As ‘quirky’ polls loom, brace yourself for Umno-BN media’s silly awful offerings

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We want clean and fair elections!

What we are wishing for is ‘a normal democracy’ – characterised by free and fair elections (minus the pengundi hantu) and intelligent debates, maybe sponsored by the mainstream media, writes Francis Loh.

It’s the end of January 2018. Soon we will be celebrating Thaipusam, then Chinese New Year, and before you know it, it will be time for GE14.

When exactly, we do not yet know. In Malaysia, it is the incumbent, the ruling BN government, specifically Prime Ninister Najib, who decides when to call for elections.

In the run up to GE13, we waited and waited to vote, because Najib waited and waited for that suitable date that would help ensure victory for his Umno-BN. He almost ran out of time! His Umno-BN coalition polled only 47.5% of the popular vote while the Opposition polled 51%.

In Malaysia’s quirky first-past-the-post system, where gerrymandering ensures that the incumbent gets returned to power, Umno-BN, which polled less votes than the Opposition, still came out tops. In fact, its 47.5% of the votes resulted in 133 out of 222, about 60% of all parliamentary seats

Quirky electoral system

The system in Malaysia, which does not fix a date for elections, favours the incumbent and allows the ruling party to prepare ahead – and even to stymie the Opposition.

Because it knows when the election is to be held, Umno-BN has always printed its pamphlets and posters earlier, at times monopolising all the major printers to the Opposition’s detriment. Nowadays, there are also badges, caps, pens to hand out which must be ordered early.

You will notice that the prime minister has also been attending the annual general assemblies of his 14 coalition parties, which is an opportunity to rally his troops and smoothen out differences between the coalition members.

Being in the know also allows Umno-BN to make early bookings for the most suitable halls and open grounds to hold ceramahs. In Sabah and Sarawak, the BN also stocks up on petrol to drive their fast boats and four-wheel drives into the interior areas. And it also books use of the helicopters, assuming that the Opposition has that kind of money to spend.

In the United Kingdom, under the Fixed Term Parliament Act adopted in 2011, voters know early the exact dates for the dissolution of Parliament and for polling. In 2015, Parliament was dissolved on 30 March, nomination fixed for 9 April, and campaigning lasted almost five weeks until the election was conducted on 7 May 2015.

As well, if you want to vote in the UK elections, you have to be over 18 years old (21 here). If you are not yet registered as a voter, you may do so up to two weeks before the polls.

Registration or updating one’s previous registration (perhaps to change one’s address) can be done either online, or by post. In the latter case, simply send the completed form to the Local Election Registration Office. And if you are not in the country on voting day, you can elect to vote on an earlier date. Updating one’s registration can be done anytime during the year.

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Compare these simple procedures to the difficulties we encounter in trying to register ourselves to vote. This is especially difficult if one is studying or working overseas. (If this is your case, check out this SPR advisory. Maybe you will get to vote this time.

That said, be forewarned, if the latest electoral roll has been gazetted and you have not yet been registered, you will have to wait until the next general election.

More disturbing is the redelineation exercise which by law must be conducted by the SPR every eight years or so, like the ongoing one. Once completed, the new constituencies and their boundaries are displayed publicly.

We are allowed to raise objections to the new proposals. However, as in the case of the massive changes proposed for the state of Selangor, the SPR is not obliged to adopt your counter-proposals. In fact, they rarely do.

And this is why Bersih, is trying to mobilise 100,000 voters from Selangor to object to the new electoral boundaries proposed by the SPR. Please visit this link and help if you can.

There is also the problem of the pengundi hantu. In this day and age, they still re-emerge in Malaysia, like the toyol! In view of this problem, it is all the more important for all of us to come out to vote at GE14. Don’t listen to those who are suggesting that there is no choice in this election and that one ought to boycott GE14.

There are subtle but nonetheless important differences. Lee Hwok Aun’s “Caught between Mahathir and the deep blue BN?” elaborates on these differences and urges all to come out to vote. If you boycott or spoil your vote, your effect is no better than that of a pengundi hantu!

At any rate, don’t wait until Najib dissolves parliament to get into GE14 mode. Check early to ensure that your registration status is in order. Have you been shifted to another constituency? If you haven’t been moved, check to ensure that you are still voting in the same polling station as before. Here is the website to do this.

This quirky electoral system, which allows the prime minister to determine when to go to the polls, which allows the SPR to gerrymander and pengundi hantu to haunt us, must be reformed; otherwise the party that obtains fewer votes will continue to govern over us.

Silly and awful mainstream media

The mainstream media also must be reformed, if that is the correct word. During ordinary times, they are already rather biased since their bosses are you-know-who. Occasionally, the other point of view is given some consideration by certain columnists.

However, when elections are around the corner, the little sense of fair play gets thrown out of the window. The mainstream media removes its mask of neutrality and gets plain silly and awful. Brace yourself for this.

Here is a sampling of what is to come, again.

