Go tell everyone, the time is ripe for change

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Cheah Wui Jia reports on a GE13 forum held at a church hall in Penang and came away impressed with the large enthusiastic turnout.

Public Forum 21st of April

It was a hot, humid evening when I arrived at the hall behind the Immaculate Conception church sanctuary.

As we all know, Penang has two seasons: hot and cold. Leaving a freezing church sanctuary and entering a hall void of air-conditioning subjects the body to schizophrenic changes in temperature akin to the trauma of having a fever. But the mood was more than feverish; we were, in fact, gearing up for a forum aptly titled “GE13 – The Burning Issues”.

The huge turnout
The huge turnout

As the crowd trickled in, the Aliran president, social butterfly Dr Francis Loh, flitted from one guest to another in his infectious, bubbling enthusiasm, as he shook hands, exchanged anecdotes and discussed political drama. Meanwhile, Aliran ExCo member, Dr Soon Chuan Yen, constantly snapped pictures like the half-crazed paparazzi that he was. “Ah-ha, intern is now being politicised!” he exclaimed in manic glee after snapping a picture of Aliran office administrator Evelyn, ExCo member Angeline Loh and me (unfortunate intern), as the three of us manned the registration desk.

Some of the members of the audience came clad in yellow outfits reminiscent of the Bersih movement. Others boldly bore the magical buzzword “Ubah”, which splashed across their torso in white like a badge of honour against a flaming background of crimson red. But bloodshed of a ‘Malaysian’ Spring was, contrary to the agitated fear-mongering of certain political leaders, not what we looked forward to. We were coming together because the elections are drawing near, and political change is imminent.

Injustices commited by the BN on the eve of GE13

“I’m among friends who share the same dream and cherish the same hope. And that is, to get rid of the Barisan Nasional,” proclaimed P Ramakrishnan, the long-serving former president of Aliran, as a matter-of-fact. The crowd broke into applause and cheers.

Rama giving his eloquent speech
Rama giving his eloquent speech

It was brilliant. Rama not only spoke his mind, but listed the injustices that the 55-year-old coalition government had perpetuated during the eve of the elections. One of this was rule 9A of the Elections Act 1958, passed by the BN, which says that the gazetting of electoral rolls cannot be undone and therefore, phantom voters cannot be removed.

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Rama also pointed out that the Registrar of Societies (RoS) and its sudden delegitimising of the Central Executive Committee of the DAP suggested a deliberate attempt to sabotage the DAP in the elections.

Another unscrupulous tactic featured during the eve of the election has been the unabashed bribery in the form of handouts and buffets. The real threat of an Opposition takeover of Putrajaya has led to desperate attempts by the BN to buy votes.

“My friends, don’t you want to know who ordered the murder of Altantuya? Don’t you? Then go for change. Don’t you want to know who was caught with the pants down in Port Dickson? Don’t you? Then go for change. Don’t you want to know how thousands of acres of land were transferred to cronies at ridiculously low prices? Don’t you? Then go for change.”

Every “don’t you?” that was relentlessly shot like an arrow at the crowd by the charismatic Rama and was punctuated by an emphatic and resounding “Yes!” It was electrifying to hear the audience chorus in unison.

But when the words “Ten minutes to choose a boyfriend” flashed across the screen, I was unsure as to how to react. When the next speaker, soft-spoken but witty Dr Mustafa K Anuar presented his power-point slides, he clarified that the catchy title of his presentation was inspired by the mind-numbing statements recently made by two politicians this elections eve.

Mustafa giving tips on how to "choose a boyfriend"
Mustafa giving tips on how to “choose a boyfriend”

Firstly, Rafidah Aziz had warned the public that “tukar kerajaan bukan macam tukar boyfriend” (Changing the government is not the same as changing a boyfriend).

Secondly, there was the ridiculous argument by Rais Yatim that 10 minutes of air-time offered on RTM to the Pakatan Rakyat to explain their manifesto was quite sufficient. While Pakatan travels across the country to promote their election manifesto, the BN takes the easier route of broadcasting their manifesto live on government-controlled media. Hence, the public has actually only been given ten minutes on RTM to consider “changing boyfriend”.

