Like many Malaysians living abroad, I spent last Wednesday night, 9 May 2018, tethered to my phone. I was trying to follow the Malaysian general elections (GE14) via social media.
As polling stations closed and counting began, my phone went berserk, pinging each time I received messages, pictures or web links.
Our Historical Baggage
Due to blatant corruption, many thought there were three possible outcomes:
- Barisan National (BN) wins with a reduced majority – most likely. BN is a coalition of race-based parties. They have been in power since independence in 1957.
- the opposition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), wins and forms a new government
- PH wins and a state of emergency is declared
My mother stocked up food in her house, not because she expected trouble, but just as a matter of precautionary common sense, the kind of common sense that history encourages.
On 13 May 1969, when BN won with a reduced majority, there were race riots. Scores of people died. Hundreds were injured. The government declared a state of emergency. It was an emergency that no one expected, and no one had stocked up food.
Since then, May 13 has been a great silencer. In the face of injustice or corruption, especially if events could be recast along racial lines, this tired line would be trotted out: ‘Better not say that. We don’t want another May 13.’
Near midnight on Wednesday, I clicked on a Facebook link. Someone was live-streaming a scene in near darkness. He was speaking in urgent Cantonese: ‘In Gopeng, in Gopeng. We need backup. The counting is not over but they have come. We need backup.’
His commentary continued as the video kept rolling. Comments poured in. One comment caught my eye. From the name, the person posting was probably Malay. He wrote: ‘Ask him to speak in Bahasa Malaysia so that Malaysians can help him.’ Immediately, another message appeared, in English, ‘He is saying they need help in Gopeng.’
Through the organisational efforts of various NGOs such as Bersih, Malaysians were well prepared to combat electoral fraud. Weeks before GE14, many trained as Polling and Counting Agents (PACA). These citizens – ordinary folks holding ordinary, apolitical jobs – were committed to be present on polling day from early in the morning until votes were counted and results signed off on Form 14, the official declaration of results.
As the Gopeng drama continued, other links appeared. One was a live stream of a standoff in a classroom, between a Polling and Counting Agent and the Electoral Commission officer. The officer was refusing to sign off the results. In the video, the agent asks, ‘Who is instructing you to do this? Who is whispering in your ear? Do you know that it is illegal for you to do this?’ The officer remains silent, pacing, hands down, head down. Meanwhile, mobile phones are up in the air, other people videoing the scene. The milling crowd is at the door, so that the officer has no way out.
Around the country, large crowds gathered around the perimeter of polling stations. They prohibited cars from entering or exiting the polling station until the results were made official, out of fear that cars were bringing in fake ballot boxes. This was likely the situation in Gopeng, where a man was asking for backup.
Around midnight, Tun Mahathir, the leader of PH, held a press conference, in English.
Tun M: In many constituencies, the counting has actually finished. But the officer concerned refused to sign Form 14. And because of that the official announcement cannot be made. Now it is likely that there will be some hanky-panky being done in order to frustrate the wishes of the people.
He talks about meetings being convened and worries about what the intention of people in those meetings. Then, he references a Malaysian law passed just before GE14, which criminalises the dissemination of fake news, a move seen as trying to suppress press freedom and impartiality.
Tun M: This is not fake news … Fake news is coming from them. They are not announcing because, we believe, from our unofficial counting that they are left far behind and the likelihood is that they will not be forming the government. …
Question from floor: How many seats have you won, based on your estimates?
Tun M: To date we have won 112 seats. And it would seem that we have achieved that figure. The figure for the BN is very much less than that. There is no way they can catch up.
Question from floor: You have won 120?
Tun M: No, 112. The total number of seats is 222. We need 111. It is the cut-off point. So we need 112.’ …
Question from the floor: What would you like to say to your people here in Malaysia that support you?
Tun M: I would like to say that they should not take this lying down. I am not instigating anybody. They are the ones instigating, by refusing to follow the rules, the laws, and the constitution of this country.
The Days After
Finally, at around 4am on 10 May, the official announcement came. The opposition had won a decisive victory. Malaysian news once again made it to CNN and BBC, but not about lost money or lost planes. Instead, good news that the will of the people had prevailed, that there will be a change of power with no blood spilt.
But even before post-election euphoria had worn off, criticisms emerged over the lateness of the swearing in ceremony, which took place at 9:30pm. Then there were questions over the cabinet make-up, whether all parties of the new coalition would be fairly represented. These are reminders that peace is a fragile creature, not to be taken for granted, but to be guarded and nurtured.
So it goes to the heart of the question. When can we speak? When should we remain silent? When is it instigating and when is it holding leaders to account? This is not an easy question among a people who dislike confrontation, in a culture highly-respectful of those in authority.
On 13 May, Tun M held a 17 minute press conference on national TV, in Malay. He reiterated that the foundations of anti-corruption and transparency in the new government, of submission to the rule of law.
Tun M: We will not stop the press for being pro this or that, as long as their reporting is factual. If they instigate the people to quarrel and fight, that is not permitted. But they are free to report, even if it is not pleasant for the government. There will be no action taken against this. The fake news law will be clearly defined so that the people and the press will understand what constitutes fake news and what constitutes not-fake news. If they are reporting not-fake news, no action. But disseminating fake news, especially to disturb the peace of the nation, is prohibited. Even though we support freedom of the press and freedom of speech, everything has its limits and boundaries.
I have translated this from Malay. I have deliberately used the literal translation for ‘berita yang tidak palsu‘: not-fake news. It occurs to me that truth is not easy to ascertain, let alone articulate. Not-fake news seems to be a more achievable standard than truth-news.
In writing up this translation, I enjoyed the sense of belonging that language proficiency bestows. If you can understand and speak Malay, that makes you, in a sense, Malaysian. There is, of course, a functionality to this. If people can understand one another, they can work together. (The candidate for PH won in Gopeng).
Rising above Race-Based Politics
For me, GE14 has highlighted the importance of leadership in setting the tone of public discourse.
With social media was abuzz with news, it was hard to differential the real from the fake. Pictures of army trucks in the administrative centre, Putrajaya, stoked fears about an intention to declare a state of emergency. These turned out to be old photos. PDF documents about a new cabinet were circulating before Tun M was even sworn in. Definitely fake.
NGOs and newly elected leaders posted requests to ‘viral this’. ‘This’ referred to messages asking the people to show restraint in celebrations, not to give anyone any excuse for declaring a state of emergency, to think and act as Malaysians, rather than as Malay, Chinese or Indian.
Building a nation takes time. Writing a blog post takes time. I wanted to post this on May 13 and call it May 13 reboot. I wanted to say that May 13 need no longer be a scar on the Malaysian psyche. Instead, Malaysia has shown it is possible for people to rise above racial loyalties and embrace a new national identity. At a time when the world seems to be fragmenting into religious or ethnic groups, the results of GE14 gives us hope that people can rise above race and vote for a better future.
PS: Thank you, Sunita, for volunteering as a Polling and Counting Agent, and for sharing your photos.