Sim Kwang Yang
Judging by the rustling of the wind against the coconut leaves, and the movement of the stars at night, another general election is afoot.
The winds of electoral war ravage through our national media. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with the reported words and movements of our prominent political personalities. This period is necessarily one of plotting, planning, manoeuvring, mobilising, speculating, scheming, rumour-mongering, and downright horse-trading.
The time-honoured practice of horse-trading involves the exchange of seats and candidates between friendly parties, and is born out of the nature of our alliance politics. Within both the ruling and the opposition alliances, there will be the usual scrambling for the choicest cut of the electoral pie.
Where the dictate of territorial imperative reigns supreme, the strongest survives. That means Umno in the BN, and PR in the loose and often unruly opposition front.
This is the season for politicians. They must be very busy and stressed out, dealing with the one thousand and one issues in preparation for the big contest, upon which their political and other fortunes hang precariously. The stakes are sky-high.
Away from the limelight though, far removed from public scrutiny, there is a nationwide exercise of scrapping the bottom of the barrel for cash.
What people often fail to realise is that democracy is getting to be an expensive business. There is no free lunch in this world, according to disciples of capitalism, and winning the hearts and minds of the electorate comes with a pretty hefty price-tag.
Considering the far-flung electorate and the scattered varied topography of Malaysia, the actual task for political parties to mount a cohesive national campaign must seem like a daunting task in terms of expenditure.
The number of human bodies to be mobilised, the means of transporting and sustaining these election workers, the production and distribution of campaign paraphernalia, and the procuring of actual votes in each constituency will all consume the kind of money far beyond the comprehension of ordinary voters.
Apparently, national party bosses and their senior most lieutenants are seldom directly involved in the unsavoury task of scrounging for campaign money. They are in such positions of power and responsibility, that they should not be bothered with this sort of mundane details, and should be freed instead to concentrate on urgent and important matters like drafting strategies, selecting candidates and inventing slogans.
The seedier business of procuring and managing campaign funds is best left to a cluster of faceless but loyal backroom boys, who would be close enough to the power centre to drop names on potential donors with credibility.
In this business of funding a struggle for power, the ruling parties have all the advantages of incumbency. Given the nature of our brand of money politics, too many businessmen are beholden to the politicians for their corporate health. More often than not, the big businessmen are the politicians, and the line between patron and client is blurred. In general, for the businessmen whose bread is buttered by political connections, election time is payback time. Or, in corporate language, it is reinvestment time.
Some odd businessmen will give to both sides, just in case. Out of one hand, they will contribute millions, and out of the other, mere thousands. I suppose there is no need for me to tell you which hand will go to which party.
In general, there is only so much that the BN national party headquarters can give, in the form of a sum of kick-start cash, and general publicity materials, like the big photographs of the prime minister. The rest of the huge burden of financing his campaign will fall entirely upon the shoulder of the candidate himself.
The independently wealthy candidate there are more than a few of these gold-gilded souls will have no problem financing their campaign. Their problem is to keep in abeyance greedy campaign agents who would take them for a ride.
How much is needed and spent by each candidate varies, depending on factors like the size of the constituency, the keenness of the contest, and the strength of the local party structure.
Nevertheless, in this murky business of winning elections and seats, and where political power itself is at stake, securing the hearts and minds of the voters does not really have a tangible price tag. You try to strike a happy balance between what you can afford, and what it takes to win. It is not always a happy balance for many contestants.
(One BN YB I know confessed to me that he spent over RM6 million in a rural constituency in Sarawak. Apparently, his election motto during the campaign period was never having to say ‘no’ to any potential supporters.)
In contrast, the poor opposition candidates have to fight his awesome BN opponent on a shoe-string budget. Except for some professionals and independently wealthy businessmen, most candidates in the opposition camps would have been marginalised economically.
I know of personalities in the opposition camp who spend mere thousands during an entire campaign. Sometimes, they even win seats. This is possible only in urban constituencies, when election messages can be spread easily through the press, by word of mouth, and through ceramahs. It would be unthinkable for their BN counterparts, especially those contesting in sparsely populated rural areas.
(The eternal shortage of campaign funds is partly the reason why the DAP has always been cocooned in the urban, and therefore, Chinese-majority areas.)
Why should BN candidates spend so much money when the entire government machinery has always been abused to provide campaign support? With such overwhelming odds stacked against opposition parties, surely it would be a breeze for even a cow that wears the BN symbol to garner vote effortlessly?
Times have changed
Indeed, I am given to understand by political veterans on both sides of the fence that elections were much simpler affairs in the 60s and 70s. Money politics had yet to rear its ugly head then. Political campaigns on both sides of the power divide depended very much on voluntary manpower and generous contribution from party supporters.
(Even in the 80s, when I contested as an opposition candidate, I could still commandeer the services and contributions of over 1000 volunteers on polling day. Not all BN workers were paid either.}
But, alas, the times have changed. Deep-seated cynicism has taken over electoral choices, following almost ten years of nearly double-digit economic growth since then. The tenets of capitalism have taken roots among emerging generations of voters. The predominant thinking among most young voters would be “what is in it for me?”, rather than “what can we do to make our country better?”
Over time, no thanks to the exaltations of campaigning politicians, the act of voting has become a sort of commercial transaction. The people are asked to support the BN, in exchange for stability, economic growth and development, conditions for them to seek personal advancement and family happiness. In exchange for these external goods, the people are quite happy to sign over a blank cheque over to their political leaders to do what they wish with the terrible powers of state, as long as it does not hurt them too much.
With the death of volunteerism and ideals in politics, money has become the prime motivation for participation in election campaigns. Why should anyone work for their political bosses for free, when people know very well that those political god-fathers get very fat during non-election years upon the advantage of their political office?
With so much riding on their being elected, or re-elected, the BN candidates simply cannot afford to lose. Their personal welfare, and the fortune of the network of vested interest under them, depends on their winning against the opposition. They have to win at all costs, no matter what it takes.
The secret towards winning any electoral contest is organisation. The control of the media in silencing and demonising the opposition can only do half the work. All that money spent on propaganda, through the numerous channels of creating a general mood and perception among the voters, will end up for naught, unless you also ensure that every available supporter turns out to vote, and every hostile or neutral voter is persuaded by all means available to swing their support your way.
Most important day
The fine art of election campaign has been honed to an organisational science. A good campaign machinery would be able to break down an entire constituency into manageable units, and individual voters in each unit will be approached, street by street, village by village, family by family, and all forms of persuasion are applied on them to cast their valuable vote for the candidate.
The most important day is actually polling day. Election agents are sometimes posted in individual houses, to prevent last minute change of minds, and to present their last minute offer of enticement. More often than not, means of transportation are also arranged, to herd the voters en mass to the polling stations. Nothing is ever left to chance.
As for the voters, they know this is the only time in five years, when their wish is a command upon the aspiring YB and his gang of paid cronies.
As one voter from a remote Sarawak village told me, “Before voting, everything is OK, but after the election, everything is KO!” Some voters collect badges from the contesting parties, to be worn proudly on various occasions, depending on which party happens to be campaigning in his area.
Many have no qualm asking for cash, but presentation of gifts in kind is equally welcome. Feasting with entertainment from pop stars are added bonuses. They are determined to milk the cow dry, while the carnival lasts. Who would have time for policy debates indeed!
The money required to oil this huge election machinery of a few thousand men and women, together with the huge expenses required to produce and present all the publicity materials, on top of enticing and transporting voters to the polling stations and back, will all add up to an astronomical sum.
As a result, more than a few candidates have gone into heavy debts after the elections are over. Some have gone bankrupt.
But generally, those BN YBs who have made it would consider such a five-yearly investment very much worth the effort. The subsequent returns would be phenomenal!
That is why I have predicted that the BN will win this general elections hands down, not merely because of what they can do for the people, but also because of their superiority in procuring election funds and running better campaign machinery.
Like many things in Malaysia, the concept of a level playing field is still alien to most people. Fair-play is only to be found in fairy tales. As long as there is no electoral reform in our country, general elections are pretty boring futile predictable exercises. What is expressed through the vote is not so much the general will of the people, but the collective greed of a people long corrupted by the avarice of their leaders.