Anatomy of election candidature, Pt 3

Sim Kwang Yang | Jan 26, 08

On the eve of a general election, one of the hottest topics in the Chinese media is who would contest in which constituency and why.
Both the ruling and the opposition parties have already declared publicly that voters can expect to see many new faces in their candidate line-up this time around. They have also made the recruitment of young and new talents into media events.
There was a time when party leaders were truly confident of their political appeal. They used to say that if you hang a party symbol around the neck of a cow, the cow would also win hands down. It was partly true, because many of our elected representatives have no greater political standard than that of a cow!
Nowadays, voters are generally better educated, and demand more from their candidates than what a cow can offer. Therefore, political parties try to parade their new candidates who already enjoy some kind of reputation in the public domain. The MCA has captured a popular Chinese media personality, a former member of an over-touted university debating team. The DAP has a famous blogger and a former corporate success story. The PKR certainly has no shortage of young eager professionals rearing for a hearty electoral battle.
In a keenly contested electoral battle, both contesting parties will milk every advantage available to them. The personal reputation and the superior qualification of the candidate is indeed a huge asset in the publicity warfare before and during the actual campaign.
In any case, a political party will need to scout for promising new talents to replace the old tired faces in their rank and file, or else die a natural death.
Very territorial
The problem is this: having recruited these relatively well-known personalities in the community, where are they going to contest?
All the safe seats are already long held by seasoned established political leaders, some of national standing. Politicians are usually very territorial about their constituencies. They take years and even decades to cultivate their constituencies, establishing community linkage with local civic, social, and religious organisations. Consciously and unconsciously, they tend to claim their constituencies theirs by right.
The new talents will have no choice but cast their eyes on seats that are not so safe, risking the chance of being defeated. This is the right of passage that aspiring politicians have to pay. Even then, there are problems.
The appointment of candidates is one of the most powerful patronages in the hands of political bosses. In the case of opposition parties, it is the only patronage that matters in securing internal support.
In the mind of those sitting at the apex of our political eco-system, the electoral map of Malaysia is like a giant chess-board. The candidates are but mere chess pieces, to be moved, sacrificed, or promoted according to a gambit that will hopefully deliver a checkmate on polling day.
In these tense hours when tense politicians wait anxiously for the nomination and polling dates to be announced, all the political bosses will be buried in numerous conferences with their advisors and confidants, employing all that they learn from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, on how to deliver their Coup de grace to their opponents in one fell sweep. They like to think that whatever difficult decision they make about candidature, it is with the interest of their political party at heart.
But all these political parties are eternally caught in vicious long standing internal fissions. The juggling act of the political bosses may often be foiled by local resistance decisions made in Kuala Lumpur Headquarters. This is the favourite media material for an interesting story.
For instance, the Oriental Daily was ecstatic over a story that originated in the MCA. The party had recruited a well-known professor from the faculty of Chinese Studies in the University of Malaya. He had been rumoured to be positioned by his party leadership as a candidate in Johore (in Kluang, I think).
He reminds one of Dr Ting Chew Peh. Ting was also a professor in the mid-80s when he decided to join MCA and contested in the Gopeng by-election in Perak. He won, and rose rapidly to become party secretary-general and a cabinet minister.
At that time, there was a raging protracted debate in the op-ed pages of the Chinese press on whether “intellectuals” should join political parties. This time around, 20 years later, the same question arises.
In the 90s, this professor who has been recently recruited by MCA used to be a vocal critic of the MCA. During one election, he and a band of fellow academics and writers had come out with what they called “The Chinese Intellectuals’ Declaration”, detailing their criticism and demand of MCA politics in general. (I have forgotten the details.)
Now he seems quite close to the current MCA president, and has long been rumoured to become a candidate on his way to bigger and better things in party politics. Does it mean that he has betrayed his personal integrity as an intellectual?
Well, this goes to show two things. Firstly, the seduction of power and of wanting to be efficacious is an eternal temptation for intellectuals. Secondly, the Chinese academics and writers seem to be rather generous with awarding the title of “intellectuals”.
In any case, as the Oriental Daily has reported, this professor’s candidature was strongly resisted by the local MCA leaders in the constituency concerned. It probably has something to do with factional tension within the Johore MCA. Generally speaking, in all parties, it is not always the case that grass-root party leaders will welcome an outside candidate planted by the party HQ. This kind of mid-night riders are often mocked as “Paratroopers”, strangers who land from the sky.
DAP pushes in Penang again
This may be the case in all political parties. Again, the Oriental Daily is full of privileged information.
It reported that some of the DAP Penang branches are adverse to a plan by the party secretary general Lim Guan Eng to paratroop a few women candidates in the forthcoming election there.
It is now well-known that the voters and members of all parties are quite parochial among the Chinese in Penang. Writers sympathetic to the BN point out how even the great Lim Kit Siang of the DAP was finally rejected categorically by the Penang electorate in 1995.
If that is the case, then the current effort of the Guan Eng to make its big push in Penang again in the next poll may be fraught with risks and dangers. PKR has already struck a pact with the DAP in Penang, proclaiming that if the opposition coalition takes power in Penang after the election, they will support the DAP sec-gen as the next chief minister in that state. But by now we know the original base for him is Kota Melaka, so how will he fare if he paratroops himself north?
All these makes entertaining reading material.
Unfortunately, that is the sad part about politics in Malaysia. The voters have been disenfranchised from the political process in all aspects but the voting part. They are reduced to the roles of spectators. Even for the opposition parties, the local voters have very little say over which candidate should stand in their constituency. They certainly have little say over what they want in all things political.
Sidelined as they are, they can only treat the whole thing as a reality show. For those who have not been numbed beyond endurance by cynicism, voters follow this pre-election candidature drama like an afternoon TV show.
For the compulsive gamblers, this is like sizing up a through-bred race horse, for the purpose of betting and winning money later.
This is also an indication of the immaturity of party politics in Malaysia. Citizens are still more interested in the stories surrounding the personality of the main actors, rather than pursuing issues in the larger political picture. The public narratives of those major political parties and their leaders appear as if they have remained unchanged in the last 50 years of their existence.
In this respect, it is as if we have known before hand the outcome of the yet-to-be-held election. The BN will hold on to 5 more years, and it will be business as usual after the elections are over. The actors may be different then, but the plot and the script will be cast in stone.
Can you blame many Malaysians – including me – to be quite unmoved by all this excitement about who stands where, and why?
Politics in Malaysia is disempowering.