31 October 2018

It’s easy to do the right thing
By Marina Mahathir
Wed, 28 Oct 2018

THIS is the era of the new. As much as some people hate the idea of anything new, this was what the rakyat voted for last May. Even if it means we have a PM and some Cabinet ministers that aren’t so new.

So let’s see what makes for a new Malaysia.

Firstly, the use of power to do the right thing. Lowering the voting age to 18 counts as one. I don’t know how many times foreigners have been shocked when I tell them that our young people can only vote at 21. We’re one of the last few holdouts in the world; everyone else has recognised that young people must have a say in who decides on their lives. It’s true though that they are more likely to vote against you because you’re the establishment but that can only be mitigated by having policies that benefit them. Again not hard to do.

Second, raising the marriage age for everyone, regardless of religion, to 18. How difficult was that to do? All that shuffling and mumbling and wishy-washiness for no good reason. Eighteen is the minimum age that anyone should be entrusted with making such a life-changing event as marriage. Even then let’s hope that not many opt for it. After all there’s still school and a future career ahead, none of which are helped by the responsibilities of marriage. If we truly care about our children, let us please be strict about this and not allow anyone to slip under the fence, no matter what the reason.

The third indicator of the new Malaysia is the signing and ratifying of all remaining United Nations conventions and the abolishment of the death penalty. This is quite a remarkable change from the old Malaysia. The death penalty is not only cruel and prone to irreversible mistakes, it is also ineffective. Despite the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, our country is still awash with drugs and is still a major transit point for traffickers. The money is too big to not take the risk. Besides what is a few hundred dollars here and there to get past official barriers when you can make millions when your drugs reach their markets?

Getting rid of the death penalty is the right thing to do. So many convicted prisoners have been on death row waiting endlessly for their last day. It is hugely cruel. It is also hypocritical. We cannot oppose the killings of people overseas while still killing people at home.

This means that it is only right that we should refuse to hand over refugees who are facing persecution at home, unlike in the old days when we actually put them on planes back to their countries where they faced jail time and possibly even death.

However, it is archaic thinking to have not wanted to say anything about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi because we want to remain friendly with his government. In the old days, there were also dead people in our own country who were explained away with spurious excuses. Why then do we accept explanations that seem to change every day for this gruesome killing? Are we emulating Donald Trump who is willing to accept any excuse as long as it doesn’t affect arms sales? Let us not forget that those arms are for the ongoing and fruitless war in Yemen which is causing a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions.

It is new thinking to be bold enough to make a stand on this heinous murder and I’m glad we finally did. Thus far, only our neighbouring country and us are calling for justice for Khashoggi. Nobody has the divine right to kill anyone, regardless of who they are.

In the old Malaysia, most positions of power were held by men. Women were excluded from even the most benign of bodies, forum panels were filled with men expounding about everything that affects all of our society, ignoring women’s contributions. When the token women were allowed to speak, they toed the line, deferring always to the men.

The new Malaysia promised a bigger role for women. Some of it has come through, with a DPM and four other female ministers, more than we’ve ever had but short of the promised 30%. We also have a female Governor of Bank Negara and several female heads of GLCs. Two women judges were just elevated to the Federal Court.

But on important panels such as the recent Consultative Council on Foreign Policy, out of 15 members, there are only two women. What, women have nothing to say about foreign policy? Or on the economy or education? It is a fallacy to think that women are only interested in “women’s issues”. Every issue is a woman’s issue, including the heavy-hitting “real” issues.

For example, the issue of women in the labour force should be one for everyone’s concern. Only 54% of women of working age are employed and even then in low-paying and insecure jobs. Women are still paid less than men for equivalent work. Despite there being more female graduates than men, female degree holders are paid 23.3% less than men. Yet the Khazanah Research Institute, in its State of Households 2018 report, hypothesised that if we only raised the number of working women by 30%, we would actually raise Malaysia’s GDP by 7% to 12%. Those are not small numbers and would make a huge difference not just to women but their families and communities, too. Everybody wins if women are employed in decently-paying jobs. But if we discriminate against women, both subtlely or overtly, then everybody loses. Is this something that men are aware of?

Sadly, not everyone has bought into the idea of diversity and inclusion when everywhere else, these two factors are recognised as being crucial to development. When societies recognise that not everyone is the same and that one-size-fits-all policies will actually harm some people, then we will make some progress. Imagine if we never recognised that some people cannot see or cannot walk, how would we have braille numbers in lifts or ramps for wheelchairs? But those are not the only diversities we have to think of. Besides abilities, there’s gender, age, income levels. How would we make parks better, for example, if we didn’t have input from all the different types of people who would use them?

