Democracy

“I felt both intense hope and disappointment within the same breath”

July 17, 2018

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“I felt both intense hope and disappointment within the same breath”

Cerita Undi by Chong Su Li
Location : Malaysia

Twice I felt both intense hope and disappointment within the same breath. Once was when I walked during Bersih 3.0 on 28 April 2012, and subsequently during the recent general elections on 9 May 2018.

During Bersih 3.0, I still remember the heart-breaking disappointment I felt with the government when the riot police started deploying tear gas and water cannons onto the helpless crowd. We just wanted someone to listen to us. We gathered because we loved our country, because we wanted our nation to improve. Yet despite this discouragement, I also felt a tinge of exhilaration watching how rakyat of all ages, races and background came together for a common purpose. And the sheer number of people involved was just amazing. Experiencing fellow rakyat cum strangers helping one another during the chaos also resonated deeply with me. It struck me then that we could actually have a chance at changing the situation. To see thousands of people feeling the same way within the same space was truly an eye-opener.

However, in the years leading up to the 2018 elections, it was a struggle to maintain that same sense of optimism. Admittedly, anger and constant disappointment eventually gave way to a sense of hopelessness…that nothing we did would make a difference because the then government would always have the upper-hand with their dirty tricks and their corrupted dealings. But how wrong was I to not trust the determination of the rakyat, and to forget that the Opposition has had a few years since the previous elections to improve their outreach and strategy!

In the early morning of 9 May, my mom and I set out to a neighbourhood school to vote. I only spotted one man with slippers, while almost everyone else I saw wore close-toed shoes with the men mostly in long pants despite the terrible heat. This was probably no thanks to a baseless rumour circulating on social media about how one could be denied entry into the polling station without the ‘correct’ clothing. Malaysians are a determined lot, after all!

After casting our votes, we could only wait and hope for the best. And wait we did… until 5am of the following day! Everyone from my 70-year old parents to my brother who had to work the day after (his company gave a replacement in lieu of the public holiday) stayed up to watch the polling results unfold. With each announcement, we were either swearing at the chairman of the Elections Commission or jumping with joy at Pakatan Harapan’s wins. It was absolutely nerve-wracking as the thought that Barisan Nasional could still mess up the final tally with their cheating lingered in the back of our minds. The tortoise slow announcement of the results also didn’t exactly ease our fears. When the final result was announced, there was a sense of euphoria mixed with disbelief. My parents said they never thought that this day would come. That Barisan Nasional would fall so spectacularly. Or that Najib and his cronies could finally be removed despite the vote-buying and cheating. And I never thought I’d be glued to Astro Awani throughout the night (and many more days after). It was fascinating how this usually bland channel (or so I thought) provided such good critical coverage, discussing issues that would have been deemed too sensitive in the past for national television. Victory tasted especially sweet for me as I wasn’t expecting a landslide win, or even a win at all in this dirty election.

But that night, victory was also tinged with some fear: fear that either side could trigger riots because of the results. I work with a number of international schools, and even before the election day, there were already numerous calls enquiring about emergency procedures should there be riots. Some parents were also contemplating whether to have their children skip school because of this concern. One school representative was quite certain that rioting would happen because of what she had read on social media. A friend’s employer with certain high-level connections gave their staff a day off even before the elections concluded. On the home-front, my dad kept advising my brother to return home quickly after completing his PACA duties, whilst my mom made sure to stock up on groceries and essentials just in case. Gratefully, none of that fear came true. Perhaps we worried for nothing. Or perhaps there was some truth to the rumours. No matter, I am very proud of my fellow Malaysians, and of our leaders who did their best to ensure a peaceful transition.

10 May 2018. The first day of a new future. What an awesome day to be alive! Almost everyone I knew were excited and could not stop talking about the change and the potential for an improved Malaysia. It was also a wonderful breath of fresh air to hear race and religion being discussed so openly on television, in the newspapers, on social media, on the streets, in the coffee shops, etc. It’s almost as if we no longer needed to look over our shoulders and be fearful about what we say lest we get hauled up for sedition or be accused of defamation. Perhaps this will not last, or perhaps this is just a temporary elation. But dare I say, a new kind of democracy is in the works, one which embraces openness, debate and transparency?

I have but a simple hope for my country. That we acknowledge and take ownership of our shortfalls, fears and prejudices. That we do not shy away from difficult issues or tough questions where there are no easy solutions. And importantly, that we engage one another respectfully in meaningful discussions of the unfamiliar, and despite our differences find a way to work together to reform the country. No doubt, the rebuilding of Malaysia will not happen overnight, and we will make mistakes along the way. But first and foremost, our hearts have to be in the right place when we embark on this journey. Let’s not forget that we are all part of this beautifully diverse nation and are collectively responsible for its peace and future.

This brings to mind the song Sejahtera Malaysia. A song I never paid much attention to before but has never been more relevant in the age of a new Malaysia. The lyrics speak about what nationhood truly means- a call for the rakyat to unite in the face of challenges and act for the good of the country. Loving our country also means loving one another, warts and all, no matter how difficult the journey. Although it is now time to redefine the rules of engagement, it is also essential that our actions are guided by mutual respect, love and sincerity during this critical period. And perhaps only then will Malaysia rise again as a trailblazer among its Asian counterparts.

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