A revolution through the ballot box

Ambiga Sreenevasan For Malay Mail
SPR officers are seen preparing the ballot boxes ahead of polling day in Puchong on May 8, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, May 17 — Bentong would ordinarily have been a 45 minute drive from Kuala Lumpur, one hour at the most. That evening, it took four hours just to get to Bentong’s outskirts.

It was the night before the elections. The 8th of May. The cars were bumper to bumper on the Karak Highway, all the way from Kuala Lumpur. Something serious was going on. Something the ruling party had apparently failed to detect despite all their fancy polls and sophisticated intel. 

At precisely 10pm the rakyat tuned in to listen to the address of the 92-year-old man who had tirelessly worked his way back into the hearts and minds of the people. The man who would be our prime minister.  Only, we did not know it for sure then. How could we, when the Election Commission (EC) had done its best to stack the cards against voters who wanted change.

Don’t forget, we were (amongst other things) up against the lopsided redelineation report which was rushed through Parliament on the eve of elections, the electoral roll that was ridden with dubious voters, the fixing of a mid-week voting day, the EC’s bias in favour of the (then) ruling party, the imposition of new rules at the last minute and the delay of sending postal votes to overseas voters.

On voting day, we saw the unreasonable delays at the polling stations that resulted in many voters who had been queuing for hours, being turned away and thus disenfranchised through no fault of theirs.

It all seemed insurmountable.

Malaysians helping Malaysians

The EC had angered the public by fixing polling day on a Wednesday, which would undoubtedly inconvenience voters. The theory, I believe, was that a low voter turnout would benefit the Barisan Nasional (BN).

However, they never anticipated the backlash from the public.

Furthermore, Malaysians sprang into action and rallied together to help their fellow Malaysians travel home to vote. Very quickly, #undirabu and #PulangMengundi, and other groups, mushroomed spontaneously to bring Malaysians home to vote. These efforts turned into a movement of its own; not just to vote but to resist the infringement of voter’s rights.

Overseas, Malaysians searched for passengers at airports to carry their votes back to Malaysia. Global Bersih and others arranged and paid for “runners” to collect and fly votes home.

Malaysians, volunteered in unprecedented numbers to be polling and counting agents [PACA] so as to ensure a clean counting process. They spent invaluable time being trained by people who were spending their invaluable time doing so.  All to serve the nation and the voters.

The EC had certainly succeeded in uniting Malaysians….  against them.

The result

As we can all remember, the results were delayed interminably on election night and this was the first indication that history had been made at the ballot box that day.

The obvious concern was that there would be a manipulation of the results. But in truth there was very little that could be done because the number of votes in favour of Pakatan Harapan (PH) were overwhelming. Had it been close, the story may have ended differently. This is where the nation owes a debt to the rakyat. No trouble anywhere, no unpleasant incidents. Just a quiet, dignified but defining revolution at the ballot box which no one would ever dare to defy.

Malaysia has now set the gold standard in South-east Asia for bringing change peacefully even through a flawed process.

On May 9, 2018, the earth moved in Malaysia. A democracy was reborn. The people not only regained power that is rightfully theirs, they had together, restored the soul and moral compass of the nation.

The new pro-people government has their work cut out for them. They do it knowing that we have the power to bring change again if necessary. We are watching and they know they are accountable to us. Thus far, they are keeping all their promises; and the excitement and joy of the people is palpable as they await announcements from the government every day.  The constant engagement with the people by the Prime Minister is welcome and vital.  It is like being a passenger on a bumpy flight.  The cool, calm and confident voice of the pilot is reassuring.

We are experiencing new things every day. The media beholden to the then-government of the day are now reporting extensively on PH and the government. There are more critical analyses. Even a mention of “Bersih” over the airwaves is permissible. What a sea change! 

The gloom has been lifted. The sky is so much clearer. And the reality that we now wake up every day to a free nation is slowly sinking in.

*Reform icon Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan is former president of the Malaysian Bar, former co-chair of Bersih, the coalition of NGOs advocating for free and fair elections. She is now a member of the Institutional Reforms Committee in the first-ever Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration.