Saturday, October 13, 2012

Somebody to vote for - not just against! (reprise)

Batu Pahat in the early 1960s

As a kid growing up in a small southern town called Batu Pahat, in the seemingly halcyon 1950s, I recall seeing the entire town festooned with navy blue buntings bearing a white sailboat motif.

That was the symbol of the Alliance Party and, although I was too young to poke my nose into politics, I understood that it represented the newly-hatched Malayan government led by Tunku Abdul Rahman.

My father was a health inspector and, as a civil servant, he was expected to support the ruling party - but I suspect he rarely bothered to vote. In those days there weren't too many political alternatives.

The Labor Party of Malaya, registered in 1952, came up with a logo that featured a hoe crossed with a pen against a large gear on a blood red background. Far better than the hammer and sickle, I suppose - since the pen suggested literacy and a degree of intellectuality. Still, for most middle-class families, the hoe (or cangkul in Malay) was hardly in keeping with their aspirations towards ever greater gentility.

So I remained blissfully unaware of shifting undercurrents in local politics and - even after the eruption of violence that began on 13 May 1969 - I found myself far more interesting than the political milieu. To a certain extent that still holds true, I have to admit.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971, under the premiership of Tun Abdul Razak (right), followed swiftly by the National Cultural Policy, effectively turned me into a "second-class citizen" in the country my grandparents had opted to make their permanent home. I remember hearing a lot of bitter comments from my father - but he never translated any of his grievances into political action. As far as my dad was concerned, Lee Kuan Yew was the sort of leader he could respect - yet he was far too comfortable to consider moving to Singapore.

I was thus utterly indifferent when the Alliance Party reinvented itself as the National Front or Barisan Nasional, opting for the archaic weighing scale as its new party symbol. (Ironically, there's a neo-Nazi racist party in Britain which calls itself the National Front. I wonder if the Barisan Nasional is aware of this prophetic coincidence.)

Having grown up in an urban environment, I noticed that the NEP created an interesting phenomenon whereby there were suddenly a lot more Malays driving expensive cars than 10 years ago. I thought that was a positive development. It was a necessary phase, perhaps, to accelerate the proliferation of a Malay middle-class which would effectively bridge the cultural divide between urban and rural folks. One of the significant spin-offs of the NEP was that many Malays were able to send their children abroad for further studies - and many returned effectively bilingual, with Caucasian spouses in tow and a distinctly cosmopolitan worldview. What once was the exclusive prerogative of the Malay aristocracy now became available to a wider spectrum of Malay society.

Monolingual Malays - particularly the ones embedded in the deep rural constituencies - remained somewhat insular and prone to xenophobia. Umno was quick to realize that these grassroots members served the party best as an ignorant, emotional voter base that could easily be swayed by official propaganda piped through the mass media. There was really no point in ensuring that they had access to different languages and cultural templates.

Accordingly, the education system was designed to be strictly utilitarian - preparing the young for jobs in an industrial society, but not encouraging them to be curious about the larger world or to acquire a taste for knowledge. A well-informed, discerning voter base is an extremely volatile one.

I recall seeing Dr Mahathir's face for the first time in the newspaper. Even though he was only a deputy minister then and I knew next to nothing about the man, something in his demeanor made me shudder. It was a visceral reaction that has never entirely left me - and perhaps never will until I get word of his departure from this planet.

To avoid the feeling of mild nausea each time I caught sight of Dr M's sneer in the papers or on TV, I focused my attention and energies on the performing arts - specifically theatre and music. That was entirely therapeutic for me. Not only did such activities keep me (relatively) sane, they also won me a wide circle of friends and invites to endless parties.

It was becoming more than obvious by 1986 that Dr M had given a sinister twist to the word "entrepreneurship" with his misguided attempt to create a Frankenstein's monster called the Bumiputra Billionaire, aided and abetted by the ultimate Mafia don, Daim Zainuddin (right).

When people become exceedingly rich by inventing something universally popular and useful - or through the display of extraordinary talent, whether in the cultural or athletic field - one can only applaud wholeheartedly. However, fast bucks obtained through political skullduggery and financial shenanigans are hugely damaging to the moral equilibrium of a nation. What happens is that the horizon of decency quickly becomes obscured, to the extent that honest truth-speakers become a threat to the corrupt status quo.

In October 1987 Mahathir, acting in his capacity as home minister, invoked the obnoxious Internal Security Act and ordered the arrest and detention without trial of some 106 people - many of whom were my personal friends and none of whom could seriously be considered a threat to anybody except Mahathir himself. A couple of newspapers were shut down and a climate of fear quickly descended upon the nation. People became apprehensive about discussing politics in public places. Each time somebody uttered the dreaded name "Mahathir" people would immediately look around to see if anyone was watching.

The Special Branch of the Royal Malaysian Police (modeled after the British Special Branch) began playing a major role at the start of the so-called Emergency in 1948. Its prime target was to infiltrate Communist cells operating within the country and gather intelligence deemed necessary to safeguard the nation's security.

However, the definition of "Communist threat" soon expanded to include leftwing political parties with socialist ideologies and outspoken critics of the government. According to Umno and the Malay ruling elite, anybody concerned about social justice, human rights and a level playing field was potentially dangerous to the status quo and therefore had to be closely watched, harassed at every turn, and thwarted from ever attaining political power - even through legitimate and peaceful means.

At that point I was compelled to remove my head from the proverbial sand and start paying close attention to all the hanky-panky that was going on in the political Punch'n'Judy show.

For a start I decided to register myself to vote. And I'm proud to say I have voted against the Barisan Nasional at every opportunity.

Although it felt a little strange to occasionally have to vote for a candidate from the Islamic party, it was still far better than voting for any of the arrogant, greedy, hypocritical rogues in the ruling party. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (I used to be a closet Sinophobe, despite my Chinese ancestry) - but their leaders were truly inspiring in their sheer tenacity and focus, especially veteran generals like Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh. All of them seemed ready to go to jail for their beliefs.

In 1999 when Wan Azizah inaugurated Parti Keadilan (Justice Party) to keep the spirit of reform alive while her husband languished in prison, I was prompted to join. Indeed, it was the first time in my life I actually felt drawn to committing myself to a political organization.

No opposition party on its own had the wherewithal to combat the firmly entrenched power of BN - but towards the end of 2007 Anwar Ibrahim finally succeeded in pulling together the tripartite political coalition now known as Pakatan Rakyat.

DAP's emphasis on sound financial management, PKR's focus on social justice, freedom and human rights, and PAS's spiritual foundation combine to forge a conscious, functional union of Head, Heart and Soul.

Finally we have somebody worth voting for - not just against!

[First published in April 2010]