Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Concrete Before Abstract: Winning Voters to Win Power

Written by johnleemk on 9:13:29 am Feb 6, 2007.
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I have been extremely vocal in calling for the opposition to get its act together, and prepare itself to govern the country. I have called for it to prepare, not to have this calling to power thrust upon it, but to openly and actively seek to thrust itself upon power, to fight for change in this country. Yet, many in the opposition seem to reject this call. They seem to believe that power will thrust itself upon the opposition as long as it continues down its present course. I beg to differ.

What do we call it when a person repeats a course of action in the hope of getting different results? Insanity. What do we call it when a party repeats a course of action in the hope of getting different results? "Taking a principled and courageous stand." The road to hell is paved with good intentions, my friend, and if you take up residence in Kamunting as a guest of His Majesty a few dozen times but can't do a thing about the situation our country is in, you might want to reconsider your holiday plans.

It is not that I disagree with the stances many of our opposition parties have taken, or that I doubt their moral rectitude, or that I don't respect the guts it must take to be hauled in under all sorts of reprehensible and draconian detention laws. It is not even that I would not vote for the opposition - certainly, I'd vote for nearly anybody who wasn't running on a Barisan Nasional ticket. Rather, it is that I know that the opposition can't win the votes that count.

What good is my vote? I live in the city - an area marginalised by the voting system implemented under our Constitution. (My vote may be worth two or three times less than a typical rural voter's.) I'm a well-educated member of the bourgeouisie. How typical am I of the electorate? How typical am I of the voters whose votes matter? I am not typical of them at all.

A typical voter is likely to have received minimal education, and is probably a member of the lower strata of society. He won't care about lofty ideals such as the belief that all men are created equal. He won't be able to conceptualise the effect of abstract issues such as transparency and accountability on his daily life. All he cares about is his rice bowl.

When I criticise the opposition, I don't mean to encourage people to vote for BN instead. That's the last thing anyone should be doing. If you can't find a palatable alternative, then don't vote at all, or better yet, make your voice heard and spoil your vote.

The simple reality of things is that in our country, most people still are not receptive to a change of government, simply because the opposition has never shown itself worthy of being the government. This is a fact. It is not meant to discourage support for the opposition; it is a criticism meant to make the opposition take a long, hard look at itself, because if it doesn't improve, it will never go anywhere and my vote will be wasted on it - I might as well throw my hands up and spoil my vote, and maybe emigrate, since if we don't change the government soon, our country won't be worth living in for much longer.

I know this is something that might be hard for diehard opposition supporters to swallow, but look at why we're supporting the opposition. Is it because we actually believe in their leadership, or is it because we're just fed up with the "leadership" we've seen in the government? A competent political party does not live on hatred of the other party alone. It lives on the belief that this party can lead the country to a better future, and this is something our opposition parties have completely failed in.

After all, we don't believe in the opposition's leadership. We just believe that a donkey's ass (as in a donkey's behind, not a donkey's donkey) would be a better leader than all of the BN MPs stacked together. That's why most of us are behind the opposition. The opposition has always mobilised its "support" based not on actual support for the party and its leadership, but on opposition to the government and its "leadership".

It is easy to talk about thrashing the government and about how we'll explain its abuses to the people - but just try explaining your rationale for voting opposition with a straight face to the typical Malaysian. It doesn't even have to be someone in the kampung; just try doing it with a guy you find on the street or meet on a Malaysian online forum. Outside the confines of the cloistered political blogosphere, people are not taken in by your arguments for voting opposition.

Now, why is this? Is it because they are diehard BN supporters? Is it because they don't care about politics? No. Oh, yes, they might say they don't care about politics, but politics is about the decisions that affect our daily lives. And I think everyone cares about their daily lives. It is just that they think that the opposition has failed to prove that it is capable of improving our daily lives. Part of this is based on false perception, but an equal part, if not more, is based on the reality that the opposition has never been capable of coming up with ideas and policies that the common man can relate to.

Recall, it is not that the common man is unaware of Barisan Nasional's abuses. He is. He just cannot conceive of the opposition being a better government than BN, as ludicrous as it sounds. BN has completely failed at leading our country, and essentially runs it on an ad hoc basis. The main business of government here is not government - it is plundering the country. They just implement policies as an aside to maintain their legitimacy. But yet, they have the support of the people because under them, the common man has been able to earn a living. His rice bowl has not been broken. His children can go to school. Why should he be upset, despite the literal racism and figurative raping that is ongoing in our halls of government?

What the opposition has to do is prove that it can improve the daily lives of the people. There are a lot of common grouses that can be exploited for this purpose. Just look at the things Dr. Bakri Musa highlighted in his book The Malay Dilemma Revisited - simple things such as MARA's failure to educate the Bumiputra, and its failure to enhance Bumiputra entrepreneurs' competitiveness.

Improving these things is not difficult - Bakri himself presents a lot of ideas for fixing up institutions like MARA. And of course, we have simple issues that mean a lot - like the fact that you have information technology teachers assigned to history classes, and physics teachers assigned to biology classes. This is a surprisingly common occurrence, even in urban schools - whacking the government on this and proposing an education policy that would properly provide for the training of teachers would be something that can win a lot more votes than criticising the Prime Minister for purchasing a new luxury yacht.

Bread and butter issues like these are not hard to find. Look at the crime situation - the middle and upper classes are increasingly locking themselves up in "gated communities", and at the rate things are going, in a few generations we might have to helicopter out of our homes like the Pakistani elite. Promising more police officers and a revamp of the police force is something everyone can relate to, and is a real bread and butter issue that BN has not addressed. Or look at the horrid state of public transport in our country, and the terrible town planning that focuses more on who can bribe the planners than on what is best for development. Again, a simple bread and butter issue that can be fixed, if only the opposition was not so focused on more abstract things like calling for the repeal of the Official Secrets Act!

Again, please don't misunderstand - I am not saying that these abstract issues are things not worth fighting for. They are. But do you want to deal with these issues as a powerless opposition party, or as the government? If you want the former, then by all means, continue down the present course (and please don't complain if I call you insane). But if you want the latter, you have to confront our country's bread and butter issues before you can even think of tackling the abstract issues of governance. It is only through such confrontation that you can convince the voters to put you in power, and it is only then that you can implement your agenda for tackling both the bread and butter and the abstract issues.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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