Finally, there is one type of old thinking that we really need to put to rest and that is the sense of entitlement that some people get when they are given a position. We rail at the previous abuses but we then act in a way that’s oblivious to how the public might perceive it. This in a new era where the public is watching everything. Rules for transparency and accountability have been set and we need to stick to them for credibility’s sake.

We have a choice now, to go the same old way or try new things. The old way led us to the brink of disaster so we have to think differently and set some standards for ourselves. The values which underscore everything we do remain the same – don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. Along the way we lost sight of these so we have to recover and regain them. Returning to these old values will be the new way of doing things..

30 September 2018

Shaming the shamers
by Marina Mahathir
Sunday, 30 Sep 2018

WHEN I was a mere schoolgirl, there was a chant that everyone dreaded. If your skirt managed to get hiked up and your panties showed, or if you had a runny nose and no tissues to wipe it with, you ran the risk of the unsympathetic teasing of your classmates.

“Shame, shame, shame,” they would go and you had no choice but to hang your head and bear it. “Shame” in those instances did not mean “what a pity”, which would have had the gist of empathy in it, but in that cruel children’s way of making you feel embarrassed.

In this way, we learnt to guard our dignity in order to never be subjected to such bullying. Being ashamed may have been tightly defined in those days, but it dictated your behaviour nevertheless.

I was reminded of this while pondering the meaning of shame these days. In many ways our society today has not outgrown the schoolyard habit of shaming people. The victims are easy to pick out: just anyone who is different from what is considered the “norm” is fair game.

Worse still, if you’re an outspoken woman or have achieved something that makes you stand out from the crowd, then the crowd – more accurately called the mob – will find something to shame you about.

Hence you’re shamed for not covering your head, for showing more of your body than someone’s arbitrary prescriptions, for being too clever, for not speaking the language well enough (as if speaking in SMS short form is considered superior), for talking about things beyond the defined scope of female interests (mostly fashion and cooking). You’re made to feel embarrassed and ashamed for all these things despite none of it being harmful to anyone else.

It’s amazing to me that while the mob practically screams for blood when anyone seems to defy their norms, few truly feel any shame over the real issues that should embarrass our society.

For example, while decent people are outraged at the very idea of child marriage and want the minimum marriageable to be raised strictly to 18, there are actually people who say that it should be lowered from the already young 16 to 14. You have to wonder what sort of mind and heart the person who suggested this has, to allow such young girls to be married off, despite evidence that this would be bad for them physically, emotionally and educationally.

Worse still, this came from a religious leader who must surely know that we are enjoined always to avoid evil. Perhaps the stunting of a girl’s educational growth is not considered evil to some. But what early sexual activity, even within marriage, pregnancy and childbirth can do to a young girl’s physical and mental states, must surely rank as one of the worst things you can do to a child, at least in this supposedly enlightened age.

Some people may say that easing the burden of poverty of families by marrying off daughters is also necessary. But why is it that it is daughters who are always given away and not sons? Don’t sons eat more?

Poverty is certainly a great motivator for parents to give away their children. But have we noticed that it is often two-parent poor families who do this? There are many single mothers who would never dream of letting go of their children, particularly their daughters, no matter how dire their circumstances, perhaps because they have experienced what marriage can do to young girls.

Yet we punish single mothers desperate to feed their children. Can we speculate that it is almost always poor fathers who make the decision to give away their daughters?

Child marriage is almost always found in very poor communities. This means that if we tackle poverty, we will go a long way towards eradicating child marriage as well. If there are persistent cases of child marriage in one community, region or state, a simple study would uncover the level of poverty in that area.

Which brings us back to the idea of shame. Why is it that some people are not ashamed of how impoverished their people are that they are driven to give away their children in marriage? How come, instead of feeling ashamed that they have failed to ensure the wellbeing of their people, they are hiding behind the cloak of religiosity and “morality”? Is it not immoral to keep your people so poor that they have to do this? I’m looking at you, Kelantan.

Religion should never be the cover for bad behaviour. Just recently we read about a tahfiz principal charged for allegedly sodomising nine of his students.

I recall that a prominent person has gone to jail twice for allegedly sodomising someone. Yet here is a so-called religious person with lots of young students in his charge, totally abusing his authority in the worst way.

Isn’t it funny how the word “paedophile” never surfaces in any story involving supposedly religious persons? I recall some people once getting hysterical about not allowing transgender people to work in kindergartens, even though there are no reported cases of any being employed in that field.

