I was due to be interviewed by Al Jazeera and was trying to get a sense of where things stood on the ground. In his tireless campaign for reform through change, Haris had spoken at a ceramah almost every day since the commencement of the campaigning period. In almost hushed tones, Haris told me that he thought that the Barisan Nasional might be denied two-thirds majority. The feeling on the ground, he said, was electric and voters seemed to have reoriented themselves around issues.
His impression echoed that of Azmi Sharom. The night before Azmi had recounted his experience at a ceramah in Lembah Pantai at which Anwar Ibrahim and Raja Petra had spoken. As he told me how the largely Malay audience had erupted into cheers as Raja Petra had declared that Indians and Chinese would be defended with Malay bodies if they were victimised, the hair on my arms stood. He too thought that there was a real possibility of the two thirds majority being denied.
I was hopeful but uncertain as I drove into the city for the interview, perhaps because I was afraid to allow myself hope. A denial of the two-thirds majority would change the political landscape significantly, reintroducing a semblance of balance and forcing accountability.
A telephone call to Farish Noor, who was in Kota Bharu, fueled the uncertainty further. Though, as he observed, celebrations by supporters of PAS had begun even before polling was completed, claims of phantom voters being bussed in were causing anxiety. Tensions were running high, justifiably so in the context. A few days earlier, the Election Comission had mysteriously revoked its directive on the use of indelible ink. The lack of a coherent explanation for this extraordinary step, and it should not be overlooked that the Abdullah administration had show-cased the use of indelible ink as proof of the Government taking the matter of free and fair election very seriously, cast the situation in a very ominous light.
I was still in an uncertain frame of mind when at about noon that day, I was asked during the interview whether I thought the matter of irregularities in the electoral process, as some claimed, was going to be even more pertinent this General Election.
Looking out onto an unusually deserted KLCC park, it struck me how empty the city was. And as it struck me that people were away voting, I realized that there was a fighting chance. For many, the future could not get any worse. It could however get better if there was will to make it better.
And Malaysians were going to fight for that opportunity.
I was concerned though. The slim margin by which the two-thirds might be denied did not allow for irregularities. These irregularities would define the future of Malaysian. A strong mandate for the Barisan Nasional would have been politicized, allowed for a perpetuation of the state of denial and been used to reject much needed reforms.
The voter turn out was approximately 80 per cent, the highest it had ever been.
Malaysians have much to be proud of. On the 8th of March, 2008, they reclaimed the nation. It did not matter who they voted for, each candidate and political party had their strengths and weaknesses. It mattered that they voted, conscious of their choices.
They planted the seed for a new democracy.
I started watching the results come in at a friend’s place over dinner.
On they way there, I had stopped by Blog House where Haris Ibrahim and friends had set up camp to monitor the results. A white board had been co-opted. The team was going to list down the parliamentary seats that the opposition captured. Haris pointed to a space for the 75th candidate. That was what it was going to take to safely deny absolute control.
He told me, a mad gleam in his eye, that we were going to get there. And this time, I had no doubt that we would.
Civil society paved the way, giving shape to the hopes of Malaysians and forging a voice for the disenfranchised.
Its efforts took many forms. In fighting their causes, NGOs highlighted areas of concern. In its road show, Article 11 brought into sharp focus the way in which the Constitution was being undermined in the name of religion but for the cause of politics. Almost 900 people turned up at 9 am on a Sunday morning for the first forum in Petaling Jaya. Looking out over the crowd, I remember feeling that we were at the start of something very, very big. And perhaps if I had been listening more closely to the cheers that morning as we spoke in turn about equality and the right to equal protection under the Federal Constitution, I would have heard the whispers of a wind of change.
Other NGOs showed how various aspects of our public lives had been compromised through corruption, political appointments and incompetence. The marches and the demonstrations made the rakyat see that we could no longer leave matters to others. The fearlessness of the organizers, the unflagging efforts of all concerned, were strong and very visible reminders of why each and every one of us had to start being responsible.
Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today and bloggers filled the information gap, providing essential information and critical opinion, their unrelenting commentary helping undermining illusions and delusions. In doing so, they became the conscience of the nation.
Individuals banded together and explored ways in which the rakyat could be empowered. Haris Ibrahim’s ‘The People’s Parliament’ started off about a year and half ago as a means to help voters understand that they could do much more if they organized themselves. Its ‘pick a candidate’ campaign was aimed at creating awareness that the power to change lay in ourselves.
As Haris thundered from many a stage these last two weeks, it was apparent that ‘The People’s Parliament’ had become so much more. As a prime mover behind the ‘People’s Declaration’ and the Barisan Rakyat, it forged the way for greater cohesion amongst the then opposition political parties. In persuading these parties to collectively endorse the Declaration, I believe that Haris and his team created the glue that will keep these parties together as they face the challenges of the future.
