters' visual sense along highways and intersections across the country. The blue banners of the ruling coalition wave beside the green flags of the opposition Islamic party and the rocket insignia of the ethnic-Chinese party.

One would think that the dominance of a single party in politics might lead to voter apathy. Yet Malaysian elections have one of the highest voter turnout records in the region - more than 70 percent.

This may be due the government's efforts to bring out the vote.

Songs and testimonials are broadcast regularly encouraging people to go to the polls on election day.

This year, one of the most poignant came in the form of a letter from an elderly Malaysian to the prime minister that was made into a television spot. "The time has come for all of us to play our part in the future of our Malaysia, a Malaysia free of corruption...," it said.

The message has resonance for many Malaysians, who appear to believe that good governance and the eradication of poverty are much more important than the show business of campaign politics.