Anatomy of election candidature, Pt 2

Sim Kwang Yang | Jan 19, 08

An electoral contest in any constituency during a general election can be a horrendous pressure-cooker for those directly involved in it.
For the candidate, he stands at the forefront of this gargantuan conflict as his party standard bearer. His face stares from countless posters all over the neighbourhood. He is subject to minute scrutiny by thousands of voters like a piece of prime beef on the market shelf. Compulsive punters bet on him as if he is a race horse or a fighting cock. Gossipers go though his past personal and professional life on the grapevine.
The candidate’s campaign team would naturally try to create an ideal public profile of a man of the people, a haughty image that few mortal fallible human beings can live up to. But in politics, perception is everything, and who cares about the reality. Naturally, the candidate will be paraded at centre stage, very much under public gaze in the limelight. His every word and every action is scrutinised with an electron microscope. He commits a small mistake, and the whole campaign may collapse overnight.
For the poor candidate, going through hourly emotional roller-coasters and suffering extreme physical fatigue can test his strength of character to its limits.
For those candidates from the ruling Barisan Nasional, at least they can rely on the support of the national and local party machinery. He may be a greenhorn to the scene, but his entire campaign has been minutely planned and executed from the very start by a team of very professional and experienced and seasoned old dogs in the business of winning votes. They certainly know every dirty trick in the book, and some more dirtier ones outside the book.
The BN candidate does not have to worry about training party workers, finding the hefty deposit or the massive campaign funds, designing, printing and hanging the thousands of posters. In fact, he is not expected to do anything except pounding the pavement from dawn till dusk, and shaking as many hands as he can with an artificial smile frozen solid on his face throughout the entire campaign period.
Different camps, different encounters
Wherever the candidate goes during his walkabout in the constituency, he is assured of a sizeable entourage usually made up of party faithful and local supporters with some social standing and political influence. The walkabout may look like a casual spontaneous affair to the uninitiated, but every move and every phrase has been planned and rehearsed beforehand.
In cities and towns, visiting voters on the street is relatively easy. Canvassing for votes in the numerous housing estates and flats is quite a different matter. In the day time, most adult voters are out working. The candidate will be greeted by many locked gates and fierce barking dogs. Here, we find the first clue to the requirement for a person to be qualified as a candidate – he or she must not be afraid of large vicious guard dogs.
(Throughout my eight campaigns as a candidate, I have not been bitten once. The campaign trail is the best training ground for dealing with hostile hyperactive snarling dogs.)
The night is too dark for visiting voters in their homes. Again the candidate has to be paraded though the evening programmes prepared by his staffers, attending dinners, gatherings, or meet-the-people- sessions called ceramah.
Naturally, as a BN candidate, he will have no problem getting a police permit. His party is in power, and so his gatherings can be held in the name of government or civic official functions. Why, he does not need to speak much even, since his election machinery can marshal sufficient party and community leaders to talk their party talk, shout familiar slogans, and praise their candidate to no end.
On the other side of the fence, an opposition or an independent candidate has to confront a different type of electoral universe.
Long serving and experienced opposition politicians probably has accumulated enough organisation and resources of all sorts within his constituency to fight en election battle without much effort. Take the MP for Cheras Cliff Tan for instance. He has worked daily in his constituency for many long years, and should be considered as a personal friend by many of his fans. If getting elected is your aim, then Cliff Tan is a perfect role model.
For debutants, green-horns, and first-timers on the opposition side, the first battle is nothing less than a nightmare come true. This is particularly true for those sent to contest in an unfamiliar seat far away from where they grow up or where they work.
From the moment the candidature is announced, the rookie candidate lives through a misty surreal experience. He is bombarded with advice from all kinds of Tom, Dick, and Harry. He has very little control over the way his campaign is run. He is pulled in many directions. He is asked to be what he is not, like being a friend to everybody, and greeting complete strangers like old neighbours. To his horror, he discovers that making false public promises to the electorate is a virtue!
The opposition rookie candidate may also discover a few truths about life’s more important relationships. Friends, relatives, old schoolmates may actually try to avoid any contact with him in public places. Strangers embrace him like a long-lost brother. He is taught to keep his feelings to himself. A candidate does not have the luxury of choosing his supporters. Gangsters, pimps, drug addicts, conmen, and prostitutes are all treated with warmth, as long as they have a vote to cast.
I have seen many rookie candidates trembling inside with fear and nervousness in the nomination centre. I have seen them completely bewildered and directionless throughout the campaign. Being a candidate is an extremely unnatural state of existence for any ordinary citizens. The extrovert will have great advantage over the introvert. On the other hand, I have seen many a first-time introverted candidate transformed into an extrovert in a matter of weeks.
In short, in the process of an election campaign, a candidate is asked to create and wear a tailor-made mask in public. Given the sewer politics that pervades democracy in Malaysia, this can be quite a polluting experience for the candidate.
Again, we discover another pre-requisite for any election candidate. He must be ready to rape his soul everyday for an intense though short period. If he is unfortunate to get elected and become a full-fledge YB, then the raping of his soul will go on much longer.
For the opposition rookie though, the biggest obstacle is still getting enough campaign funds.
Rich people seldom get involved in opposition politics in the forefront. If you are up to your neck in big business, becoming an opposition candidate can be unhealthy for your financial health for the rest of your life.
That is partly why professionals like doctors and lawyers are so welcome by the opposition camp. They are financially independent, and do not burden the party with endless demand for election deposit and campaign funds. Besides, many voters think that professionals make better politicians, a superstition which is not always true.
Electoral aftermath
Otherwise, an opposition candidate tends to come from the middle-class, making a living as a small businessman, or a salaried worker. That is no great disadvantage, because at least he has grassroots credentials. But he is not likely to be able to shoulder the terrible burden of finding the unimaginable campaign funds.
Some of my political friends from various camps have since gone bankrupt, including the very one who defeated me in Bandar Kuching. Political pundits, commentators and writers have no idea of how big money can be thrown into an election campaign.
Once I had persuaded a Melanau person to contest as my party candidate in a rural riverine constituency along the Great Rejang where the Melanau people formed the majority of the electorate. A few days into the campaign, he had fled his home constituency to Sibu town nearby. His self-appointed workers had come to his house demanding to be paid. When they could not find him at home, they simply carted off most of his furniture!
Looking back, I have discovered for myself that contesting elections as a candidate is one of the most unpalatable things in life. It is even more unpleasant if you are a so-called party leader, and have some say over who should be the candidate. You get to see enough ugliness to last a few lifetimes.
Nevertheless, now that the general election is an immediate certainty, numerous men and women are caught up with this fever vying to be a candidate. They would be furious if their design is foiled. No amount of wisdom after the event on my part will dissuade them from this exercise.
You have to ask why they are so obsessed with this unsavoury task.
So why do people fight so hard for election candidature?