What a week it was. As boundaries between political alliances shifted like sand, the events after the 19 November general election unfolded like a horror movie on our flickering screens.
Caught in the ‘in between’ of a rogue government from our past and the uncertainty of the election shaping our future, our sanity wore thin as the days crawled by.
Liminality is the uncomfortable transitional space between one stage and the next. Anthropologist Victor Turner describes liminality as a sort of limbo, a suspension of identities, a kind of “betwixt-and-between”.
The hung Parliament conundrum lingered with a range of possible combinations of political parties. Hints of possible violence surfaced like ghosts from another era. Were we headed for another May 13?
I should have guessed that things would not go as planned for the country, judging by what my day as a polling agent was like. I had volunteered to be a polling agent for the general election, but the ketua tempat mengundi (KTM, the polling centre chief or Boss) was unimpressed with my presence.
Boss disallowed me from vetting the ballots to ensure they were unmarked before the voting began. Boss also refused my request to confirm the spelling of voter names on their identity cards.
When I tried to use my mobile phone to text fellow polling agents for advice, Boss reminded me that mobile phone use was prohibited. I had watched her blatantly use hers to make phone calls.
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When a kind staff member on her team offered me snacks during a mid-morning lull, Boss snapped that those snacks were reserved for Election Commission staff.
Boss disliked me. On some level, I was making her job as polling centre chief difficult, even as she too was frustrating my tasks as a polling agent. In the eyes of Boss, I was that overeager junior volunteer asking inane, time-wasting questions and raising issues that hardly seemed to warrant any significant response from her.
However, I tried to understand, magnanimously, that any supervisor would have been irritated. At the end of my shift, I walked up to her desk where she was seated to sign my attendance form. “Thanks so much,” I said, while adding my signature to the required forms. I had no idea why I was thanking her.
Surprisingly, Boss seemed somewhat sheepish. “Sorry ah. My first time as KTM today. Mm, you from different party?”
In that voting room, within that transitional space and time, where the votes were cast and counted, Boss and I parted ways peacefully. Perhaps, Boss had noticed on my attendance form, details that indicated that the annoying polling agent was representing a specific election candidate; a candidate whose ideological stance was ‘different’ from hers.
Like her, I too had my doubts and suspicions about the different ‘otherness’ among us, the stranger in my midst, with different beliefs from hers.
Volunteering as a polling agent, I met many others who were concerned about ensuring a clean and fair voting process.
I also met an enthusiastic Christian who was stationed at the same voting centre (let us call her Bubbly). When she asked what I do for a living, I told her I was a postgraduate student.
“Oh, what are you studying?” She tilted her head inquiringly.
“Uh, religion,” I said cautiously.
Bubbly perked up! Her eyes lit up like fireworks in the night sky. She looked like someone who had fallen hard in love. “Are you Christian? Which church do you go to?”
I hesitated, praying, “Please, no debate about religion now.”
In that brief, in-between space of silence, I could hear the chatter in the background, papers ruffling, and other polling agents rehashing the functions of certain forms. “Eh, what’s Borang 14 again, ah?” a confused lady asked.
I had a slight tummy ache from that tension on voting day. People were polite to each other, and no one yelled. But all our differences were uncomfortable enough.
And these differences were not even ethnically based.
Later, when the votes were counted, I recalled angry comments some netizens left on social media about religions and threats, or how a certain race or political party was responsible for the rising price of eggs.
These complaints and accusations were absurd, but maybe, underneath all that anger, people were afraid of the in-between spaces, of their uncertainty.
As the country awaited the formation of a new government, there were more questions than answers. But in our haste to want the next thing, we dismissed the liminal spaces.
Liminal spaces could be the birthplace of creativity and transformation. In that space, we should be able to find the courage to dialogue with the ghosts of our past and the demons of our future. We should be able to learn important lessons.
Suspended between the familiar and the unfamiliar, we should be able to reflect on old structures of prejudicial thinking and doing that next thing to leave them behind.
We should be able to develop new ways of reimagining our country and to lean into the uncertainty to consider the ‘not yet’ and the ‘perhaps’.
We should be able to pause and let go of our false certitude in the waiting room between the ‘just ended’ and the ‘only beginning’.