In addition, according to Mustafa, the BN’s monopoly of the media has deprived Pakatan of the right to reply to its allegations or accusations levelled at the Opposition. The BN is persistently given ample space as they hog the front pages of newspapers and bulletins. Pakatan, on the other hand, is portrayed in a negative light as a disunited coalition with distinctive cracks and given less coverage by the media.

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Mustafa gave the example of how, on the same date of the forum itself, Pas spiritual advisor Nik Aziz Nik Mat is depicted as “frail” with “health problems”. Mustafa urged the audience to reclaim their right to information as citizens. This can be done through petitioning and placing pressure on the next government to abolish laws that hamper freedom of speech such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).

Sexist talk and women’s rights

While freedom of speech is essential for democracy, hate speech that promotes sexism is, on the other hand, a significant obstacle that manifests itself even in debates among politicians in the state assembly.

Dr Cecilia Ng, director of Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) pointed out that democracy entails gender equality and basic respect for women. Yet, only 10.4 per cent of Members of Parliament are female.

Cecilia speaking on the significance of female voices
Cecilia speaking on the significance of female voices

Male politicians such as Jasin MP Mohd Said and Kinabatangan MP Bung Mokhtar Radin are capable of uttering sexist remarks against a female MP in a heated argument over a leak in the ceiling of the Parliament building. Both of them made a reference to her menstrual cycle: “Mana ada bocor? Batu Gajah pun bocor tiap-tiap bulan juga. (Where is the leak? The Batu Gajah MP leaks every month too.)”

Another infamous example is Samy Vellu, former president of the MIC, who once said, “Toilets are like new brides after they are completed. After some time, they get a bit spoiled.”

Cecilia reminded the audience that despite such sexist remarks made by male MPs, women’s voices actually count; they constitute 50.2 per cent of Malaysian voters, about half the voting population in each constituency.

Fortunately, women’s voices are getting louder and they have been given a platform via the grassroots movement Mama Bersih. This is a group of mothers who have proposed an election manifesto that includes improving women’s access to health care, eradicating discrimination against women and increasing female political participation.

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As for public policies, the state-funded PWDC aims to incorporate female representation in all spheres through research and advocacy on gender responsive policies, such as Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB). Under GRB, state revenues and spending are restructured to reduce socioeconomic inequalities between men and women. Allowing women to cast their votes on how to use the state budget allocation permits them to express their most pressing needs such as effective childcare policies and training programmes for childcare minders.

“Your vote is your voice. Come out and vote to be heard at the elections,” emphasized the elegant Cecilia, in her gentle but firm voice.

Democracy and two-party coalition system

The importance of casting one’s vote was reinforced by Aliran member Dr Toh Kin Woon, former Penang State Assembly member for Machang Bubuk, who sits on the Steering Committee of Bersih.

Kin Woon stressed that regime change is necessary because power must be returned to a parliamentary democracy in the form of a genuine two-party coalition system. In the past, it would seem that the elections have been a boring journey; the winner has been the BN for 55 years. Meanwhile, 20 per cent of the population are getting the lion’s share of the national wealth, and deaths in custody, such as the case of Teoh Beng Hock, have occurred.

“I am very blunt. I say vote the Pakatan Rakyat,” declared the 69-year-old Kin Woon with the vigour of an idealistic, youthful 20-year-old, which I must admit, violently upset my first, prejudiced impressions of a lumbering, mild-mannered ‘senior citizen’.

Toh speaking in a powerful voice
Toh speaking in a powerful voice

Conclusion

The forum ended with Francis’ favourite hymn ‘Go Tell Everyone’ as he sang robustly over the mike accompanied not by background organ notes but by a supportive crowd, joining in an imagined community anthem in celebration of hope for a new government.

As we slowly dispersed, I was impressed by the huge turnout and basked in the lingering excitement of smiling wrinkly, leathery-skinned faces who waved goodbye while strolling back to their parked cars.

Cheah Wui Jia is currently attached to Aliran on an internship.

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