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The Star - Musings - Don’t take democracy for granted (24 June 2018)
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WELL here we are in the New Malaysia. It’s still hard to believe that all this is true: that on May 9, we came out in great numbers to finally make the change we thought would never come. I still think of those depressing days just a few months ago when everything seemed against us, when we all felt full of angst because nothing seemed to go right.

I still catch my breath when I think of the narrow escape that we had, with each passing day and each new revelation of the mismanagement, corruption and abuse of power that used to be the norm. How could so many of those who could have said or done something kept quiet? Yet some of them are still in denial, still believing the lies despite the evidence that people were simply not going to buy them.

My head still spins when I think of the dizzying days of April when as the previous government made mistake after mistake, Malaysians became more and more determined to change. I have never known a time when Malaysians became more aware of their voting rights than during GE14. Every barrier to voting imposed by the previous government was viewed as an attempt to deny Malaysians their right to vote.

First it was the redelineation exercise which the Election Commission Chairman said was so that each ethnic community could live with only each other. He seemed to think that apartheid was what we wanted. Malaysians rightly found this abominable and insulting. They responded by not only refusing to vote by stereotype but giving greater majorities to Pakatan Harapan candidates than before. Despite having 10,000 voters delineated out of his constituency, Khalid Samad of Shah Alam won by a majority three times greater than the last elections. Fahmi Fadzil also had a bigger majority over his opponent, despite having new voters, mostly from the police, included into his constituency of Lembah Pantai.

Then it was the Wednesday polling day. I am curious to know the explanation given by the previous government to their own party members for this unusual decision, given that it affected their voters as much as it did Pakatan voters. The people saw this as yet another attempt to deny them their right and they rose to defend it.

Those outside the country decided to come home to vote, even from as far away as London if they could afford it. Those at home found sponsors and benefactors who were willing to help fund their air, train and bus tickets home or to share rides to their home states to vote. Meanwhile those who were eligible for postal voting overseas were incensed that their ballots arrived late but somehow, through the sheer power of determination and social media, managed to find fellow citizens willing to carry their ballots home for them. Who can watch that documentary The Amazing Malaysian Race without crying?

But here’s the most amazing thing of all: in all the efforts to get people home to vote, nobody asked who they were going to vote for. #PulangMengundi was about respecting our right to vote for whoever we wanted. But I am certain that the sheer generosity of the benefactors made a strong impression on the many young voters who benefitted from the programme and was a factor on who they eventually voted for. Why vote for anyone who’s trying to deny you your right?

Next were the unbelievably crass missteps that the previous government kept making during the campaign. From the attempt at banning Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia just before the dissolution of Parliament to the disqualification of Tian Chua on Nomination Day, they misjudged how clearly the rakyat could see injustice and the attempts to load the election against any opponents, and they didn’t like it.

Instead of pulling back on these mistakes, more were piled on. Rulings about whose faces could be on posters and billboards, already ridiculous, went into the sublime when local authorities actually cut out or blackened these faces. The people’s responses were not only outraged but witty. Cartoons and funny comebacks abounded on social media. People changed their Facebook profile photographs into photos of the banned faces. Like I always say, if you can’t decide who to vote for, always vote for the wittier side. Evil is never funny.

Indeed I don’t know what we could have done without social media. Without access to mainstream media, we had to rely on Facebook and Whatsapp to get news and information about party platforms and candidates, which whirled around at dizzying encrypted speed. To be sure there was also a lot of rubbish but most of it was educational about both sides. Facebook live streaming was a boon; nobody needed to go to rallies to see and hear candidates. Even then people flocked, in rain and mud, to see their candidates, to chant slogans with them, to cheer them on. Nobody paid them to attend, their own will pushed them to go.

On polling day, voters heeded the call to come out in great numbers. There they were in the heat, queuing for hours to dip their fingers in ink and carefully mark their ballots. Again there were attempts to deny some people their right to vote, especially those who had queued but weren’t allowed to vote after 5pm. By then most people had already voted and these last few would not have made much difference to the count. But the sheer inconsiderateness of disallowing them to vote did the EC no favours.

Here I have to give a shoutout to the unsung heroes of the day: the PACAs or polling agents and counting agents. Most people, like me, had little awareness of how important PACAs are to elections. But this time, because of the fear of cheating, thousands of volunteers signed up for PACA training and duty. It turned out that their training was far more thorough than those of the opponent candidates, and this kept the whole process of the elections on the straight and narrow. Pakatan PACAs stood resolute in the face of obstinate polling station heads who refused to sign off on the number of votes. And the rakyat came out to support them whenever there were signs of trouble.

I shall forever remember the crazy crowds on the night of May 10, after the swearing in of the Prime Minister and the new government, at the gates of Istana Negara, on Jalan Duta and in front of the Sheraton PJ hotel where Pakatan had their election night headquarters. Flags waving, singing and cheering as if we were in a Brazilian carnival, it was a sight to behold. Most heartwarming of all was the sheer diversity of the crowd. All Malaysians were represented, regardless of race, religion, gender and age. This was truly a Malaysian victory.

It’s been almost two months now and people still can’t stop beaming. Friends noted how suddenly people seem nicer to one another. We’ve become addicted to TV news again because the media has suddenly become unfettered. New faces are on TV giving intelligent responses to smart questions. Everyone gets excited when yet another live press conference is announced. The very sight of the new Finance Minister and new Attorney-General has us all pinching ourselves to make sure that this change is real.

It is real. We made the change and we did it in an extraordinary way, just by voting, without shedding a single drop of blood. People all over the world are congratulating us for being this bright hope of democracy.

But as we know, a democracy is not to be taken for granted. It is far from just about voting in elections. Like a comfortable house, maintenance takes vigilance and work. And the work has to be done in a new way, one that is inclusive, respectful and just. The test of a real democracy is how we check our mindset every time we treat another human being as unequal to us, regardless of whether they are fellow citizens or not. Whether we give those who had no space or voice the opportunity to be seen and heard. When we consciously make an effort to listen to the smallest voices.

If we are able to change ourselves in this way, that would be the real victory of May 9.

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