Cameron HighlandsJanuary 28 – The most basic thing a voter can do is vote.

If a voter dislikes all candidates in a race, she may abstain from voting. Even if she prefers one over the others, she may still choose to skip the ballot box if she doesn’t like the candidate or party enough to sacrifice her time, leave the comfort of her house, and vote.

In the Cameron Highlands by-election, almost seven out of 10 voters cared enough to go out and vote, with the majority supporting Barisan Nasional (BN). The 69 per cent voter turnout in the race was the highest since the 14th general election.

Voter turnout for the Port Dickson by-election in comparison was only 58 per cent, even though the race featured Prime Minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Port Dickson was nearer than Cameron Highlands for outstation voters living in the Klang Valley.

Earlier by-elections had poorer voter turnouts, such as Sungai Kandis (50 per cent), Seri Setia (44 per cent), and Balakong (43 per cent).

BN won the Cameron Highlands by-election, which PAS skipped, with 54.73 per cent of the vote, almost the same vote share as BN and PAS combined (55.23 per cent) during the 14th general election.

Analysts and Pakatan Harapan (PH) supporters use this to justify the ruling coalition’s poor performance in the recent Cameron Highlands race. But they are missing the point.

PH won Port Dickson, Sungai Kandis, and Seri Setia easily even though Umno and PAS had similarly cooperated in those races by fielding a candidate from either party. What changed in Cameron Highlands?

Why did Cameron Highlands voters like BN enough to go to the ballot box in droves to vote for them?

This wasn’t a case of voter apathy, unlike in previous races where PH supporters did not bother coming out strongly enough to vote for the ruling coalition, or even for the PM-in-waiting.

Voters came out strong for BN even though PH threw everything they had at Cameron Highlands, as federal ministers and even the prime minister took time off on taxpayers’ dime to participate in the campaign instead of doing their jobs. Surely local leaders can handle minor elections on their own.

It is BN’s ability to get out the vote that should scare PH more than anything else. Voters liked BN enough to endure “roti canai” roads and to spend precious time away from their paycheck-to-paycheck jobs just to vote for them.

Despite explicit and implicit threats from PH leaders, these rural voters dared to risk losing government aid by voting Opposition, a rare occurrence in Malaysian politics where votes in villages have always been tied to development.

There are many lessons for PH to learn from the Cameron Highlands race. But moving further to the right and making more racial and socially conservative policies is not one of them.

PH will never be able to compete with Umno and PAS in the racism game. And the further right PH goes, the more they will alienate their supporters, who already showed their apathy in previous by-elections.

Creating pale imitations of Umno and PAS in PH (and by “pale” I mean less conservative) will never win the battle of who is more Malay or Muslim than the other.

Exclusive political parties which deny equal membership privileges to people of a certain ethnicity or faith have no place in 2019. They are abhorrent.

The better solution is to simply avoid playing the game of race and religion altogether. Play the game on your own terms.

Dare to govern for Malaysians as a whole instead of differentiating us based on our skin colour or beliefs. Differentiation equals discrimination.

PH would do well to temper their arrogance after the Cameron Highlands race. Instead of boasting about things like giving security forces “freedom” to vote Opposition, the government should talk about how they’re improving our lives. Letting the police vote for whoever they want is a basic facet of democracy that shouldn’t be considered an achievement.  

The main reason why our democracy is in such a bad state is because our parents’ and grandparents’ generations continuously voted for the same party for 60 years instead of kicking BN out two terms after Merdeka in 1957.

Instead of using basic democratic practices to show their moral superiority to BN, PH should just work on fixing the economy and avoid doing the same things that they previously criticised BN for. Consult people and actually listen to them before making policies. Implementing a few more election promises would be nice too.

It’s a different world now. Don’t expect us to be grateful just because you did your job.

Our parents and grandparents may have worshiped BN and made the coalition drunk on power by electing them 13 times in a row.

But this is 2019. The standards are much higher. If some politicians feel that that’s unfair, then they can just choose not to run in the next election.