Elections are important but they should be seen in the context of a much larger struggle for reforms and change played out over decades, says Anil Netto.
The Hulu Selangor by-election is over and for many Malaysians hoping for reforms and change, it was a disappointment.
Given the drop in votes in some of the kampungs and Felda settlements, some are even worried that PKR might even meet the same fate as Semangat 46 after the disastrous (for the opposition, that is) 1995 general election, when the party just folded up and its remaining members joined Umno Baru.
Now, we look ahead to the Sibu by-election, which promises to be just as closely contested.
While the disappointment over Hulu Selangor still lingers, it might be useful to recall the 1995 general election.
In the previous general election in 1990, opposition parties had put up a strong showing. They were aided by the political turbulence of the late 1980s (the Operasi Lalang ISA crackdown, the judicial crisis, the split and dissolution of the original Umno).
Thus, when the 1995 general election came along, there were real hopes that more political change was possible including a two-coalition system. But it was also apparent that the economy was booming and the changes made by Mahathir to liberalise culture and higher education had boosted support for the Barisan among minority communities.
In the event, the Barisan romped to victory, in the process almost wiping out the opposition in Penang. Activists who were hoping for reforms and change were crushed and wrung their hands in despair.
But what happened next? The Asian Financial Crisis and reformasi heralded a new era of political ferment and, building on the seeds of change planted years, even decades earlier, the reformasi movement was born. Young Malaysians of all ethnic groups joined hands with veteran activists and politicians to move the country inexorably forward towards real reforms and change even as the old order tried to hold them back.
In this season of by-elections, a coming election in Sarawak and national elections in the Philippines, perhaps it would be timely to step back and reflect on the role of elections in bringing about real change.
In many parts of the world, many people tend to put a lot of hope in elections in bringing about deep and meaningful change. Of course, elections play an important role in bringing about long term social, political and economic policy changes.
But often the excitement in the aftermath of elections gives way to disappointment and disillusionment if the changes are only fleeting or illusory or if compromises are made along the way.
Looking back at the last century, some of the biggest movements for change came about largely outside or were larger than the electoral process. These movements spanned many years, even decades rather than short five-year terms.
Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela were some of the biggest names and towering figures of the 20th century. What they all had in common was that they were rallying points for countless numbers of people who aspired for real and meaningful change. Gandhi was the symbol of the anti-colonial movement not just in India but across Asia and Africa, Martin Luther King was the rallying point for the US civil rights movement and Mandela was the icon of the anti-apartheid movement.
What did these movements have in common? They were bigger than the political process. They were not just the work of single individuals or leaders, but they represented movements of ordinary people moving towards an idea whose time had come, gradually building up momentum towards a critical mass.
It was a critical mass like this which led to the downfall of Marcos after elections that were seen to be rigged, even though hopes for real reforms in the Philippines especially land reform have disappointed some.
These popular movements were the result of the cumulative actions and campaigns and hard work of many unsung ordinary individuals, female and male, young and old, sometimes stretching beyond borders in a display of human solidarity over many years, even decades.
If we are looking for shortcuts to bring about real change in society, we are going to be disappointed. There are no short-cuts. The movement for justice has to spread, bit by bit, sending out ripples throughout the world. And we cannot rely on political change alone, though a two-coalition system, would be a big step forward.
But the momentum for change must come from more Malaysians struggling for change – continuing and building on the efforts of previous generations from the 1920s onwards: the anti-colonial movement, the trade unionists, the peasant activists, the human rights activists, the women’s groups, the reformasi group, Hindraf, Bersih, the Abolish ISA movement, and of course, so many ordinary concerned Malaysians. All these, and not just the opposition political parties have played an important role in sustaining and keeping alive the struggle for change.
From a global perspective, no lasting change – women’s right to vote, the 8-hour work day, independence from colonial rule – has come about without long years of hard work, struggle, and even persecution.
And if today, the Pakatan controls four state governments, it is due largely to the efforts of so many different groups over the years. Twenty years ago, who would have imagined the DAP and Pas working together in a coalition; a dozen years ago, there was no PKR or Parti Sosialis Malaysia; not even a Suhakam (for what it’s worth).
We have come a long way and these efforts must continue until real justice and inclusiveness is achieved not only for all Malaysians but also for the guests in our land – migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers.
So elections are important but they should be seen in the context of a much larger struggle for reforms and change played out over decades. Sure, there will be blips along the way, like the setback in 1995 and more recently, Hulu Selangor, but if we keep in mind the larger movement, we may look back at these moments as occasions to learn and re-strategise and patch up weaknesses.
These occasions remind us that we still have a lot of work to do to raise awareness among the people about the importance of joining hands with their fellow Malaysians in the struggle for justice.
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