Winning the general election by hook or by crook – Part 1

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Photo credit: hazuism.blogspot.com

Let us refrain from matching hooks with crooks. Hooks and crooks do not cancel each other. The net effect will just sink the nation – everybody sinks together, writes Mary Chin.

One person one vote (only). Textbooks once told us that our vote was sacred.

How many friends, relatives and colleagues have tried instructing us whom to vote for?

Most of us know that is incorrect, but find justification from the crowd: everyone is doing it, so it is OK to do the same.

In the run-up to the coming general election, a wave of political awakening has swept across Malaysians here and abroad.

In the name of patriotism, everyone seems ‘duty bound’ to control how others vote. With a mix of persuasion and intimidation – sometimes even to the point of suggesting authority – some campaign full time even if they are not members of any political party and in fact have limited knowledge of the party they campaign for.

Now everyone can and influence how others vote too.

Did others actually ask for help and advice on whom to vote for, as if they don’t know what’s going on in the country? Are we so absolutely sure that our brethren are so dense that they need to be taught? Can we not trust and respect our brethren?

That’s a distinctly local Malaysian phenomenon, which is not from any tradition. We never needed to ‘share’ with the whole world our choice of parties and we never required others to vote the same way. Since when did politics become a religion citizens need to go round preaching, brainwashing and converting?

It all comes in the name of political awakening, in the name of defending democracy and in the name of saving the country. We ought to be ashamed of this back-track in civilisation. We got our political awakening all wrong.

We were never this confused.

Have elections become something we are so determined to fix the outcome, that we go all out to win by hook or by crook? Among others, hooks and crooks are laid bare as a matter of fact without hiding or decoration:

  • 29 March 2018: The Malay Mail reports, “EC chief admits racial redelineation, says ethnic groups can’t be split”
  • 10 April 2017: The Malay Mail reports, “How Malaysian politicians use big data to profile you”

We’ve got hooks and crooks on wholesale, folks! Now, it looks as if everyone can legitimately be open hooks and open crooks.

Hooks and crooks do not cancel each other. They add up. With these, going to the polls becomes a ritual of blind faith. Voters in fact no longer have the handle to democracy the way textbooks define. Causality no longer works that way.

The final outcome as to who will win in the elections is difficult to predict because too many factors are at play. In addition to vote count, we have:

  • systemic issues such as redrawing of electoral boundaries
  • (non-deliberate) technical issues such as synchronisation of multiple databases and registers online and on paper, local and abroad
  • possible manipulation such as individuals allegedly attempting to vote more than once, including voters who will have already voted overseas flying home to try voting a second time, ready to take advantage of any technical loophole
  • sales factor and ethical issues such as (ab)using survey data not only for poll statistics but for stratifying voters and tactical instigation of fear
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If one lumps the second to the first, that is wrong. If one worries about the first but passes the third with a wink (on the belief that diasporas would vote in their favour), that is naughty. If one sees no issue in the fourth if done by the party he or she supports, that is mischief.

Sales factor and ethics

Let us look at an example. (I shall not repeat what I have already discussed in a separate article, ‘Cambridge Analytica: do we bother?‘)

Take the product label of a can of soup. We find a list under ‘ingredients’, another list under ‘nutrition information’. We also get serving suggestions, net weight, expiry date and bar-code. This is fact-based information. Whether we believe or not depends on our confidence in the soup company as well as enforcement and regulatory agencies.

Note that the same product is marketed to us all, whether we are scared of the dark, scared of heights or scared of spiders. The soup company doesn’t turn to us separately and frame different stories.

The soup company doesn’t package the product to those scared of the dark by inserting a warning that this is the only soup that doesn’t make your lights suddenly go off every night, and all other brands do.

The soup company doesn’t package the same product to those scared of heights by saying this is the only soup that doesn’t cause the ground to suddenly sink under you, and all other brands do and you will drop 2km down the canyon.

The soup company doesn’t package the same product to those scared of spiders by saying that all other brands will have spiders popping out of their cans, only their company doesn’t.

That is what Cambridge Analytica and the Malaysian copycat attempts are all about. Success and failure depend on technical competence. Some might be overconfident. The technique requires specialised expertise. It is not a plug-and-play black box.

They collect amounts of data too large for case-by-case analysis – the data netizens send each other casually, completely unaware that a third party is tapping. This large amount of data is put through computer algorithms to identify patterns: what are the worst fears of different groups of people, which constituency they belong to.

And then they devise different tactics to scare different groups, push these into the network, and bombard the targeted audience through third parties – without these groups being aware that data feeding was in fact organised and systematic. In case the algorithms identify you as someone too sturdy to scare, they will just skip over you. They won’t waste any time talking to you.

