FEBRUARY 23 – My uncle Boo Soon Yew is a model citizen.
He is a Penangite who informs the authorities weekly about potholes, broken drain covers, broken streetlamps and even fallen trees by emailing and calling the local council’s hotline, and by participating in a WhatsApp group for volunteers helping out the Works Ministry.
He has also contacted other agencies like the Penang Water Supply Corporation, the federal Department of Irrigation and Drainage, and even the Defence Ministry to complain about leaking water pipes, monsoon drains that lack safety railings, and stagnant drain water in an army camp.
He seldom contacts state assemblymen or Members of Parliament to deal with these local issues, although he says that because many are his Facebook friends, they will tag their personal assistants or local councillors to follow up whenever he posts about a situation related to their constituency.
My uncle has gotten so efficient that he says other people sometimes end up telling him their complaints in the hope that he will follow up on their behalf.
As the 14th general election draws near, it bears repeating that democracy is more than voting for your assemblyperson or Member of Parliament once every five years. (Local council elections should also be returned to hold our mayor and local councillors accountable for the way they run our towns and cities).
Like what my uncle does on a weekly basis, democracy is sometimes really just about the tedious work of regularly calling and emailing your local councils, state assemblyperson, and Member of Parliament about various issues – whether it is a broken streetlamp, or state or federal laws you disagree with.
We must stop complaining about the government and the Prime Minister on Facebook without doing anything further to ensure that our concerns are heard directly by specific people in power who have the ability to take action. The PM isn’t twiddling his thumbs and scrolling through Facebook mindlessly for hours, looking at your rants.
Facebook is not a replacement for democracy.
If, for example, you want Chinese schools to be integrated into the national school system for the sake of unity, you should contact your Member of Parliament since education is under federal jurisdiction. You could also write a letter to the Prime Minister since it is a rather big and contentious issue. Writing to the PM, beyond tagging him on Facebook or Twitter (his social media accounts are probably managed by administrators most of the time), shows that your complaint is serious.
The same goes for other issues. If you are concerned about overdevelopment in your neighbourhood, complain to your local council. If you want moral policing to stop, contact your state religious department and tell them to focus on other things. Write to your state assemblyperson and Chief Minister, since religion is under state jurisdiction, and ask them to allocate less funds to the religious department.
Then there is also the tabling of laws in Parliament and state legislative assemblies that most of us are generally unaware of, unless they are controversial ones like the National Security Council Act, PAS’ hudud Bill, or a Bill to ban the unilateral conversion of children to Islam.
Even on those issues, we shouldn’t just post our opinions on Facebook. We should pick up the phone and tell our Member of Parliament how we want them to vote. That is what we elected them for – to represent our stand on all issues.
Whether they’re MPs from the government or Opposition is beside the point. The point is to make your own representative represent you. As much as political parties across the divide like to impose a party line in Parliament and in the state legislative assembly, MPs and state assemblymen will be terrified of losing their seat if enough constituents call them up to demand that they take a certain stand on a Bill.
Even the ruling party may not force all its representatives to toe the party line if the latter are scared of upsetting their constituents.
Besides all these things that should be done by the individual voter in an ordinary democracy, sometimes mobilising communities is also necessary to demand for change, especially when the status quo is heavily entrenched, such as demanding for local council elections or for a law against sexual harassment.
In such instances, even more work needs to be done to gather like-minded people to put pressure on those in power. Even if many ordinary citizens support your agenda, not everyone will do the work, either because they are afraid of taking a public stand or simply because they are lazy. Then there are also interpersonal conflicts among people who may have common objectives, but different strategies of achieving those goals.
In short, democracy is work. A lot of work. And at the end of each term, we judge the performance of our elected representatives, state and federal governments through the ballot box.
Then we start the process all over again with our newly elected representatives and governments.
Democracy may seem like drudgery, but it is necessary to do the work if we really want a government of the people, by the people, for the people.