By Cicero Lee
Growing up, some of us learnt the endearing story of Rip van Winkle, a lazy Dutch-American man who fell asleep after drinking a brew with strangers he had followed into the hills.
He woke up years later. When Rip went back to his village, he found that the world had moved on. People were no longer loyal, for instance, to the British colonialists but the fledging American state.
A part of Malaysian politics can be likened to that oddball in a time warp. It went into deep, snug slumber after 1969, as people kept their voices down rather than stir up ‘sensitive’ issues.
But a wake-up call came with the ‘tsunami’ of May 2013. In the 13th general elections, Malaysian politics was confronted by rakyat fully awake to the reality that they can flex ‘people power’ with their vote. The bitterly fought polls will go down in history as an inflection point in Malaysia’s democracy.
An unprecedented 85 per cent voter turnout underscored a spike in political awareness in a country that has quietly gone along with the script of communal allocation.
After the May 13th incident of 1969, Malaysia adopted a ‘top-down’ style of governance where merit and individuality were subsumed to the new mantra of race-based equity crafted by its leaders. As the late home minister Ghazali Shafie once proclaimed: free-wheeling Westminster-style parliamentary democracy is not a good choice for the fledgling nation, by way of justifying the new social restructuring.
But election results – which reveal the evolution of the city versus rural population – bring back to life the dormant two-party system and the ‘check and balance’ of democracy.
Analysts point out that the urban electorate has evolved out of narrow race-based worries into a 1Malaysia entity with common social aspirations.
The reinstated Barisan Nasional government clearly had to restrategise its policies to keep ahead of changing forces in Malaysian democracy. The paradigm shift had been facilitated by Internet and social media; these are virtual soapboxes that enable like-minded people to find and share a common voice.
Many Web-savvy Malaysians abandoned mainstream media for independent websites and blogs for alternative views on Issues such as accountability, elitism and transparency, as well as lapses in public safety, education policy and religious freedom could be read and discussed with boldness – sometimes too bold, conservatives raged – that the traditional print media could not muster.
BN cobbled a plan of sorts to challenge ‘disinformation’ on the Web. One radio ad on a party-aligned radio station had a young man lamenting the difficulties for the Chinese to cari makan since Pakatan Rakyat took power in some states.
But they are so popular, replies a quizzical female voice. That’s because too many people believe things written on Internet, the guy retorts.
This claim is largely counter-intuitive: it is the mainstream media’s bias that has turned readers to alternative sources of information – and sometimes, potential “disinformation”, critics have pointed out.
The combination of top-down government and self-censoring media does not go down well with an informed electorate, especially among the much-touted young voters.
Crowds that thronged opposition ceramah underscored the reality that the rakyat want to hear all sides and make their own conclusions.
Despite sporadic reports of violence, Malaysians showed a new maturity in ignoring intimidation and fighting back instead through the ballot box.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak vowed to make Malaysia the world’s ‘best democracy’.
That is a stratospheric goal. Venezuela has that honour, bestowed by international polls observers, including former American president Jimmy Carter.
But, with the just-concluded polls, Malaysia has taken a bold step towards that ambition.