Yet a guy wears a beard and a white cap and we willingly hand over our young children to him without doing any due diligence about his credentials or even the safety of these schools. Somehow, we have no qualms about sacrificing our children in this way.

These are just some examples of the shamelessness with which our society acts these days. There are many more. We’re not ashamed when our universities produce automatons or “professors” who produce anti-hysteria kits or some such mumbo-jumbo. We think that whipping people in public elevates us in the eyes of the world. We consistently display our ignorance by speculating on what LGBT people want instead of asking them what they need. We are so blind to anyone who is different that we think our standard operating procedures can apply to everyone when it is patently clear that they cannot possibly cater to the diversity inherent in any population including ours.

Yet we also have so much to be proud of. If you’re unclear about what those might be, imagine yourself on a foreign TV show having to describe what’s good about Malaysia. Do we talk about how our young girls get married off, or whipping women in public, or how so many of our children are dying in the fire traps known as tahfiz schools?

Even the most wrongheaded of our people would never dare to mention these as a source of pride, which would indicate that they know only too well that these are actually embarrassments.

Many years ago, I recall a visiting religious leader from a country where he is a minority saying that he was happy to be in Malaysia because here, he could say many things that he could not say in his home country. None of the things he wanted to be “free” to say were nice things. They all involved his opinions about women, sexual minorities and all manner of marginalised people who are vulnerable to HIV. He thought Malaysians would agree with him.

Maybe some people would, but I felt ashamed that he viewed Malaysia as the place where he could dump his venom. Instead of being a place that is inclusive, kind and compassionate about different people, he thought this was the place where he could express his hate for certain groups of people and get away with it.

He’s not the only one either. There are others who are given permanent residence and safe harbour for his brand of vileness. As a Minister in the new Malaysia Cabinet remarked, upholding one’s religion should not depend on putting down others’.

We need to renew our concept of shame into one that is not used as a tool for bullying others, but one that is felt collectively when we fail any of our citizens and others within our borders, whether they be poor, minority or differently abled.

We need to feel pride when we succeed in elevating people from the depths of misery by giving them opportunities and choices. We need to make it our mission to reduce the numbers of those left behind and proudly show our successes. We need to stop making excuses for our failures, especially not by dragging religion into it.

Malaysians worked hard to be able to hold our heads up high again, to be applauded wherever we go. But eradicating shame is still an unfinished business.

28 August 2018

Let’s stop the ‘hatewave’
by Marina Mahathir

Sunday, 26 Aug 2018

AROUND the world, climate change is causing heatwaves where people are unused to very warm weather. Back home, due to another type of climate change, we are experiencing a different kind of wave, which I call a hatewave.

There are people who are still unable to accept that the cliched “new dawn” has arrived in our beloved country. A new environment where inclusivity, indeed democracy itself, is the byword for all things from now on. People want to be listened to, want things to be done transparently, want wrongdoings to be punished and justice for everyone. They want the rule of law, which applies to everyone and not where some people are above and beyond the law. Most of all they want to be left in peace and to live in an atmosphere of goodwill and neighbourliness with everyone else.

But some people still have not gotten it into their heads that the reason they lost power was because they totally misread what people wanted. It could even be said that they were so cocooned that they didn’t really know what people wanted or simply refused to believe it.

And so despite it being a failed formula, they are still using the same one to try and gain popularity or if not, to make the current lot in power look bad.

I don’t want to repeat some of the shocking things being said about a community that is comprised of fellow human beings, citizens and let’s not forget, voters. But it takes zero amount of courage to pick on people who cannot really respond without endangering themselves, their friends or families. There are no bravery medals to be handed out for calling for the killing of fellow citizens using pseudonyms on social media. There is no honour in the name-calling of people, especially when hiding behind the cloak of religion.

To say that these are just words and cannot do any harm in real life is a mistake. Recently, a human being who happens to be transgender was set upon by eight (presumably non-transgender) men and beaten up so badly that she wound up in hospital. The photographs of her wounds should horrify any decent person. Apparently those men set upon her for the simple reason that they didn’t like transgender people. Now why would they suddenly get that idea?

The police are investigating the case and hopefully this time they will actually catch and charge the perpetrators. We are supposed to have the rule of law in this country and the law does not allow anyone to beat anybody up, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. We should all be horrified when people openly defy the law. Once we allow this, where will it all end? In anarchy, where anyone can take the law into their own hands?

I really hope that the police do their duty without fear or favour. That’s what professionals do, regardless of what profession they might be in. (In the latest development, five people have been charged for the crime)

Imagine going for treatment by a doctor and the doctor openly states they don’t like your race/religion/gender/sexual orientation. Would you ever go to that doctor again?

People who spew hate often don’t realise that they can be victims themselves from the same sort of bile. Hate is always directed at the Other, the person whom you perceive as different, and often inferior. In one set of circumstances, you may be the dominant person. But change the circumstances and you become someone else’s Other.

Muslims in particular should be very aware of this. Immediately after Donald Trump was elected, there was a rise in the number of hate crimes towards people perceived as “the Other” – African-Americans, Muslims, Latinos, Jews, anyone who is not white. An analysis of FBI statistics showed that “hate crimes more than doubled the day after the 2016 election, with a 92% spike in average daily hate crimes in the two weeks following the election compared to the daily average from the beginning of the year. Crimes against Latinos increased by the greatest percentage, followed by Muslims and Arabs and African-Americans.”

This spike was because, through his words and actions, Trump seemingly gave permission to white supremacists to be bigots.

For the first time in several decades, people were proud to display their Ku Klux Klan affiliations openly such as in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the President refused to unequivocally condemn them.

As we saw with our own local supremacists in the past few years, if our leaders don’t condemn them unequivocally, they will only become emboldened.

The same thing occurred after the Brexit referendum in the UK.

The Leave campaign promoted the notion that by remaining in the European Union, they would be swamped by refugees, most of whom would be Muslim. The Independent reported that “police figures obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests showed incidents surged by 23% – from 40,741 to 49,921 – in the 11 months after the EU referendum, compared with the same period the previous year, marking an unparalleled rise.”

Is it therefore any surprise that given the hate campaigns against sexual minorities, there has been even more violence against them, especially the more visible transgender population?

The thing for everyone to remember is this: hate comes from fear. And fear comes from ignorance. I have seen so many comments on social media that are fuelled only by hysteria and over-active imaginations. None of them are grounded in reality.

It makes me wonder about the mental health of these commenters, given the amount of time and energy they spend to whirl themselves into hurricanes of hate. Any professional psychologist would recommend meditation to calm them down, preferably five times a day.

The point is, if you can’t even walk outside without the fear of being beaten up just because of how you look, then we don’t have a civilised country. What more an Islamic country, which is supposed to be a peaceful and stable place, a haven for all of God’s creations. What sort of representation of faith is it that is expressed in anger, in slander, in insults and even lies?

There are many people who find it hard to refrain from judging others. That’s probably human. But there are consequences to voicing out those judgements.

Hopefully, you’re not the sort of person who can sleep well knowing what you’ve just said has, at minimum, caused hurt or in the worst of cases, caused that person to be killed. Consideration for the wellbeing of others is a central tenet of most religions, is it not?

Nobody is forced to accept people who they do not approve of.

But non-acceptance surely does not mean condoning violence against them. Non-acceptance surely does not mean letting criminals go scot-free. Non-acceptance cannot possibly mean denying anyone the right to live.

People who think of themselves as good people of faith cannot at the same time avert their eyes from violence against fellow human beings, especially in their own backyard.

There has been equally as much slander about those who defend the weak and marginalised. Apparently being kind and compassionate is also unacceptable. That is the kind of thinking that allowed us to be oppressed for 60 years. If we are to truly celebrate our second Merdeka this coming week, we have to free ourselves from the shackles of the old thinking – especially that we need to be cruel to others in order to be true followers of our faith.

There is a lovely authentic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohamad, peace be upon him), recorded by Muslim, which goes, “You will not enter Paradise until you believe. You will not believe until you love each other.” As far as I can tell, there are no conditions attached to this, that you should only love certain people.

Many people want to emulate the Prophet. The Quran describes him thus: “O Messenger of Allah! It is a great Mercy of God that you are gentle and kind towards them; for, had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would all have broken away from you” (Quran 3:159). Yet, how many refrain from being harsh and hardhearted?

Last May we gave ourselves a new freedom, based on the rule of law, on equality of all Malaysians and on justice. Let’s not be selective about who that applies to.

Happy Merdeka! And Happy Malaysia Day in advance!

31 July 2018

Sunday, 29 Jul 2018
By Marina Mahathir

THERE’S a quote I found somewhere that goes “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” I don’t know who said that but it’s a wise observation on how our expectations often don’t match what actually happens in real life.

So it is with our new Malaysia. We worked hard for this win and we therefore expect everything post-elections to be perfect. And while many things have been great, the reality is that not everything will be. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment and can only hope that they won’t be huge ones.

