Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Winning the Average Vote

Written by johnleemk on 9:26:13 am Jan 8, 2007.

This article is currently the subject of a debate at the forum - interested readers are invited to join in.

This morning, I received a very interesting response to my essay on why the opposition needs a plan to win elections. The writer suggested a number of points which I believe would come to the minds of several readers, so I thought it worth to respond publicly in the form of another article.

Economic development

Earlier, I argued that BN has been successful in elections on the basis of promises of economic development. The response, however, is that "BN was riding the economic boom of those times and being blessed with a country rich in resources, so any half-past-six govt would be able to do well. the real test comes when a govt is able to cushion the country from economic downturns, like Dr M successfully did in 1997. however, it was only a short term measure as the country's economic fundamentals are not realigned for today's global environment, ie we can't compete."

What this argument does not take into account is the opposition's manifesto. Even in times of prosperity, the opposition can make a case for bringing even further development to the country (naturally by voting the opposition in). And in a time of economic crisis, it should be a natural response to promise to address the grave situation. The opposition, however, has consistently focused on what are essentially non-issues for most Malaysians.

Those of us with the time to read blogs and broaden our mental horizons will naturally care about it if the government restricts our freedom of thought and speech. However, the average Malaysian couldn't care less - all he wants is to drink teh tarik and drive around in his car. Infringe on these sacred rights, and even the most docile voter can become an enraged tiger. Recall that the most controversial political issue of the past year, race aside, was the reduction in petrol subsidies, which many restaurant operators used as an excuse to raise prices, and also naturally affected how often we can drive. And of course, the year kicked off with street protests after the government hiked up the tolls. What is dear to us is not our freedom of speech - it is our freedom from hunger and freedom to drive.

These baser needs are what (pardon the unintentional pun) drive us. Considering how often the government gets away with trampling on even these rights, one may find it surprising that this country has never had a viable two-party system. Putting aside the issue of race again (which I believe has been the largest stumbling block towards the development of a two-party system), the reason BN has been so successful at presenting itself as a driver of economic development is because the opposition has rarely gone on the attack when it comes to the economy.

You may be thinking this sounds funny, since it has always been the opposition which has been most vocal about issues such as tolls and petrol price hikes. However, their shrill anti-government cries are akin to Shakespeare's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". The opposition temporarily succeeds at channeling our energies into opposing the government's policies - but it never comes up with economic policies of its own. It may make one or two promises regarding the economy, but it never presents a concrete plan to develop the country.

I do not believe it can be considered a plan to do the exact opposite of whatever the current government is doing. That is a passive, reactive policy - it has no originality, being simply "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". The voters may be stupid, but they are not stupid enough to consider passive policies as a plan. We all know that true leaders lead. They don't look to others for a cue. When/if the DAP or Keadilan is in power, they will have to craft our country's economic policies. What will they do? Increase the petrol subsidies? How will they pay for them? Our oil reserves will not last forever, and BN has no coherent plan to address this looming problem - yet neither does the opposition have any idea as to how to go about collecting government revenue once petroleum deposits are exhausted.

Now, you may be thinking - if BN has no plan either, why have they consistently won? This is because of the advantage that accrues to the incumbent. The incumbent has the advantage of the press on their side - even in countries with independent media, simply by virtue of being the incumbent, you will find yourself given much greater coverage than your opponent. If you are the current President of the United States, you make the headlines by doing your job and running the country - you don't have to go out and campaign to make the news (unlike your opponent). A similar advantage exists here.

The strongest aspect of the incumbent's advantage in Malaysia, though, seems to be that the voters would rather stick with the devil they know than go with the untried devil they don't know. The opposition has an unproven track record, and if there is nothing else to differentiate them from the government (such as, say, a plan?), the voters will be very unlikely to support them. BN has done a mediocre job of running the country's economy - but the voters seem to prefer a tried and tested quantity to an unknown one. That is why it is crucial that the opposition get its act together and hammer away at this plank of the government's platform. Formulating a real policy plan is what will set the opposition apart from the government.

Abstract ideals

Another issue that was brought up was that "abstract concepts are hard to sell to the kampung folks but as the country matures with a higher proportion being educated up to the tertiary level, these concepts and freedoms will become more important."

In the long run, I believe this will materialise. However, as John Maynard Keynes memorably said, in the long run, we are all dead. The point is not to ignore the long run - the point is to make sure that we aren't dismissing a problem by suggesting it will simply vanish given enough time.

In my opinion, time is not on our side. The government is running the country into the ground through its lack of leadership. We cannot afford to wait another century for the electorate to mature. We need to act now - and if we want to win the votes of the voters now, we need to appeal to them on issues that matter to them. The issues of human rights can remain part of our platform - but they should not be the centrepiece. The centrepiece of any platform should be economic development, reform, and a master plan for our country's future. It is not enough to suggest that the government's plans are lacking - we must present alternatives of our own.

It is suggested that "however, there is a way to market an abstract concept like FREEDOM of SPEECH to the kampung people. one example is corruption, how the lack of transparency and freedom of speech is DIRECTLY causing the rakyat to suffer vis-a-vis toll hikes, petrol price hike, and a general stagnation of wages. all these 'human problems' stem from corruption."

This is a point I tangentially brought up in the original article - perhaps it was missed. I said that the key to assuring the average voter that ideals such as freedom of speech or transparency are necessary is to point out how they have a direct impact on our daily lives. Until these abstract concepts are given a concrete form, they will not matter to the average voter. To give them a concrete form, we must tie them to concrete issues that already matter - and these issues will always be things like our rice bowl. (Oh yes, and incidentally, I can't see how corruption is causing "a general stagnation of wages" - perhaps someone could explain this to me?)

The Anwar Factor

Somehow, one man's name seems to continually crop up in political discussions these days: "i believe ANWAR has a plan for the govt, he has stated it quite clearly: the abolishment of the NEP while maintaining a programme of poverty eradication and wiping out corruption. He has also recently recruited former PNB and Guthrie head honcho Tan Sri Khalid to give credence to PKR's economic expertise."

It is not good enough, in my view, to simply mouth platitudes about cancelling the NEP. Anwar has yet to present more than a most basic sketch of his ideas. Until he does so, I will remain skeptical of how much he can do. Recruiting big names is of little use unless the big names craft an actual policy document which is then given wide circulation.

There is, however, plenty of potential for the usage of big shots. In the British Parliament, the opposition runs a "Shadow Cabinet" which is tasked with developing policies as the party would if it was in power. This cabinet allows the party to not only show the weaknesses of the government, but the strengths of the opposition. I once heard some rumblings about Barisan Alternatif forming a shadow cabinet after the 1999 election, but nothing came of it. It's an idea worth considering.

To win the average vote, the opposition needs to get its act together. They must do more than appeal to the same old abstract issues as they have been doing for decades. The man on the street wants to know how casting his vote for you will change his life for the better. He is not interested in knowing how his votes for BN in the past have changed his life for the worse. He is only interested in the future, and the opposition must capitalise on this if it wants to win.

This article is currently the subject of a debate at the forum - interested readers are invited to join in.

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