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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysians face a stark choice Sunday in their most hotly contested general elections ever: Stick with what they know, a long-ruling coalition accused of corruption, or take a chance on an untested opposition.
Some of the Southeast Asian nation's 13.3 million eligible voters believe the National Front, which has dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1957, must be ousted to cleanse the government. They are rallying behind opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Supporters of incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak respond that change is too risky and unnecessary.
Here is a look at this closely watched election through the eyes of three voters:
NG SEK SAN, 50, Landscape Architect
Ng Sek San has earned praise for his work in Malaysian hotels and parks, but he considers his latest initiative, the "Malaysian Spring," to be among his most ambitious.
The volunteer movement that he and his friends introduced through Facebook this past month has prompted residents of Kuala Lumpur's suburbs to hand-produce and plant tens of thousands of colorful miniature flags in grassy sidewalks and playgrounds, symbolizing their hope for a fresh political start.
"It's a very literal interpretation of what spring is," Ng said in an interview at his office and gallery, which showcases his designs and works by Malaysian artists. "When you change from dark, cold winter days into spring, everything becomes brighter and everybody gets more excited."
The movement has attracted mainly middle-class Malaysians such as Ng, who feel strongly about clean government.
For decades, most voters were content to let the National Front lead, as Malaysia steadily evolved from a backwater of rubber plantations, tin mines, fishing villages and rice paddies into an industrialized country that manufactures microchips and solar panels and even boasted the world's tallest building — the gleaming 88-story Petronas Twin Towers — for nearly six years.
Now a growing bank of educated middle class voters is tiring of widely alleged corruption and accusations that the National Front has become bloated with self-serving politicians who enrich themselves and their business friends.
Thanks to the Internet, such perceptions have spread in recent years, as independent news websites and bloggers investigate government contracts and the use of public funds.
"A regime change, I guess, is important because the present regime has probably ruled for so long, and it's no secret that people are unhappy with a lot of things," Ng said.
SYAHADAD HUSIN. 22, Shop Owner
The customers at Syahadad Husin's dry goods store, just a five-minute drive from the Petronas Twin Towers, are far from well-heeled. His shelves are stocked mainly with canned sardines and 90-sen (30-cent) packets of instant noodles. He smiles and nods at visitors to the tiny shop owned by his family in one of Kuala Lumpur's oldest neighborhoods.
He represents the kind of voter that the National Front has targeted the most by offering state-funded help. This year, Syahadad's profits nearly doubled after he participated in a government program to help small businesses by providing them with low-interest loans and free professional advice on managing their operations more efficiently.
"All of us must support the government because of what the government has genuinely done to help us," Syahadad said, echoing the ubiquitous message that the National Front is pushing through TV and radio commercials, highway billboards, full-page newspaper advertisements, glossy pamphlets stuffed into mailboxes and cellphone text messages.
Authorities have also scored points in recent months by dishing out goodies such as cash handouts to low-income families and textbook vouchers for students.
The publicity blitz also warns that the opposition cannot be trusted to rule. The National Front says that if its rivals win, foreign investors will eventually flee Malaysia and leave the country in financial tatters.
JOY GRACIA LISO, 23, University Student
Joy Gracia Liso is one of more than 2 million people who are registered to vote for the first time. The opposition hopes these new voters in particular will feel bold enough to hand a 5-year mandate to its candidates
Walking through a campus hall that will host her graduation ceremony in October, Liso says she's more excited about voting than getting her degree in teaching.
Her father, a retired policeman, helped her raise roughly 360 Malaysian ringgit ($120) — a month's living expenses for her — to buy a flight ticket so that she can return to her home state in Borneo to vote.
Liso is making the extra effort partly because she feels the odds are stacked unfairly in favor of the National Front.
She says that her rural relatives in the Kelabit indigenous tribe have told her they had received money in exchange for supporting National Front candidates in previous elections. The ruling coalition has long denied claims that it buys or tampers with votes in closely fought constituencies.
For many opposition supporters, the alleged dirty tactics depict the difference between a ruling coalition that's desperate to avoid losing and an opposition that's largely untested — but also untainted.
"Of course, it's a big risk," Liso says. "But sometimes, you've just got to take a leap of faith."