Korean pop sensation Psy danced right into the middle of Malaysia's increasingly fractious politics today, following the prime minister on to the stage at a government-held Chinese New Year celebration in opposition stronghold Penang.
Psy's two renditions of his hit “Gangnam Style” were the highlight of a scorching morning in the west coast city, where Malaysia's governing coalition, known as the National Front, made a local and youth vote pitch ahead of elections expected to be the closest-fought in Malaysia's history.
“If you read most of the surveys, they show almost a neck and neck race, but most analysts think that the BN will win narrowly,” says James Chin, a professor of political science at Monash University.
The National Front, known by its Malay acronym BN, has run Malaysia since independence in 1957. But the stakes are high with 30 percent of Malaysia's 13 million voters due to cast their ballots for the first time in this election, slated to be announced by the end of April.
The opposition, another coalition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, is hoping to better its best-ever showing in the 2008 election, when it took 1/3 of the seats. Tensions have been heightened by two mass opposition-linked rallies in capital Kuala Lumpur, when tens of thousands of demonstrators were doused with water-cannons and tear-gas in July 2011 and April 2012.
But Psy's appearance at today's event seems unlikely to sway these younger voters one way or another. “It will be seen as publicity stunt,” says Professor Chin.
Indeed, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged 20,000 new houses and a new monorail system for Penang just before Psy came out on stage. He ended his address by asking “Are you ready for Psy?” And was met with a sea of enthusiastic cheers. When he then asked "Are you ready for BN?" it was met by a less enthusiastic response from the crowd.
“Everyone was here for Psy, not for politics,” says Chang Myn-Kit, who works in Singapore, but made his way back to Penang to be with family for the Chinese New Year.
Some government supporters in the crowd made their voices heard, however. “I'm here for Psy and for Najib,” says Eddie Lau, waving an “I Love BN” banner.
Penang is the name of both an island and Malaysia's second smallest state. The metro area of the state capital, George Town, includes Penang Island and has a combined population of more than 2 million, making it one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.
Penang's regional administration is opposition-controlled and a majority of Chinese-Malaysians across the country are expected to support the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the forthcoming election.
Chinese-Malaysians, who are mostly descendants of migrant workers who immigrated to Malaysia while the country was under British control, make up 25 percent of the country's 29 million population. Recent surveys show Malaysia's Chinese – who, like young first-time voters, are described by analysts as possible “kingmakers” in the coming election – to be disenchanted with the current government.
According to research conducted by the independent Malaysian opinion research firm The Merdeka Center in 2012, only 16 percent of Chinese-Malaysians think Malaysia is “going in the right direction.” That's far lower than the 70 percent of majority Malays, who make up 60 percent of the country's population, who believe the country is on the right path.
Psy did not make any political comments during his brief appearance on stage in Penang today, when he performed for the sun-baked crowd of an estimated 80,000 people.
Coming back on stage for an encore, the white-clad Korean exhorted the crowd to dance, jesting that they were too preoccupied by taking photos of him the first time around. 'Don't take any more pics: This time just dance!” he yelled in English.