This is not to say that the political parties did not play a pivotal role. They did, and they did so remarkably. They were the political underdogs who were fighting for our survival and this time they were recognized as such. While many have described the result as a protest vote, I would rather think of it as a demand by the electorate of a viable alternative. The maturity of the Malaysian voter had surpassed the very average and uninspiring candidates that the Barisan offered. That the opposition had chosen to field committed, dynamic, younger professionals with little or no vested interest was a move that paid off richly. Malaysians are going to benefit tremendously from having Gobind Singh Deo, R Sivarasa, Charles Santiago, amongst others, in Parliament.
The unofficial results came in fast and furious. Samy Vellu, Zainudin and Sharizat had lost, along with a host of other Barisan candidates. Penang, Kedah, Perak and Selangor had been seized by the opposition.
Laughter took on a hysterical note, the giggling was almost maniacal. I found myself wondering about that list at Blog House.
Farish Noor and I spoke at a forum held by Sin Chew just after Merdeka last year. It was aimed at understanding where we stood, 50 years down the road. We spoke at length about the political landscape and both us of, in our ways, looked at the question of racial politics.
During my presentation, I asked why it was that Malaysians were so complacent about their future. We all saw how things were going so wrong. Race politics had allowed for a monopolizing of political control by an UMNO. Power sharing was notional at best. The way in which the submission of the memorandum concerning religious freedom by a faction of the cabinet had been handled and the incredible justifications offered for the keris waving and supremacist posturing at its annual assembly was reflective of UMNO’s intolerance of any views but its own.
The Barisan Nasional operated on the fiction that as the component parties were constituted along racial lines, these parties spoke for all persons of these races. And yet it had become increasingly evident that these parties did not speak for all members of their particular communities. If at all, they largely spoke for the members of the party, and even then only for those who wielded influence. Malaysians all of ethnicities were suffering as a result of this elitist, self-serving presumption. As HINDRAF was about to show us, the consequences could no longer be suppressed and hidden.
In the face of these obvious truths, we had to ask ourselves why is it that Malaysians had allowed, and continued to allow, the Barisan to continue as it did with obvious consequences. Malaysians either did not vote or voted for the Barisan to an extent that not only did the Barisan form the government of the day but controlled parliament almost absolutely.
Security and stability are important considerations. Making a government accountable through the ballot box does not in itself necessarily create discord nor destabilize a community. A government did not have to be returned with an absolute majority to the extent that it considered itself beyond the reach of not only the opposition but the rakyat that voted that government in. Whether external factors – racial tensions – would lead to chaos was something that we had to confront. Malaysians had to start believing that we had matured since May 13th 1969 and if we had not despite the immense resources that had been invested in measures aimed at reducing disparities amongst the ethnic communities, then there was all that much more reason not to vote the Barisan in again.
Grand promises of reform made at the 2004 General Election had gone unfulfilled. The justifications offered for this failure were mainly political. If the system did not lend itself to reform, then it was the Government’s responsibility to change the system. If the politics of the parties that constituted government impeded the changes, no matter the nobility of the aspiration, those parties did not deserve to be in government.
Change would however take time, stepping out of comfort zones and embracing an uncertain future were undeniably difficult things to do. We had to be shown incrementally that deviating from what had almost become a Malaysian tradition – the return of Barisan to power - was a constructive thing for the nation. Nothing was going to happen however if we did not take that first step.
I asked the audience that night to deny the two-thirds majority, to give the opposition 49 per cent of parliament if they were uncertain. The laughter my suggestion generated made it seem a very distant possibility.
Farish and I spoke at another forum on the 2nd of March this year. The mood was different. And when I suggested that Malaysians should vote the opposition to help the government, the laughter had a very different ring to it.
It was almost 4 am when we got to the 75th candidate, Loh Gwo Burne.
The official results were slow in being broadcast. They trickled in, heightening the excitement those of us there felt as the number of candidates on that list slowly increased. Some have suggested that the late declaration and broadcast of official results was aimed at downplaying the shock result so as to avoid untoward incidents. The directive by the police that there be no victory parades supports the theory as does the calls by the DAP for calmness when it learnt of its victory in Penang.
I have a different view. As useful as these efforts were in helping maintain order, if there were going to be clashes that night there would have been. The simple truth is that there were not going to be any clashes that night and the nature of results were the strongest indicator as to why this was going to be. Throughout the country, Malaysian of all communities had voted in support of a multi-racial opposition. They had voted on issues and not on race. There was no reason for any clashes, neither was there a context. Malaysian politics had matured.
And as a friend suggested two days later, perhaps we had laid to rest the ghost of May 13th. I would like to think so.