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Over the past months, the mainstream media were reporting about the bravado and brouhaha in the BN parties’ assemblies.

In early January, the MCA sent its list of potential candidates for GE14 to the prime minister for his consideration. The MIC next did the same. The MCA and MIC leaders led the chest-beating while proclaiming that this time around, they would recapture the seats that were robbed from them in GE13.

Remember, the mainstream media are owned and controlled by Umno-BN. Now that GE14 is around the corner, they have also been digging out the dirt on the Opposition.

For instance, The Star gave front-page – and several inside pages’ coverage – to the MACC’s investigations, raids and arrests regarding the claims of corruption in the Penang state government’s undersea tunnel project and several accompanying highway projects. The front page coverage lasted three days: 10, 11 and 12 January 2018. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s rebuttal to these allegations, however, was tucked into page 5 of the Sunday Star, 21 January.

Whereas Lim claimed that the reports in the BN media amounted to a “systematic public lynching” of his Pakatan Harapan state government, with “anonymous sources from the MACC” leaking what he termed to be “false information” that kickbacks were given to politicians, the Star was silent on Lim’s criticisms of the BN media. But theSun (22 Jan 2018) reported this story.

The Umno-BN media had also carried reports about Lim’s upcoming corruption trial (regarding the conversion of agricultural land to residential land and the purchase of a plot of land and bungalow at below market value).

About the same time as the case of the tunnels was unravelling, the Penang High Court judge announced that Lim’s corruption trial would start on 26 March 2018 and run until 30 March, to be followed by almost two one-week sessions in April and another two one-week sessions in May – effectively, into the GE14 campaign period.

Lim expressed concern that the trial might affect his candidacy in GE14 and might also impinge upon his ability to campaign nationally as should the leader of a major opposition party. But the Umno-BN media were not interested, let alone sympathetic to his plight. His response was tucked into p20 of The Star on 12 January.

The same newspaper has also been highlighting conflicts within Opposition ranks. On 12 January 2018, the title of a feature read “Selangor PKR not in tune with partners”.

Following the decision of the Opposition that former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir would be its candidate for prime minister, the titles in that daily screamed: “Fathers of cronies have joined hands, says Liow” (MCA president Liow Tiong Lai); “DPM: Pakatan made right decision” (in appointing Mahathir as its candidate for PM), which was a sarcastic swipe by the deputy prime minister; “Rocky road ahead for Anwar”; and so on.

Soon, the BN-controlled media will enter silly season and will be reporting on the ‘opening ceremonies’ of bridges, schools, hospitals, markets, etc that have been built by the Umno-BN government.

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This will be followed by pages and pages of political advertisements extolling the ‘achievements’ of the incumbent and full-page warnings of impending disasters should the Opposition come to power. Notwithstanding the Elections Act, they will be vilifying Mahathir, Anwar, Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng, Mohd Sabu, and others.

My wish is that the mainstream media get out of this silly and awful mode. Instead of focusing on individuals and vilifying the Opposition leaders, they ought to ‘get professsional’ especially during election time.

Scrutinise the manifestos of the two sides. Invite public intellectuals to help them if their own reporters can’t do the job.

And like elsewhere, perhaps the media can organise debates between the leaders. There are lots of topics to focus on, for example:

Our educational system from pre-school to university level. What’s going on? Why are standards declining when we compare against our neighbours? Shouldn’t we decentralise the educational system, which employs close to half a million people? How can Putrajaya, how can anyone, administer efficiently and effectively such a behemoth? And, by the way, do the ministers and the leaders of the Opposition send their children to our public universities?

Our health system: it is well known that Malaysia’s health system is a very comprehensive one that reaches down to the rural areas. However, it appears that this comprehensive health system is under assault due to the privatisation of health services, the exodus of specialists from the public to the private sector, and cuts in the budget for health services.

Our public transport system is next to non-existent outside of Kuala Lumpur. This has led to traffic jams and gridlock in places like Penang. Why should public transport be centralised in Putrajaya? Elsewhere, public transport is usually under the control of local authorities. That used to be the case in Malaysia too, until the NEP came along.

Our environment: isn’t it time to put an embargo on more development in our hill resorts? On hill slopes in hilly regions of Penang and the Klang Valley? Who is looking into the problem of flash floods in our cities in a systematic way? Who?

The list can go on and on.

Ask the two sides to elaborate on their development plans. Check on how they are going to fund their promises.

Yes, the Malaysian media can play very productive roles as elections approach. This is not something that only occurs in western democracies. The Malaysian media should learn from the examples of their counterparts in Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Korea and Japan in the run-up to elections in those countries.

What we are wishing for is ‘a normal democracy’ – characterised by free and fair elections (minus the pengundi hantu) and intelligent debates, maybe sponsored by the mainstream media, between the two parties over important issues and their policy differences. It would also be nice to have a change of government this time around. Ahhh, that would make us a normal democracy indeed.

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
26 January 2018

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