OCTOBER 27 — Our young prefer queues at newest bubble tea launches over polling booths?


If I had a class of undergraduate students, that would be the assignment.

Except it’s ineffectual beyond a classroom exercise since political science class students are self-selected. They like politics.


They are just (like the columnist) clueless about what matters truly to the average young voter, who make up the six million — mostly indifferent — mobilised to vote on November 19, 2022. We can guess what they fancy.

But this is not to chastise them. The fault is likely generational in nature.

The theory goes, a summation of online chatter into a framework, elections today by their organic manifestation are antithetical to the sense of “I’m ok today, but not tomorrow, so can we do this Thursday” which pervades the lives of young people.


That they decide at one time only, and unable to change their minds in the next instance and urged to choose in a formal, structured and time-tied process without the ease of an app is archaic and quite frankly, stupid. If we ask them.

They’d need a mocha frap with a walnut twist — I’m winging it here — to mull the proposition. Plus, one can like overpriced café drinks and fight for democracy between sips.

But do listen to an ancient story to shape that perspective. For pop-culture buffs, 1987 was also the year of Rick Astley.

They started the day free

On October 27, 1987, men and women were dragged out of their homes, forced into police vehicles and carted off to cells.

Over a hundred were detained. Details are sketchy, the Internet was not even a concept then, there were no timelines to check.

A backdated hashtag would read, #outofcirculation.

They had to be removed since they were threats to peace and harmony, according to the home minister. Incidentally, the minister was prime minister too and beneficiary of having all his critics wiped out from the political space in one go.

It set the tone for the amassment of powers under the prime minister’s department and tightened civil liberties to secure power for the man in charge.

Mahathir Mohamad became the leviathan, dominated every fabric of Malaysian life, culture and even our sense of pride. No prime minister since has exhibited such omnipotence. For those below 40, it is impossible to imagine the grip he had.

Those arrested and incarcerated for over a year, it is vital to note, never championed violence before Operasi Lalang — the exercise’s codename — or in the intervening years to the present. They were and still remain democrats.

However, that truth never tempted Mahathir to be circumspect, even apologetic, about the hundreds of families he hurt irrevocably for a fear never realised. Prompts hashtag #LetMahathirBeMahathir.

 For those below 40, it is impossible to imagine the grip Mahathir once had. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
For those below 40, it is impossible to imagine the grip Mahathir once had. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

As for the political prisoners themselves?

Those aligned to BN spent a short stint in, while those with DAP or PAS or left-leaning movements were consigned to a lengthy stay at Kamunting Prison, Perak. The only upshot, it built the bond which DAP and Amanah share today.

The politics of Lim Kit Siang or any number of them have irritated — the columnist not the least — but the whole idea of democracy is to have various actors with opposing views.

As long as they operate within the civility of the processes available, they can annoy who they wish and however long they wish. It never disappoints Kit Siang that no one ever quotes his books about Malaysia on the edge of tragedy perpetually.

Still, the country owes him and the rest an apology even if it is beyond Mahathir to countenance it.

Because they paid the price to champion democracy, they forfeited their liberty.

You are free for now

Which draws us back to the primary preoccupation on the anniversary, a general election 22 days away, one which our young have a first-time chance to affect in a huge way.

Determinations are made in the polling booth. Granted they should be far more frequent and at greater levels of administration, particularly local elections.

What about this poll and lessons from a democracy shutdown decades ago?

Time has passed. It’s a third of a century after Ops Lalang, the fear is only real for those who lived it, not those who’ve only seen the slideshows.

Further, a fractured political landscape alters equations and complicity. It’s harder to name the villains in today’s context.

In 1987, Perikatan Nasional leader and ex-PM Muhyiddin Yassin was Johor mentri besar and generally uninvolved with federal decisions. Unlike Pakatan Harapan’s boss Anwar Ibrahim who was education minister and primarily involved with the posting of controversial headmasters to Chinese schools which stoked the communal fires.

Ex-PM Najib Razak, then Umno Youth chief, fired up communal dissatisfaction among Malays at a Kampung Baru rally — his blueblood status probably negated his arrest even for a day when other Youth leaders under him were picked up.

Barisan Nasional chairman Zahid Hamidi was a special officer to Najib then, and an Anwar protégé. No doubt he was close to the action and certainly the hate spewed back then.

When we look back to 1987, so many were willing to compromise democratic principles and other people’s human dignity in order to preserve power for themselves.

This is the lesson for the young today. Democracy requires permanent vigilance. Ops Lalang cautions the young about those who pretend to be democrats to pull in votes. Do not be fooled, spend some time to learn about them. The past is a great teacher.

It is not fair but those who decide today must realise our freedoms are at stake here.

The powers of Malaysian PMs are vast and the country can quickly descend into autocracy, when voters care not to choose better.

Our institutions will grow but for now they are vulnerable to executive decrees. Which is why the next two elections will decide the tone of our democracy, whether Malaysia promotes itself to become a mature democracy or slips.

Perhaps it's near impossible to compare candidates. The Ops Lalang lens offers one filter, decide among the candidates who is a better democracy champion. There are far worse ways to select the candidate to vote for.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.