vote signFEBRUARY 2 — During the 13th general election five years ago, the prevailing sentiment (at least in the cities) was to vote for the Opposition that had then offered not only the promise of a new government, but more importantly, hope for a post-racial country as the Chinese and Malay-Muslim parties of DAP and PAS worked together.

Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) choice of candidates almost didn’t seem to matter and Malays and Chinese happily voted for the DAP and PAS respectively.  

Now in 2018, that hope has long dissipated, even though the new Opposition pact has rebranded itself the Alliance of Hope, and some do not feel that there is much difference between Pakatan Harapan (PH) and the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN). 

Such sentiments came out strongly in a storm of Facebook posts and tweets on the loose hashtag movement, #UndiRosak, which advocated spoiling one’s vote in the 14th general elections (GE14).

Part of the frustration that so-called “idealistic” millennials like me feel stems from the fact the Malaysia’s democracy is very young. We only just got rid of BN’s decades-long parliamentary supermajority 10 years ago.

The state governments of Selangor and Penang have been under a different administration — PKR and DAP — for only two terms, though in a normal democracy that sees the regular rotation of governments, two terms is probably enough and the administrations should switch again.

It is only now that we begin to see the flourishing of not just human rights organisations led by seasoned activists, but also budding civil society movements led by ordinary residents in Kuala Lumpur, like in Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Taman Desa, who are doing things like sit-in protests, petitions, and town hall meetings to advocate their interests.

Letter-writing campaigns to one’s representatives, for example, are extremely common in mature democracies like the United States, but they are practically unheard of here in Malaysia.

If we want better representatives in the coming election, we voters must work hard ourselves to demand quality candidates who will uphold our interests. We cannot just sit back and rant on Facebook, without personally contacting our candidates to tell them what policies we want them to make.

This is why BEBAS, a civil rights group I am a part of, recently launched a campaign called #CabarCalon.

The campaign aims to get voters to press their GE14 candidates to do three things: enact anti-discrimination legislation to prevent property owners and businesses from discriminating based on race, stop the use of taxpayers’ monies for religious purposes, and declare their assets before running for office.

It is a bottom-up approach. Rather than simply tell BN and PH, as large political entities, what kind of changes we want to see in the country, we aim to put pressure on individual candidates.

If Election 2013 was about voting along party lines, Election 2018 will be about candidates.

For too long, we have been content to either be pro-government or pro-Opposition, without bothering to personally tell our representatives what positions we want them to take on certain issues, or how to vote on certain Bills. 

So it is no surprise that political parties themselves — both BN and PH — practise centralised decision-making and forbid their elected representatives from voting against the party. We see this happening at the federal level in Parliament and at the state level in Penang.

This is partially our fault as voters because we failed to tell our candidates how to act. If we want our representatives to vote in Parliament or in the state legislative assembly based on our interests as constituents, which may sometimes clash with the state or federal government, then we need to constantly text, email, and write letters to them, or visit their office.

Then perhaps, we may see more robust democracy in Malaysia, where political parties are forced to seek support for Bills across the aisle because they cannot automatically expect votes from their own representatives, who may have a different stand due to their constituents’ wishes.

Petitioning our representatives starts with the election itself.

If we want our Member of Parliament or state assemblyman to truly represent us, then we must demand that candidates running for office state their position on issues we care about. Never mind if their party has a different stand or, most likely, no stand at all.

I did not bother talking to my Segambut candidates at all in the 2008 and 2013 general elections. I simply ticked my preferred party on the ballot paper. I will not do the same in GE14. 

This time, I will personally approach them and demand for their stand not just on anti-discrimination legislation, secularism, and asset declaration, but also on other issues that matter to me like a neighbourhood park in Taman Tun and reviving local council elections.

If candidates want our votes, they must be prepared to represent our interests. We have no use for party hacks who serve their party above voters.