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Cheeky game puts politics in the hands of Malaysians

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
May 6, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
Players of Politiko are asked to out-scheme their opponents in a game that mirrors Malaysian politics
Players of Politiko are asked to out-scheme their opponents in a game that mirrors Malaysian politics
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tongue-in-cheek card game is based on Malaysian dirty politics
  • Players must out-scheme each other to be voted into parliament
  • Contestants are asked to buy votes, hire phantom voters and control the media
  • In an ironic twist, the game has become popular with some Malaysian politicians

(CNN) -- Politics might well be a dirty game, but in Malaysia where allegations of vote-buying, sex scandals and violence are a feature of the political landscape, a group of disaffected activists have distilled these predictable shabby tricks into a popular card game.

Called Politiko, players are asked to woo voters with cash handouts, use elements of Sharia law to lay low rivals, or pour petrol subsidies on troubled electoral waters.

"Hire phantom voters. Control the media. Cook up a sex scandal to alienate your enemy's supporters - or to betray your own allies!" says the game's website.

"Choose from 10 distinct (and familiar) political parties to lead to victory. Play with up to six friends, of any race. But are they really your friends? Remember: it's not about the people -- it's about Putrajaya," it adds, referring to Malaysia's administrative capital.

Politics looking forward in Malaysia

The tongue-in-cheek game is loosely based on Monopoly Deal but instead of dealing in property, players compete to get voters - the first to hold eight voter cards gets elected to parliament.

Before that can happen, players must negotiate the pitfalls of the "scheme" cards - either rising on the pork-barrel politics of free highway tolls and urban metro projects, or falling on crumbling allegiances and misplaced racial scapegoating.

Typically, the richest person at the card table gets to deal the first card.

In an ironic twist, the game has even become popular with some politicians in Malaysia's ruling UMNO coalition, according to the group that developed the card game.

The brainchild of 31-year-old designer Mun Kao - part of a group called Loyar Burok, which is affiliated with the Malaysian Center for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) - the game has quickly sold out of its initial run of 850 decks.

"I had the idea about two years ago when there really was a political circus going on - we had some ridiculous things happening in Malaysia," Mun Kao told CNN. "You had people being arrested for the color of their T-shirts and things like that and to me that period was really absurd.

"It prompted a lot of emotions in a lot of people and it's being expressed in different forms. If you have Malaysian friends you can see it on Facebook and online - I think there's a creative expression tsunami going on," he said.

Malaysian media reports say about 2.6 million of the country's 13.3 million eligible voters will cast their ballots for the first time in a bitterly fought poll that could see the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - which has been in power for 56 years - lose to opposition parties for the first time.

The number of new voters, many of them without party loyalties, has increased markedly since elections five years ago when there were 638,000 new voters. Analysts say that many young voters may have been encouraged to register by the closeness of the 2008 poll which the ruling coalition only narrowly won.

"We don't have a reliable mainstream media in Malaysia," said Chi Too, a communications officer with MCCHR. "The government owns pretty much all newspapers, all radio stations and TV stations. A lot of people are now relying on social media and alternative media that can be found with online newspapers and the like."

I had the idea about two years ago when there really was a political circus going on
Mun Kao

Websites such as Malaysiakini have become popular with young voters, streaming news and views generally unobtainable in Malaysia's mainstream press. Even so, it claims that it has been the victim of censorship tactics that have involved denial of service cyber-attacks on its streaming videos.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission investigating the attacks said there were no such restrictions, adding that the public should not speculate until a proper investigation has been carried out.

The power of the online campaign has not been lost on the ruling coalition which this year launched the UMNO New Media Unit; a team of 2,000 of what it calls "cyber-activists" tasked with logging opposition attacks.

On Sunday, voters will be asked to choose between the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which -- with its predecessor -- has ruled the country for more than five decades, and Pakatan Rakyat (PR), a loose coalition of opposition parties formed after the last election in 2008.

BN is led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, the son and nephew of former prime ministers, who has held the post since 2009.

PR is headed by Anwar Ibrahim, a former finance and deputy prime minister who served time in prison on corruption and sodomy charges which he says were politically motivated. The first sodomy charge was overturned in 2004 and in January 2012 he was acquitted of a second charge of sodomy, a serious offense in Malaysia which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

In a hard-fought campaign, both parties have been trying to entice voters with promises of generous government spending.

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