KUALA LUMPUR, March 2 — It is safe to say that we Malaysians are a vocal lot when it comes to politics (just check social media!) and during the general elections, many take the trouble to vote. Even if they are living far from where they are registered.
But does our involvement in how we want the country to be run stop there? Do we actively reach out to our MPs on proposed public policy issues like Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang's proposed private member's Bill — better known by its Malay abbreviation RUU 355 — to enhance the power of the Shariah courts?
Are their views on national issues representative of ours? Do we even know or care?
Malay Mail Online reached out to lawmakers, activists and ordinary Malaysians to find out more.
Voters’ sentiment is 'seasonal'
Klang MP Charles Santiago believes that the interest of Malaysian voters is "seasonal" in nature, and based on his personal experience, many constituents often pick and choose what issues they feel are important.
The two-term federal lawmaker said response to forums and talks on important public policy issues has been varied.
"It all depends on people's perception on how much they can influence policy making. For the national Budget allocation, people don't feel their voice can travel to the prime minister's office and therefore don't bother to attend or take part in any discussions," he said.
However, voters in his constituency were much more interested in finding out more about the GST and Hadi's Shariah Bill.
"When you have RUU 355 when it might affect the practice of their beliefs, then people take it more seriously. In general, the level of awareness on political rights, people's participation it is lacking quite a bit here in Malaysia."
The DAP leader explained that many voters were comfortable with the idea of someone else making sure that their rights are being heard.
He added that many constituents were unaware about the role of an MP, and often sought his help in issues like drain blockages which come under the local council.
"Some people think that I run the local council, even though I tell them I have nothing to do with it," Santiago said.
Kelana Jaya MP Wong Chen is in the same predicament. "MPs have two primary duties; focusing on laws and policies, and monitoring government budget. Because the voters don't understand the real roles of MPs, they don't ask them the right and tough questions," he said.
Wong said his service centre used to conduct three town hall meetings a year after each parliamentary session but stopped doing so in 2016 due to poor attendance. Fewer than 100 people showed up.
"It was just not cost effective since we have to rent a hall, chairs and sound systems. So in 2016, we started our weekly 'Monday Night Chat' program on Facebook where we can reach a much wider audience on policy matters for a fraction of the cost," the PKR leader said.
At the same time, he publishes policy papers on a regular basis via his website, Facebook page and also WhatsApp.
MCA leader Datuk Seri Ti Lian Ker felt that lawmakers are also to be blamed for the lack of engagement with voters, claiming that many of them shirk their duties unless there is a "high-profile" issue.
"There's a lack of sincerity and engagement with electorates but they manage to get away with this as our electorate are also not critical of their elected representatives. Mostly voted along party, racial or religious lines.”
Lack of interest and knowledge
A general lack of interest when it comes to national-level issues may also explain why some voters do not participate in any discussions or seek out their lawmakers on policy matters, according to former Suara Rakyat Malaysia Penang co-ordinator Ong Jing Cheng.
Ong, who is currently a Seberang Perai Municipal Council councillor, said Suaram tried to organise a watchdog movement called "Pemantau DUN" to get people to attend state legislative assemblies and scrutinise the performance of their lawmakers but it fizzled out because of poor response.
"The lack of interest here could be due to several reasons, one is they are not used to the current semi-democratic system, not used to voicing out about policies and demanding for changes.
"Another could be the fact that they are unaware that they can do this, and some still think the assemblymen and MPs are there to resolve local council issues only," Ong said, but added that there have been some positive changes on the local council level where some constituents have started asking about policy issues.
Aliran Penang president Dr Prema Devaraj believes that Malaysians can be a lot more engaged provided there is sufficient political education and awareness which encourages an understanding of how policies affect the lives of people, as well as the importance of having opinions and speaking out on issues.
"To encourage more active participation of people there needs to be a culture of encouragement of critical thinking and questioning, promotion of debate and discussion on policies, and an active inclusion of people and their opinions on these policies.
"People need to be given avenues to speak out and their feedback taken seriously. As part of good governance, people’s participation and inclusion must be actively encouraged," she said.
Some feel that the apathy is symptomatic of a bigger issue at hand; that the current political environment is not conducive for public discourse or debate.
"Malaysians are effectively cut off from public policy-shaping and decision-making at all levels of government. Much government information is shrouded in secrecy, tucked away under the Official Secrets Act rendering town hall meetings not very meaningful,” Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism founding director Cynthia Gabriel said.
The activist said it would be unfair to simply blame Malaysians for being apathetic without first understanding the culture of fear which been the norm for decades.
"Mindset is cultivated by the current system where you have local elections abolished. So the citizens turn to their elected representatives to solve day-to-day needs while sitting out bigger policy issues as they don't have a culture of transparency and accountability where they can access information, get motivated to participate in town halls," she added.
What some Malaysians say
Mak Khuin Weng, 41, writer: "Apathy is normal because our society is used to being told what to believe through propaganda. Independent thought, scrutiny of facts and research is needed to care about issues (or to not be apathetic). Few people have the time or care to do it.
“People tend to gather in social groups that are agreeable and shun those who disagree with their point of view, making discourse difficult and prevents people from caring beyond what their social groups agree upon."
Mak, who was one of the Petaling Jaya residents behind Say No to Kidex (SNTK), a residents’ group opposing the construction of the Kinrara-Damansara Expressway (Kidex) said that voters would only care about an issue if they are directly affected, like in the case of Kidex.
He recounted the challenges SNTK faced in trying to gain access to information regarding the highway project as well as mobilising residents to commit to the movement in the long haul.
"In order to co-ordinate and act on all this, SNTK had to meet at least once a week to discuss and plan the campaign. Our weekly meetings happened over an entire year, with some residents joining the group while others left depending on availability and personal commitments. It was stressful on the group because we were burning midnight oil to get things done sometimes," he explained.
Jimmy, 40, foot reflexologist: "The coming election, there will be fewer people coming out. There is a sense of no matter what we do, situation be the same." (He was asked whether Malaysian voters were apathetic in practising their democratic rights.)
Jimmy expressed surprise when he was told that MPs can affect changes in government policy via debates in Parliament.
"Not many know what our MPs debate in Parliament. MP debate can change policy? Normally what we know is that if Adun (state assemblymen) can't help us, we go see MP."
Mark Jones, 50, self employed: "I find that most voters in Malaysia practise the herd mentality, that is, the follow the main crowd as long as it doesn't go too far. Everyone wants change but few are really willing to sacrifice all to see the change all the way through!"
Joe Sidek, 58, director: "I think the situation is so much better since the public has taken much more of an interest in issues. I believe there has been a lot more effort in having town hall meetings for dialogue than what I remember from the past."
M.Marimuthu, 45, estate worker: Marimuthu did not know who his state assemblyman or MP is or how to reach out to them. "I don't know who my Adun (state lawmaker) is, but some neighbours do know who they are."