Malaysia Rivals in War of Chinese Words

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and arch-rival opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim are taking their battle to for the center-ground of Malaysian politics in an unexpected direction: the Chinese-language pages of Facebook.

Mr. Najib launched the first salvo last week, his team putting up a Chinese-language page where he is called “Ah Jib Gor,” or “Brother Najib,” which had 18,700 “likes” by Wednesday.

Mr. Anwar’s team retaliated quickly, putting up their own Chinese-language Facebook page under the name of “Brother Anwar,” or “Ah Wah Gor.” So far, he is in the lead, at least among Malaysians who can be bothered logging on, attracting 38,137 “likes.”

Mr. Anwar’s tally also appears to be benefiting from a fake version of Mr. Najib’s Mandarin page which might be siphoning votes away the premier’s official profile, though it is unclear who is behind the spoof page.

Both Messrs. Najib and Anwar are campaigning to win over Malaysia’s ethnic-Chinese voters, who could help determine the outcome of the next national elections. The vote is likely to be among the most fiercely contested in the country’s history and could come any time between now and 2013. Mr. Najib is wooing voters by pledging more reforms to roll-back the affirmative-action policies that for decades have afforded a competitive advantage to the country’s majority ethnic-Malay community in a bid to help them catch up with Malaysia’s Chinese, who make up a quarter of the population.

Many Malaysian Chinese, though, along with some of the country’s ethnic-Indian population, view Mr. Anwar’s opposition alliance as a better bet for bringing change and expanding the country’s economy, making the community a key battleground in the election fight.

Mr. Najib already is an avid Internet user, employing both Facebook and especially Twitter to connect with potential voters. His aides say switching to Mandarin is a natural extension of that. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Najib described how he had to move with the times, even if some of his more conservative advisers look askance at his willingness to go online. Last week he celebrated getting his 400,000th follower on Twitter by—what else—tweeting about it.

Political analysts expect Mr. Anwar, also a compulsive tweeter, to ramp up his campaign, too, after the Kuala Lumpur’s High Court on Jan. 9 acquitted him of charges that he had broken Malaysia’s strict sodomy laws – a charge which Mr. Anwar says was politically motivated.

Mr. Najib denies having anything to do with Mr. Anwar’s sodomy case. State prosecutors appealed the verdict late last week.

In the Facebook face-off, though, Mr. Anwar could well retain the upper hand. His key political partner is the predominantly ethnic-Chinese based Democratic Action Party.