GE14: Five Talking Points
- Where was religion?
Najib’s 2013 campaign was colored with anti-Christian and anti-Syiah rhetoric, so much so that it was called the ‘politics of fear.’ This went on well into 2015 as Hudud and Kalimah Allah led to polarizing debates that saw the opposition branded as ‘liberals.’ This eventually forced PAS to leave the coalition to assert its Islamic identity.
Religion was also brought up this time around, though it had little to no effect. Mahathir’s Memali slip was as close as it got though that too faded quickly after his apology. The chorus of support for Pakatan drowned any attempts to divide the momentum along identity lines.
BN’s politics of fear in GE 13, in hindsight, appear far less as an ideological commitment so much as an attempt to divide liberals from Islamists, though its absence in GE14 shows how little of it actually works when it matters the most.
- Rural-urban divide?
An election on Wednesday angered everyone, forcing millions back to their hometowns to make sure they made it for the midweek date. As we saw, this had the effect of further enthusing an already-unhappy and anxious electorate to vote.
The subtext of that mass return is that the rural-urban gap is far less of a political divide that one thinks. Eric Thompson, sociologist at the National University of Singapore, has made the point, for quite some time now, that Malay rural-urban interactions is one of constant migration, where urban alienation informs rural discontent and vice versa.
It is indeed a political sensibility that can be described full well with liberal catch-terms. The rural-Malay vote is conservative but ‘fluid’ and in ‘constant negotiation’ with context. Engaging with the distinct tenor of that negotiation should be the democratic task from now on, especially given the potentials in Pakatan’s victory.
Urban-liberal discourse has understandably been frustrated with ‘rural Malay voters’ for some time now, though this prejudice is worsened by baseless claims of their racism, political naiveté and gullibility.
Pakatan’s victory should signal a much needed rethinking of these biases, though this would not be aided with urban chauvinism’s implicit (and let’s face it, often racist) attitudes towards rural Malays.
- Mahathir: Old and New
Because while it is true that Mahathir was in fact the familiar face that tilted Malay voters against BN, it was certainly not because he was the Mahathir of old. Among other things, he corrected his own prejudices against DAP, ensured Anwar’s pardon while campaigning without an Islamic or Bumiputera-rights agenda. His final campaign address instead appealed to a shared vision of an inclusive Malaysia.
His methods and rhetoric revealed a Mahathir a Malaysian politics had never seen. It is too early to speculate on how much of this new sensibility will remain given the system’s fixed ways but the openness to adapt is evident. But this is not simply a statement about Mahathir but also the Malay electorate which his appeal very much depended on.
- What opposition?
BN’s 60-year-old grip over the system will not end overnight but hegemony also needs leaders. None of the ‘inner circle’ that would have been expected to lead the party flattered at the polls. In addition to the major losses, speculations on how well or badly KJ, Zahid and Hisham did went on well past 11 pm on May 9th. Moreover, cleaning up the party would also require clean leaders.
What’s worse than an unreformed UMNO is one that kicks and screams as it tries to hold on to whatever vestiges of power it may have left, thinking of nothing more than to rain on the victory parade. This appears to be the likeliest scenario in the immediate months to come, given the lack of a properly articulated vision of reform.
Democracy has less to do with a particular party or personality in power than whether the system can stabilize while it also adapts to unexpected challenges and shocks. A vibrant opposition, which also understands the stakes of caring for a healthy democracy, would offer much towards that goal though it looks like we won’t be seeing that anytime soon.
Meanwhile one would hope for smaller independent parties (such as Parti Sosialis Malaysia, where my own sympathies lie) to engage with the widening democratic opportunities to build its own capacity for the longer term.
- Two Sudirmans
Barisan Nasional’s campaign was at least honest in its pessimism. Consider the video that sees Khairy Jamaluddin acting alongside Vanida Imran. It shows a conversation about which side to vote, boiled down to a cost benefit logic that equated change with uncertainty, mixed with the usual excuse that while BN is not perfect it has done some good.
Their lack of confidence is most telling in Najib’s final speech. He baited fence sitters, doubling BR1M and dangling five days of no toll during Raya. He had in mind a victory that could just be bought. His speech concluded furthermore with a fittingly poignant song. He left the stage to Warisan by Sudirman, a song about a hesitant hero resigned to loss (“andai aku disingkirkan … Kemana harusku semaikan cinta ini … aku bukanlah seorang perwira”).
There was also, to be sure, an air of resignation to Mahathir’s final speech where Sudirman also made an appearance. He picked Salam Terakhir, which sings of asking and granting forgiveness before a moment of truth, in recognition of time’s passage and life’s fragility (“KepadaNya ku memohon keampunan MelaluiNya ku beri kemaafan Kepadamu”). This reiterated the 93 year old’s message all along, a chance to right the wrong, and that too in two years until a proper transition.
All of which suggest a finality underlining the new beginning. The uncertainties Malaysia faces (and Sabah is still rumbling as I write this) leaves much to fear and be excited about. Recall how Najib’s defeat was soon followed by widespread murmurs on whether Malay royalties would support or slow down Mahathir’s second swearing in. It was palpable enough to merit a response from the Agung himself, after the Sultan of Johor had to also clarify his position.
But uncertainty has always been the hallmark of true change, where the usual answers no longer work. People power – felt in votes that led to change, recorded and shared worldwide for all to see and remember – grew upon the ruins of a corrupting regime that could no longer believe in itself.
Ahmad Fuad Rahmat researches Melancholic Malay Men at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, Semenyih. While running Projek Dialog he also hosts Night School and Digital Desires on BFM Radio.