Here are some of the biggest disappointments so far:

1.The DPM saying that the government is powerless to annul the marriage of an 11-year old girl to a 41-year old man even though it is clearly illegal and despite statements that the age of marriage will be raised to 18.

2.The Youth and Sports Minister not standing up for his staff who had to step down just because some people objected to his sexuality, as if this had anything to do with his competence to do his job. And worse, not making any comments about the injustice of the his staff faced.
3.The divisive foreign preacher Zakir Naik being allowed to stay even though he has nothing to contribute to the new Malaysia.

What this shows is that one of the last things to change is not governments or even laws but culture, or really what’s in people’s heads. And the trouble with politicians’ heads is that they’re often unwilling to take risks because they often have their eye on the next elections rather than the long term.

Obviously it’s not just people’s culture we have to change but also politicians’. Our new government should be reminded that they have already won the elections and they are actually in power now. I know it’s a feeling that’s hard to get used to for most of them. They probably still get up every morning pinching themselves to make sure they aren’t dreaming.

But the point is, they are now in power and they must realise they can actually do things now. And what we hope most is for them to do things that will be good for us in the long term. So it is an opportunity to do things that may seem unsafe if elections are near but very safe if elections aren’t for another five years.

Of course they shouldn’t do things that are going to cause hardship for everyone. But it is the right time to do things like ban child marriage, raise the age of marriage to 18, lower the voting age to the same and pass laws that does not allow any form of discrimination on anyone based on their sexual orientation.

Before everyone starts jumping up and down calling me an apostate, I just want to ask under what law, secular or religious, are you allowed to beat another human being, sometimes to death, just because they are different from you? I see people who think of themselves as “religious” actually advocating this. It’ll be interesting to see what excuses they will give if that different person happens to be a family member or close friend.

I hear about people saying that they don’t care about people’s lifestyles, don’t believe they should be discriminated against AS LONG AS they don’t start demanding their rights. The thing is, if they demand their right to go to school or university, or hospital or just to work, is that demanding too much? Isn’t every human being entitled to these basic rights? If they demand that the police do something if they get beaten up, is that asking for too much?

In fact most sexual minorities demand very little. Some have been discriminated against for no other reason than that they “walk funny”.

Some have been gainfully employed for some time, causing no trouble to anyone, and then suddenly their employers start insisting they dress differently or get fired. Are we supposed to be proud of this in the new Malaysia where we put otherwise good people out of work just because we’re afraid someone might say something?

Here’s the other bit of culture that hasn’t changed: the Opposition. And by that I mean the people who used to be in charge until they massively screwed up. In a democracy a good Opposition is essential. That means an Opposition that takes an interest in real issues and demands answers from the government when they see something wrong.

A good Opposition isn’t one that spends all its time baiting the Government on unimportant issues to supposedly prove that they have the moral high ground.

We don’t hear a peep from the Opposition on the issue of child marriage or on corruption. But somehow they’re obsessed with sex, especially those of the same-sex kind. As if we’re being overrun by gay people all of a sudden.

This is the same culture that we saw in the previous government. For some reason they have not learnt the lesson that trying to frighten the people with imaginary problems is not going to keep them in power. Voters wanted them to deal with real problems, like the cost of living for example. I suppose they’re just slow learners.

The government too has to learn not to rise to the bait. It doesn’t have to be on the defensive all the time. Besides you can never win a morality war.

The other side always thinks it has a straight route to heaven, despite their multitude of obvious sins, so there is no point in even engaging in this battle. Just do what is right especially for the weakest, poorest and most marginalised and it’ll be fine. The strongest, richest and most mainstream can take care of themselves.

But I do see some progressive thinking already among our new lot. There is a proposal out to increase the age of marriage and lower the voting age. Another is a proposal for the somewhat clunkily-named Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

It all sounds good but there has to be more thinking put in. Raising the age of marriage is a good move but it doesn’t solve the issues that make people give away their daughters in marriage to older men. Hatred is not always expressed towards other races and religions but also to people of the same race and religion but for other reasons. And by the way, you can’t insult religions per se, only people of particular faiths. For example, when Donald Trump says all Muslims are potential terrorists, he’s insulting a group of people, not a faith.

So I wish for two things: for the new Government to have the courage to do what is right, and for the Opposition to finally get down to do some work and perhaps have a fighting chance of proving its worth.

25 June 2018

Sunday, 24 Jun 2018
By Marina Mahathir

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.