KUALA LUMPUR, May 4 — In these past few weeks of ceramah and fevered campaigning up and down this peninsula, there has arguably been the phenomena of meeting usually self-identified ‘ordinary’ Malaysians who now seem happy to try something quite extraordinary.
A few of them, when pressed this past week, indicate they have yet to make up their minds barely a week before the 13th general elections.
Yet, all seem sanguine about trying out a new type of government, as if the ‘world standard’ McDonald’s with slick drive-in design and the nearby Tesco hypermarket near Bruas in Perak aren’t enough variety for now.
Maybe this is what the 13th general elections are all about, a distinct shift by Malaysians once anxious and fearful of racialised ghosts stoked by Cold War-era tropes to a desire to sample new brands, if not ideologies, of a competitive political marketplace.
It helps explain what Loong, a 78-year-old former durian farmer, was trying to tell me in between glances at the imported Chinese acrobats performing on the brightly lit stage of Raub’s storied basketball stadium. He says he is “ready to roll the dice”, to “try something different for my grandchildren”, all of whom live too far away in Kuala Lumpur’s far-flung suburbs of the Klang valley. He says he likes the MCA candidate Ho Khai Mun, even though he is “a transplant” from a neighbouring Pahang state seat and “upgrading” to what has been a strong MCA seat held by former minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen.
The candidate isn’t the problem, he says, it’s the party and the ruling BN coalition itself and the sense that “it’s time” to overcome a perceived corruption of MCA’s ideals manifested in this Merdeka-era stadium still sturdy with huge hardwood beams. Loong is unfazed by the risks of such change occurring: “At my age I don’t fear much anymore”.
Moreover, he has heard mostly good things about the DAP-led state government in Penang. He seems persuaded that the PAS candidate for a state seat won’t have much to do with him nor is he as alarmed as some of the advertising he has seen warning about Islamists endangering his Chinese community — “we had the New Villages and the communists, what could be worse?”
His 50-something youngest son, who sits the other side of us, has inherited the farm and is more circumspect with his opinions, noting instead the balancing tricks used by this quartet of Chinese acrobats while wondering about the expense of touring them throughout this district over the campaign period. As the lead performer builds up her balancing trick of champagne glasses to the thud of an upbeat tune, the tween girls sitting behind me audibly gasp in awe as Loong tells me a little about the storied past of the basketball stadium and the “Malayan Chinese Association” shingle handing high over the stage.
“Raub was a ‘hot’ place during the Emergency you know, and (pointing to the Merdeka-era signboards around us) there was always the curfew to beat at nightfall even when there was a show on,” he says. “So we’re used to taking risks here.”
The district’s gold-mining days never really faded away, with the streets still known by the colonial names given by the Australian mining company that dominated the area’s economy. Locals have recently returned to trying their luck panning for gold trailings in the streams near Bukit Koman, he says. But the best thing about Raub and its picturesque hilly terrain remains the durians, he beams while pointing to his son, “and we grow the best Musang King! (a popular variety)”.
Standing near the entrance overseeing the crowd of about 80 people was the host, real estate agent Datuk Steven Yeoh, who says he also dabbles in timber. He has been busy darting around getting the stage lighting just right, having a cigarette break while chatting with local policeman ‘Gangga’ who says he’s with the Special Branch (he’s reluctant to give me his full name). The local MCA stalwart laments how the younger generation voting in these historic elections too often forget the Cold War-era struggles fought in the jungles nearby.
The younger policeman smiles in agreement. They both laugh when I suggest the young would probably rather vote for Psy and his Gangnam moves than the post-war coalition and its horse-trading that won us independence from Britain.
When asked about the MCA’s rival from the DAP, the former Umno Pahang state assemblyman Datuk Ariff Sabri, who is usually known by his blogging name Sakmongkol AK47, Datuk Yeoh frames his criticism of the opposition’s local shortcomings around how the DAP “which is a Chinese party” has now been encroached by Malays as well. It’s the type of criticism commonly used by BN against the three main parties in the opposition Pakatan coalition, that is now proving elusive and ineffectual for many voters even in these less metropolitan areas.
Later in a cafe in a thriving, mostly Chinese suburban extension north of Raub’s pretty but sleepy colonial centre, the DAP candidate’s campaign director Tuan Haji Abdul Latif explains the Chinese voters are the least of his problems. He estimates a close contest in what is traditionally a solid BN seat, as many voters are close enough to the cities to know about the many financial scandals on BN’s watch while far enough away to be fairly unaffected by the soaring costs of living in KL’s urban sprawl.
He agrees that perhaps the voters here and elsewhere may be ahead of the politics practised by many candidates, that while racialised fears can still be stoked, the currency may be worn too thin to be useful — “takde modal lagi ni,” he grins, aware that we Malaysians may be on the cusp of a new understanding of citizenship that seems delineated by class rather than race. In his experience as recently as earlier that afternoon, talking to Felda cashcrop settlers and then Malay petty traders nearby, the focus has been a multiracial corruption virus and bureaucratic shortcomings of the incumbent BN governments at state and federal levels.
He says it’s reaching out to the big Orang Asal population in the nearby interior towards the jungles of the Main Range that is a problem, along with persuading enough of the split Malay part of Raub’s electorate to shake off their prejudice about “the Rocket”.
