Cheah Wui Jia reports on the GE13 forum that was held in Ipoh which reminded her of Bersih and the need for change
It is a fact universally acknowledged that being late for meetings makes you uniquely Malaysian. Latecomers continued to pour into the hall to attend our Ipoh forum in huge waves. They were swarming around the registration desk, filling up the seats in the hall and jabbering noisily like bees.
I could hardly hear myself as I repeatedly shouted above the buzzing din, “Would you like to receive Aliran’s e-newsletter?!” to a group of Chinese Malaysian elderly citizens, who stared at me in bewilderment, as if I had just grown antlers.
They looked at me quizzically, then peered closely at the forms on the table, then looked at me again, eyes as round as discs. Luckily, the incredible Soon Chuan Yean stepped in to my rescue, heroically swinging his gigantic camera to the side like a cape and repeating my question to the spellbound guests in fluent Mandarin.
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Then it struck me. If language proficiencies are capable of dividing people of the same race, what more those of a different skin colour, culture and mother tongue? When one of the speakers, Ch’ng Teng Liang, spoke in Mandarin, one Indian Malaysian man stood up and left his seat.
“Sorry, I’m not being rude. I need to send someone to the bus station. That’s why I’m leaving early.” He apologised to me, flattered non-moderator and non-speaker, at the registration desk. He seemed aware that leaving the room abruptly when facing the otherness of an alien tongue could come across as intolerant.
His maturity, however, put me to shame, when I recalled how, during my younger days, my Chinese friends and I would snigger whenever we heard anyone speaking in Tamil.
The typical national narrative has been that people are organised into distinct, separable groups that mix but do not blend. After all, the stereotype that runs rife is that ‘Chinese’ are materialistic and selfish, ‘Malays’ are lazy and stupid, and ‘Indians’ are wife-beaters and have poor hygiene.
At the public forum held on the 28 April 2013 at St Michael’s Church in Ipoh, the observed myriad of skin tones ranging from dark ebony to fair beige reminded me of pastel colours that oozed happily, waiting for the unravelling of a fresh sheet of paper to glide on. Hope was rising for a new home, void of the stains of corruption or an identity politics characterised by race and religion.
But some of us swish and slide on the palette and blend more effortlessly than others. It was refreshing to see old couples of Indian men, with their arms wrapped around the waists of their elderly Chinese clad-in-sari wives, with the pottu on the women’s foreheads and their greying hair twisted into tight buns.
This genuine racial inter-mixing that defies rigid structures of race-based policies reminded me of the dark streaks blending seamlessly into chocolate-flavoured milkshake. Somehow, despite official attempts to carve us up into distinct categories of ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ voters, boundaries, in reality, are quite permeable.
One of the members of the audience raised the question of whether ‘Indian votes’ are now being bought over by the BN. In reply, Aliran exco member Subramaniam Pillay, steering committee member of the Bersih movement, questioned the notion of ‘Indian votes’ itself, as if the ‘Indians’ are a homogenous group without any variation in terms of income level, opinions or educational background. Every race is in fact a mixture of individuals of various creeds and colours.
Instead of attracting ‘Indian votes’, Subra maintained that governmental initiatives must target Malaysians who are in need, not potential groups of voters like Hindraf, or a particular Chinese school. Instead of aggressively pushing for a ‘let’s make a deal’ mantra, the need to bring about concrete, long-term changes to income and quality of life must be addressed. Most strategies by the BN right now are short-lived ‘exchanges’ or vote-buying measures.
Overall, the hall was a freezing refrigerator. But the mood was toasty. As the crowd chanted “huan zheng fu!” in response to Aliran president Francis Loh’s clarion call of “wu yue wu!” it felt like Bersih all over again.
Subramaniam reminded the audience that 28 April, the date of the forum, was also the first anniversary of the biggest demonstration happened in Malaysian history. It was the day when we were as titillated like fans in a football match. Only that the spectators had left their benches and taken to the field to protest the rigged rules.
“If you don’t vote for change, you will have more of the same! Your vote is your voice. Come out and vote. Hidup rakyat!” cried Aliran ExCo Prema Devaraj to roaring applause and cheers. Prema asserted that apathy towards the unapologetic throwing around of money in the form of buffets and free handouts by the BN is unacceptable.
“In the long run, it means that there’s not enough money for transport for the children to go to school. It means our children will not have an education. Think of our children,” urged Prema. Ultimately, we are leaving a burden for our children and grandchildren unless the current government changes. With the occurrences of corruption and inefficiency, it is not surprising that national debt is increasing due to large leakages in government spending.
Indeed, according to Subra, the federal government is chalking up an outstanding debt that has been increasing since 1970, and has doubled every five years since 1997. This means that since the Asian crisis, we have grown through heavy borrowing, which would, with time, lead to an increase in national debt, and increase the difficultly faced by the government in spending on salaries and pensions.
If this persists, it could would lead to the printing of more money and runaway inflation. Interest payments as a result of the surmounting debt would ultimately lead to cuts in spending on public goods, such as education, transport and health care. “If BN keeps claiming that Pakatan is going to bankrupt the country, BN needs to really take a good look in the mirror!” exclaimed Subramaniam.
Meanwhile, the Pakatan-led states of Selangor and Penang boast of budget surpluses, achieved without the imposition of additional taxes. This has been possible through the practices of open tender policies which result in prudent spending, a slashing of procurement costs and a reduction in cronyism.
Subramaniam also highlighted how the Selangor government had recovered debts worth RM392m owed to it by Talam Corporation. Cash reserves in Selangor have increased in the last five years, reflecting the Selangor government’s efficiency in the collection of revenue.
He also emphasised how the power structure within Umno, the dominant party within the ruling coalition, is such that corruption equates to success while the BN national model of development results in a widening gap between the poor and the rich.
Pakatan, on the other hand, is proposing deep structural changes that would bring about fairer income distribution. People with lower levels of income would be better off as they ultimately benefit from such policies.
Meanwhile, the gap of inequality continues to yawn. During the eve of elections, if Malaysians do not also yawn with bored irritation at the way in which the BN has been plundering the country, we are in for some economic trouble.
Cheah Wui Jia is currently interning with Aliran.