Welcome to the future

“SO, HAVE you made up your mind?” I asked this question to my 54-year-old friend who was voting for the first time. 

He was excited to exercise his one shot at having a say in our country’s future leaders, but having no experience, he had been asking a lot of questions on how to decide. 

As recently as Monday, his interest was focused not on PH, PN, BN but on PUR. 

“What is PUR?” I asked. 

“Its the Parti Utama Rakyat, I think they’re great because they want to put the rakyat first before anything, which is what I like,” he said. 

Since he found out that he had been automatically registered to vote, and having no clue how to decide where his “X” would go, my friend had been diligently trying to make up his mind in a campaign period where parties say one thing at breakfast and another thing at lunch, only to be contradicted by a member of their own coalition by tea. 

We had gone through the basics, making sense of all the coalitions and implications — “what if I like one party but cannot stand the other parties in the same coalition?”, “Why are all the flags the same colour?”, etc — and he has more or less decided to vote, in his words, “for the lesser evil”, but some last-minute developments resulted in a midnight call to me. 

“I have questions,” he said. 

In the final hours of campaigning for the 15th General Election, what decorum there had been since this ill-timed polls were called a month ago has been thrown out of the window. 

A clear indication that we are in unchartered waters as far as the outcome is concerned. 

After a confusing two weeks of campaigning, voters who were still undecided or never voted before have been treated to conflicting messages from candidates. 

For these voters who have painstakingly tried to figure out who has a prenuptial agreement with whom, having sifted through election promises, the true colours of the candidates are beginning to 

come out as some candidates get down on the slippery slope of playing to our prejudices. 

Of course, some parties have never truly been able to cover up their weaknesses and had blithely played on racial and religious cards since Day One, but it was a surprise that candidates who had never touched on these subjects suddenly becoming righteous sword-waving crusaders overnight. 

If you believe the leading indicators, no one has a clear run at collecting the magic number of 122 seats in Parliament and no one will be able to form a government on their own come Sunday.

This is the tightest race since Independence and the desperation is showing for some candidates and prime minister (PM) aspirants. Even the pre-election coalitions will need to form coalitions, it was predicted.

A warning from a former PM, who has never been known to be forceful during his short time being one, connecting the Opposition with Christian and Jewish agenda caught the country by surprise last Thursday. 

Though seen as a sign of a last-ditch effort to gain momentum, the former PM’s strategy is not surprising since elections have been won and lost on last-minute messaging. We remember Semangat 46’s total unravelling in the 1990 General Election (GE) after its president were shown wearing Kadazan headgear that was adorned with what looked like a crucifix. 

When you get to an age to remember that, you have seen things in your life and are set in your ways, so this stunt for votes will fall on hard ground, we’re not buying it. 

But for a large proportion of new voters, last-minute issues such as this will have an impact. 

For the most part, this campaign has been fought and lost in an era of short attention span to an audience of headline readers. Fact-checkers are around but, lacking the appeal of TikTok skits and garish headlines on Twitter, they are largely ineffective in countering knee-jerk reactions to hot topics. WhatsApp has more sway than television news, which unfortunately has largely gone true to form to bat in favour of one side, again. 

With all that said, the 15th GE is an election this country has never seen before, where people are more ready to express their will and this will no doubt carry on to the next big election. 

This is a good sign for the future even if we will blow through a few more governments before the next election. “Anything else? I’m so ready for bed,” I asked my friend. 

“Uhmmm yes,” he said. “Will I get infected from the election indelible ink?” 

ZB Othman is an editor at The Malaysian Reserve.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition