AS Malaysians head to the polls today, I am reminded of an insight by economist and journalist Tim Harford about what democracy guarantees. After a lecture in Kuala Lumpur in 2009, an audience member asked Harford: “What is the probability that democracy can guarantee that citizens vote in the right government?”
The author of The Undercover Economist, whose lecture was hosted by Sime Darby Bhd, replied: “Democracy cannot guarantee that you vote in the right government. It guarantees that you can vote out the wrong government.”
On my part, how I vote today will be guided by Harford’s observations. I may not know how Pakatan Rakyat (PR) will govern should it come into federal power after today. In fact none of us do, not even caretaker Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, since PR has never been the federal government. But I do know that the Barisan Nasional (BN) is the wrong government. How do I know this?
Throughout the campaigning period for this 13th general election since our independence (GE13), we’ve heard from BN leaders that PR leaders either are racist or practise racial polarisation. We’ve heard that voting the Opposition in will lead to Malay Malaysians losing out. Not only are PR parties “dangerous”, the BN has guaranteed and will continue to guarantee that Malaysia is a moderate Muslim nation which doesn’t play the racial card and which will be inclusive.
That’s rather hard to swallow since it is the Umno-led BN that practises divisive racial and religious politics. For example, it is the BN government which wants to impose a ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” despite a High Court ruling that the ban is unconstitutional. Najib himself said in a recent Al-Jazeera interview that he supported the government’s appeal against the High Court decision.
Effectively, what our caretaker prime minister has admitted to is that Muslim sensitivities trump the constitutional rights of non-Muslims in Malaysia. That’s why it wasn’t all that unusual for Najib and other Umno leaders to remain completely silent when Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali called for Malay language bibles with the word “Allah” to be burned. In fact, Ibrahim has not been charged for his seditious remarks. Indeed, it would have been far more unusual if he had been.
Additionally, it is the Umno-controlled Utusan Malaysia that has been demonising Christians and threatening an improbable and fictional Christian takeover of the government to scare Muslims. Hence, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that anti-Christian billboards were put up during GE13. Even if the Umno-led BN was not directly responsible for erecting these billboards, they are responsible for having created and nurtured an environment where such billboards are being put up in multi-religious Malaysia.
Additionally, wasn’t it an Umno leader, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, who openly defended Muslims who stomped on a cow head to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple? This is the same Hishammuddin who raised the keris at the 2006 Umno general assembly, and again the following year. Lest we forget, Hishammuddin’s obnoxious display of “ketuanan Melayu” led one Umno delegate to ask the then Umno Youth chief when he was going to use the keris, presumably on non-Malays.
Indeed, when Najib says in numerous BN and 1Malaysia ads that “Rakyat didahulukan”, what he doesn’t say is that it is rakyat Melayu, not rakyat Malaysia, who are considered more deserving than other citizens. In a public lecture in Universiti Malaya on 2 May 2013, sociologist Professor Charles Hirschman pointed out, for example, that affirmative action for the Malays began in the 1970s as a policy to help those who had been left behind economically and socially, to catch up. Today, affirmative action for the Malays is about Malay entitlement, hence effectively creating multiple classes of citizenship based on racial identity.
On top of all of this, isn’t it obvious that the three largest BN component parties — Umno, MCA and MIC — are race-based parties who champion communitarian interests? Compare that to PKR which Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim leads. From the names of PR candidates campaigning in GE13, I often couldn’t tell which party they represented because both PKR and DAP are open to Malaysians regardless of racial identity. Even PAS has fielded a non-Muslim, Chinese Malaysian. Would Umno field a non-Malay Malaysian? Would MCA field a Malay and MIC a Chinese Malaysian? They clearly haven’t since they came to power in 1957.
Distrust and despair
One other troubling feature of the GE13 campaign has been the heightened sense of distrust that citizens feel towards the state agencies involved in ensuring we have clean, free and fair elections.
Top of the list has been the Election Commission (EC) which has only itself to blame for its lack of credibility. Even if the allegations of voters’ names being removed from the electoral roll were untrue and even if the indelible ink really is indelible, these charges have gained traction among Malaysians especially on social media.
Why? Because the EC, like other state agencies such as the Registrar of Societies (ROS), the police, and the National Registration Department (NRD) in Sabah have proven their lack of competence and independence in order to serve BN’s, not the nation’s, interest. The ROS has already proven how it will silence BN critics by going after human rights NGO Suaram, and the DAP. The police allow political violence to happen at PR events. And the NRD have now been exposed as allegedly being complicit in issuing ICs to foreigners so that they can vote for the BN in Sabah.
Hence, it’s understandable that many Malaysians believe the stories and reports that foreigners have been transported on chartered flights and buses to illegally vote for the BN. And it should not be altogether surprising that citizens, like lawyer Haris Ibrahim, want to take matters into their own hands, no matter that his call to prevent suspected foreigners from voting is ill-advised.
Policies vs pornography
In the run-up to GE13, charges of sexual impropriety were once again levelled at PR leaders. The constant refrain is, of course, that Anwar is a homosexual who engages in sodomy. Then there was the sex video purportedly involving PAS secretary-general Mustafa Ali. And two days before polling, Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, who is campaigning to retain her Lembah Pantai seat, continued to be targeted for supposed illicit sexual activities.
How did we come to this? It wasn’t PR who did all of this. It was the BN — the world’s longest elected ruling coalition — who did this.
This then for me is how the BN has become the wrong government. Hence, I may not know yet if PR will be the right government for Malaysia. But I do know for certain that BN is the wrong government. And what matters for me is that in a democracy, I have a chance at voting out the wrong government.
Jacqueline Ann Surin knows that in a true democracy, any government — whether BN or PR — can be voted out if they end up being the wrong government. She is a polling agent for the DAP this GE13 so that she can do her part in monitoring and preventing electoral fraud. As a journalist and a citizen, she is guided by historian Howard Zinn’s philosophy that you can’t be neutral on a moving train.