“We swept the island”, said the lanky man in red and white, hanging up his mobile phone. “Even Koh Tsu Koon fell!”
We sat there in stunned silence on the wooden canteen benches. It had been a long day, but also the most exciting one in a long, long while. I made a mental note of the date: March 8, 2008.
It is sometimes hard to remember, but in the run-up to GE12, it was far from clear what was about to happen. It was, after all, the first elections to take place after the rise of social media and ubiquitous Internet. The MSM dedicated column upon column after the elections to tell us what we already knew: that, as Thomas Jefferson observed, democracy only functions when the electorate is informed – and we no longer needed the MSM to be informed. Print subscriptions of government-controlled papers have dropped consistently for years. We all know why.
What influences your vote? Some would say corruption. Ling Liong Sik’s claims that he didn’t understand the billion-ringgit contracts he was signing, or the intrepid investigative reporting from Global Witness on the plunder of Sarawak by Taib are recent examples.
Others will say that BN needs to lose for its own good. A change of government will put back power into the hands of the people and remind politicians that they serve at the pleasure of the rakyat. For far too long has BN treated itself as a reigning monarch, using public funds for its own purposes and doling out handouts according to its whims, as if the money did not come from the people in the first place.
There are also the more moderate voices who point out that Najib has been doing a decent job at the helm: the economy is on the uptick, there have been steps to abolish the most draconian laws, and BN has discarded half its old guard in a bid to rejuvenate. Even the most diehard DAP or PKR supporter has to admit to some doubt over how far their partnership will go; DAP and PKR are incompatible with PAS on a fundamental level.
And some among us grow weary of all the politicking. For all the fanfare when Pakatan and BN released their manifestos, there is precious little substance in them. If we were to take them at face value, it doesn’t matter which party you choose – both promise a veritable windfall of handouts for various demographics, with scant explanation as to where the money will come from. Pandering takes precedence over policy on both sides of the divide.
“The most important thing is not to celebrate. Don’t give them an excuse! Keep your heads down!” All nodded sagely, not needing an explanation as to who “they” were, or what they needed an “excuse” for.
I attended a talk recently given by Nurul Izzah, YB Lembah Pantai (which in light of the dissolution of Parliament should stand for, as she was quick to point out, Yang Bertanding) and Saifuddin Abdullah, YB Temerloh. A question put forward to both was whether we should still have racial parties, to which both gave the same diplomatic answer – in a democracy, race-based parties have a right to exist.
I didn’t feel that answered the question – whether race-based parties are allowed to exist (they obviously do) is a different discussion from whether they still should.
For decades UMNO has continued the British strategy of divide-and-rule: a tactic that weakens the nation for the benefit of its rulers. It is also incredibly inefficient – take how our government has made costly, confusing flipflops over whether to teach Maths and Science in English, or the quotas for public university admissions. When the specter of race pandering looms over every single decision, much less time is spent on policies that matter, on making the decisions Malaysia needs to succeed and to keep our streets safe. Because of this overhead, we now compare ourselves to African countries where we once ranked among the Asian tigers of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.
It is a pet peeve of mine how political parties treat allocations to vernacular and religious schools as showing support for one race or another. Singapore bit the bullet in unifying their education system decades ago and look where they are now. We would do our children a huge favour by focusing on building the best public education system possible, rather than wasting resources bribing demographic groups with vernacular schools. Our education system would have us see a Chinese child go to a Chinese primary school and a Chinese secondary school, and join the MCA. And then we wonder why people mock the 1Malaysia slogan! I’m no fan of religion either, but at least one has to choose to be a believer.
I firmly believe that our generation will be the one where Malaysia takes its first step into the zeitgeist of rationality. Mahathir claims that Malaysians are not ready to abandon race-based parties. He could not be more wrong – we are the closest we have ever been. A loss for BN automatically renders the already-flailing MCA and MIC irrelevant. MCA and MIC cannot survive as opposition parties; their main reason for existence is to keep an UMNO-led government in check (and to provide for their cronies). Without MCA and MIC, UMNO’s racism will be only more profound, and the success (or at least, the non-failure) of a Pakatan Rakyat coalition would only draw more attention to the divide. BN will eventually have to consolidate under one banner and allow direct membership.
This is the first step, and one within our grasp. It will leave our political landscape forever changed, for the better. Make no mistake, this is an election to remember. Your vote counts!