Coming home to #MalaysiaBaru

JUNE 15 — When I touched down in my home country after spending seven weeks abroad (and missing the greatest historic event since Merdeka), I found that Malaysians still did not know how to queue up at washrooms, even though there was a large sign at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport toilet saying, “Queue starts here.”

But I suppose a change of government isn’t necessarily followed by a change in etiquette. We don’t need the government to tell us how to queue up at toilets; we can improve civic consciousness ourselves.

However, I was amazed to see Malaysians’ self-agency grow in leaps and bounds in other areas, notably in governance, after the 14th general election.

Although there were some who called for patience and urged citizens to “let” the new Pakatan Harapan federal government do their work in peace, the majority loudly demanded for their interests to be upheld.

Many contrarian opinions were expressed on various issues, with some for or against the appointment of certain ministers and heads of institutions, the cancellation of major transport projects, reviving local council elections etc.

In a democracy, contrarian positions in the citizenry are expected. It is up to lawmakers to decide whose interests they should uphold and how to explain to other Malaysians why they made those decisions.

Malaysia is now delightfully noisy, messy, and demanding; the key features of a living, thriving and vibrant democracy. No longer do we sit back apathetically and let politicians do as they please.

Now, we talk about how exactly we want the government to run the country, since they are in a position of power only because we chose to put them there.

The next step for us Malaysians is to move from merely posting opinions on Facebook, to personally contacting our Member of Parliament or state assemblyman to make laws and policies in our favour.

It is also a pleasure to see citizens talking openly about so-called “sensitive” topics.

Unelected people, no matter how high-ranking or respectable they are, should have absolutely no role in the administration of a democratic country because if they make wrong decisions that affect the people, they cannot be held accountable for it.

As we do not currently elect our prime minister or our mentri besar/chief ministers, these appointments (as well as appointments of other top civil servants) must be made only by the party (or coalition) we elected, not to have them subject to the whim and fancy of an unelected person.

It would be even more democratic if such appointees had to undergo a public hearing to prove their credentials for the job. This will ensure that federal ministers and state executive councillors are appointed based on merit, not on party seniority or as a political reward.

When I reached home, people told me courageous stories about how they pursued top public officials who refused to heed their concerns on local issues affecting their neighbourhood. My mother talked about how her friends who volunteered as polling and counting agents in Raub, Pahang, steadfastly held their ground when the Election Commission refused to sign off on the election results. My partner told me how he and other Malaysians gathered outside the palace the night Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as prime minister.

It only made my absence from the historic 2018 election all the more bittersweet.

I would have loved voting and covering the election as a journalist, but when I applied for the United State’s Department of State’s Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) professional fellowship in November 2017, I had expected the election to be held in March, before the start of the programme.

When I was notified in February that I had won a place in the highly competitive programme, I had to decide right then and there whether to take it up and be in the US from April 21 to June 2 (the election date still had not been announced back then).

After weighing the pros and cons, I decided to take the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and join the YSEALI programme. I thought that then-Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak might hold the election only in August, like what he did with the last-minute GE13.

And I figured that in the event I missed the election, the best practices in community organising and democracy I would learn in the US could help me mobilise fellow Malaysians to better improve governance under the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN). I didn’t expect BN to lose power.

I also knew that DAP would win Segambut by a landslide, even if I did choose to endorse their rival BN for my constituency. I endorsed BN for Segambut because I thought that voters could seize the opportunity in the election to force the candidate in a Pakatan stronghold to uphold their interests in local issues, in light of the expectation that BN would once again win federal government. No matter how good an Opposition MP is in Kuala Lumpur, they would have been powerless under a BN federal government.

Voters in Kuala Lumpur are disenfranchised as the city is run by the federal government elected by almost 15 million voters throughout the country, instead of by a city council elected by 849,390 voters from the capital city. Kuala Lumpur residents should start a “no taxation without representation” campaign.

I did try to somewhat make up for my absence by buying a flight ticket for a student to return home to Rembau, Negri Sembilan, to vote, though I suppose you can’t offset your civic responsibility to someone else.

Amid the heartwarming stories I heard about the election, I was also surprised to hear that many middle-class people fled the country immediately after casting their vote.

Surely there was no reason to doubt that citizens of all races would keep calm and facilitate a peaceful transition of power to the new government that they themselves had voted in.

We should not be afraid of our fellow Malaysians.

After the 2018 election — when we changed an autocratic government for the first time in history peacefully, without the bloodshed that had accompanied the fight against dictatorial regimes in many other countries — we should put our fears of “the other” at rest.

This is Malaysia. We are one country and one people.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.