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The classic Malaysian plague

X thinks he is more deserving because he is a Malaysian and more original. B thinks she is more deserving because she is a Malaysian and more hard-working. In the dispute, C and D are completely forgotten. That ‘I am more deserving’ is the classic Malaysian plague we haven’t been able to shake off.

It’s always the big ‘I’. In fact, not only that I feel I am most deserving – in fact I’m going to make sure that you don’t untung (benefit) from my accidental spill. I actually feel good depriving others.

So, when can we shake this off? Once we are ready, inform the politicians. Spare them having to juggle between A,B, C and D – pledging differently to each. That would save so much trouble and resources dis-allocating, allocating and re-allocating marbles for different jars – erasing, drawing and redrawing boundaries – ungrouping, grouping and regrouping politicians and voters.

We got free speech all wrong

Look at the contents flying around the alternative news channels which we have today – 15 years ago, who would have dared? Half of the population could have been in indefinite lock-up.

Later, along the way, we enjoyed some relaxation from that iron-fist rule. It is unfortunate that that brief freedom is recently being choked. Chokes and choking have been well covered elsewhere. Here, let us reflect on how that brief freedom was used (and abused).

Press freedom has largely been misunderstood. It is mistakenly seen as an opportunity to counter-balance one extreme with another. A number of new channels emerged and went bust, most with a battery of armies in constant standby to viral whatever release meant to make a sensational hit.

Most have taken the agonist-antagonist stance, with a mission to swing the bias to the opposite extreme. Many operate by selective reporting and deliberate omission, putting arguments out of context rather than in context, putting plain statements between unfair inverted commas just to jolt the speaker and the reader.

What we get is almost wholesale lying. Now everyone can lie.

The consequence is a nation being swung like a wild pendulum, contributing to the fierce polarity that we have today. Part of the problem could also be because some Malaysians know no other way besides rocket’s hit-or-miss combative style.

Countering an extreme with the opposite extreme will not produce any neutralising effect. No, it doesn’t work this way.

Sadly, that’s what we’ve been getting and that’s what many Malaysians hail as the gold standard for journalism.

Try questioning the Penang state government on environmental and equality issues, you may find some publishers’ doors shutting on your face. Talk about political prejudice! We are back to square one in terms of media control.

I hear the defence, “But BN controls even more channels!” See? That’s the problem with Malaysians. People try to match. That is a big mistake.

What we need is objective media – objective but not necessarily neutral. Bersih is the one that needs to be neutral. The press do not need to be neutral, but should be objective.

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Do we need an example of objective but not neutral journalism? Take a look at The Economist, which has a tradition of making official stands by endorsing electoral candidates of its choice. The Economist did it not only when the UK and the USA had their elections. They did it even for India and some other countries.

Here’s a good assignment for students and those in training and formation. Take one of those endorsement articles from The Economist, and do a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis.

We shall find both sides of the story laid out in context, with pros and cons weighed, gains and risks calculated and projected. A recommendation follows that, despite this and that, the newspaper endorses this particular candidate. We shall find no paintwork of angels on one side and demons on the other.

Can we find any of these qualities in popular local channels hailed as gold standards?

We need hope, not fear

Sow seeds of hope, not fear that our future will be doomed and we will be robbed if we vote for the other party. Stop cashing in on fear and stop banking on hatred.

Those sincere in governing and developing the country wouldn’t first put the nation into disrepair. That would be like shooting themselves in the foot.

Tell us instead how divisions can be reconciled and how wounds can be healed. We hear not a word on this from those who are loud and who accuse their rivals of being divisive.

Emotions blind us. We become fixated to a tiny corner blown out of proportion, and we forget everything else. We lose our balance.

Are elections and manifestos all about money for the individual’s pocket: less corruption, less tax, more goodies? It does look a bit like that. In civilised countries, people worry about healthcare, education, immigration and more. Such matters can’t sell as headlines here.

Objectivity lost

Some individuals, groups, organisations and even religious bodies (which have turned into political animals over the years) have given some parties a straight pass too easily. Some politicians are so pampered that constructive comments are always interpreted as a threat.

The belief so far seems to be, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Malaysians from both sides of the divide have made a costly mistake in not having challenged their politicians enough. Joining the chorus and rubbing shoulders (eg between politicians and religious leaders) partly caused the problems we face today.

There has been too much of hero-worshipping. At the end of the day, if we don’t know them personally, why risk ourselves guaranteeing that they are angels and saints? Stick to the government-people contractual relationship. See to the delivery of deliverables. There is no place for childish affection, devotion and idolatry. Exercise rationale, not emotions.

Middle-class Malaysians have this habit of checking every single item on the restaurant bill before paying, as if the whole world is waiting to cheat them. Well, do the same itemised checking for all dealings with the governments, whether state or national. Ask for transparency and demand accountability.

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