“But Datuk (Ariff) is an articulate candidate who tells a clear story many here understand about our problems and the future ahead, that it is no longer about what race you are and which traditional party you must be in — that is still BN’s problem they haven’t resolved,” says Tuan Haji, in between showing us his electorate’s key battleground areas and the ethnic breakdowns of the three state seats in the federal constituency.
In a sweltering kampong tent in Bruas a few days later, Amri tells me a similar tale of a younger generation curious about alternatives, used to days spent daydreaming about swapping to the latest smartphones in a frantic marketplace. There isn’t much loyalty to any particular brand anymore, Amri says, whether it’s Samsung or Nokia, or BN or the idea of ‘reformasi’.
Amri admits he came of age during the reformasi era but these days leads “a quiet life” as a father working in Kuala Kangsar. He’s back in his village visiting relatives and came to hear today’s lunchtime speakers assembled by his aspiring state assembly candidate from PAS, Dr Khairuddin Malek, and incumbent parliamentarian and DAP state leader Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham.
As Bersih 2.0’s co-chair, Ambiga Sreenevasan appeals to the small mixed crowd to vote tomorrow, applauding them for supporting the cause of free and fair elections, the bunch of mostly PAS supporters two tents away clap politely as she makes her points.
Amri says it will be a tough struggle to persuade this Malay and Indian village to back the “Ubah!” or change message of the opposition at the federal level, but is cautiously optimistic that the community’s sense of betrayal over the toppling of the PAS-led state government following a series of defections and the Najib government’s alleged inducements will win back Perak. “We understand the difference between state and federal issues,” he says, “and unfortunately for us PAS supporters, many people are happy with the promises of more BR1M payments to come.”
On the other hand, he’s convinced his village’s loyalties can no longer be taken for granted, that no one is talking anymore of “dulu, kini, selamanya”, that the traditional abiding loyalty to independence-era Umno has frayed beyond repair.
For the muddy-booted vegetable farmer Lee who is standing at back of the big new multipurpose hall in Kampong Raja at the foothills of Cameron Highlands’ cash crop terraces, he has “mostly” made up his mind to “vote for change”.
Again, there isn’t the anger sometimes heard among urban voters arguing for “change”, just the attractiveness of trying something different. There is a sense that current national scandals just won’t do, not even in this serene part of the peninsular.
When asked about the many banners in Bangla and Burmese outside warning against “foreigners” participating in the elections, Lee points out most working on his farm and in the surrounding areas are migrant workers, with many children of the traditional tea industry’s Malaysian Indians moving down the hill to big cities and bigger opportunities. He says he’s good friends with the Indian families still working in the tea, seed and fertiliser warehouses across the road, adding he doesn’t much care anymore “what race our wakil is as long as he’s honest!”
But like many Malaysian voters even this far away from the cities, he raises concerns about the integrity of the voting system and wonders how it is even possible for migrant workers he hires to vote. Despite these misgivings, he seems determined to vote as if it was a duty to himself to somehow right the land scams he complains about in nearby districts and the corruption he dislikes.
A few hours away later that night in Sungei Siput, in the parliamentary seat being defended by the popular Parti Sosialis candidate Dr Jeyakumar, an unusual swathe of older Malaysian Indian women, some accompanied by younger family, listen attentively to Bersih 2.0’s Ambiga as she explains the need to vote come Sunday in order to overcome any cheating that may occur.
Standing by the road near the food table but some distance away from the stage, Bavani (“no, not that famous student!”) says her grandmother insisted on coming out to see Ambiga despite her walking troubles. So are they voting for Dr Jeyakumar?
“Yes, of course.”
But these elections could mean the end of the MIC in the BN coalition, not to mention the MCA — isn’t this going to be a problem in the Indian community’s representation if BN wins government?
“I can’t really speak for my grandmother, and she was a big supporter of Samy Vellu when he was here. But this will be my first elections and I don’t really see the relevance of MIC anymore for people like me,” she says.
So what sort of “people” are you then?
“We’re Malaysians, you know? I like how YB (Dr Jeyakumar) explains the society we live in, not about Bumiputera or not but about those who are poor only getting the help. Plus he’s so humble and he’s clean, not like some of the politicians we read about online.”
She doesn’t elaborate but she agrees she wants a better version of what a Malaysian can be, adding with a laugh that the old racialised model “tak boleh pakai lagi!”. She suggests Amri’s desire for a competitive supermarket of political options isn’t so removed from her reality either, and unlike before back in secondary school, is sanguine about voting for parties like PAS “as long as they listen to us”.
When PSM’s host for the evening, Choo Chon Kai, thanks Ambiga and the local instrumental group take the stage to entertain a tired crowd still out in usually sleepy Sungei Siput, Bavani says she harbours some optimism about “my Malaysia’s future”. Like Amri and maybe even elderly Loong, she’s hoping the politicians will better reflect how Malaysians like her are struggling to break out of old racialised ghettoes of the mind.
But there is no compelling narrative sketched out yet on what a (young) Malaysian can be, that goes beyond a recent BR1M payment or the practicality and promise of cheaper cars (even more critical in these outer-burbs where public transport is virtually non-existent).
They know what they don’t like and the racialised stereotypes they’ve grown tired of, but they’re also looking for someone or something offering the leadership they can’t quite put their finger on.
It may be “change we can believe in”, at a time when belief — and a moral legitimacy in the polls — seems in short supply.