Georgetown, Penang: I have returned home to vote as a first time voter. Even before I arrived on Friday afternoon, text messages and news about phantom voters and vote-buying were rife on facebook. I went straight from a family dinner where extended relatives were telling me about blatant vote-buying in Ayer Itam. Market vendors were being paid to participate in the Barisan Nasional (BN) food fairs where food and lucky draw prizes were being given away with the hopes of winning over constituents. One text message read: “last night (2/5/13 at around 12 midnite) cases amounting to RM500 were given out to Air Puteh voters @ one of d shophouse near Chong Nam, Ayer Itam. Recipients juz need to produce i/c [identity card] & once verified as Air Puteh voters were given d money and were told that d money came from Goh Choon Lye [a property developer] and that they must vote the blue symbol. They were told to come back to collect RM1500 should d blue symbol wins. There were probably 30-40 people queuing at any one time.”
For weeks, my mother had been complaining about the brazen nightly feasting at the Pulau Tikus market area. She was concerned that those who ate this food, who eagerly participated in the lucky draws and thought nothing of giving their IC numbers would risk having their names disappear from the electoral rolls. So the issue for me as a Penangite working in Kuala Lumpur is whether my fellow Penangites were truly that gullible and whether the DAP’s support was waning.
At 9.40 pm Friday night, traffic was almost at a standstill along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and Farquhar Street. I got out of my uncle’s car near the Penang Bowl to walk with other people along the pavement to the Esplanade. Electricity was in the air and a sense of purpose filled us all as cars, motorbikes (many of them) and pedestrians, all crowding each other out, streamed towards the city centre, some carrying Rocket flags on poles, others in ordinary clothing and supporters in Opposition T-shirts. While some supporters, having had their fill of the ceramah (the event had commenced at 5.30 pm) were already walking towards me away from the Esplanade, many more were still on their way there. I felt exhilarated, this was my town, and these good folk, my people, all united with a singular purpose. In contrast to two nights ago in a small ceramah (political talk) by Nurul Izzah in a predominantly working-class Malay neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur (Pantai Dalam) where BN buntings, banners and their blue-clad supporters ruled the area in a tight gridlock, in this crowd that was much more massive than the one in Pantai Dalam, I felt proud and safe to be wearing my Pakatan Rakyat T-shirt featuring the Ubah mascot, a hornbill, against a Keadilan flag (Keadilan is The Justice Party, headed by Anwar Ibrahim).
Outside the E and O Hotel, “Gangnam Style” was pounding from a car with its windows down. I turned, still sensitive to the controversial Chinese New Year Psy performance hosted by the BN government in Penang earlier this year. Was this Psy fan also a BN fan? But I had little to worry about–the young driver rapped out in time with the beat, “Rocket Ubah Style!” I broke into a grin and hastened to my destination, inhaling the smell of petrol from the hundreds of motorbikes and cars, yet not caring for once. I was surrounded by throngs of families and friends, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grannies and their grandchildren, and couples holding hands. The atmosphere was carnival-like as people blew on vuvuzelas, wore Ubah headbands, carried home made placards in support of Pakatan Rakyat and periodically chanted “Ubah!” out of unbridled enthusiasm.
Running my hand along the Convent Light Street (CLS) wall as the crowd wound its way along the old school perimeter, I smiled; it was my way of tangibly greeting an old friend. I remember the chalky feel of these walls on the fingers. After all, I had spent twelve formative years behind them and another twenty two more, living abroad. Just how out of touch can one be, after so many years away? And did I return for ridiculously idealistic reasons–hope for change –the promise of a better tomorrow that allowed us self-exiles and the Malaysian diaspora to finally put into practice what we’ve learned from our overseas education on our own terms and without barriers like racist policies and institutional corruption–‘to carve our destinies and make history’, as Pakatan Rakyat leaders consistently reiterate in their speeches?
The crowd was predominantly Chinese but Indian and Malay supporters were also present. I thought about my father’s friend, Uncle Rahim, a former journalist who worked overseas who together with my father’s other friend, Uncle Rumi, used to get together with dad to have intellectual discussions about local and international politics. He lived in Georgetown proper. I wondered what he would have felt and what he would have to say had he lived to see this day: the end of race politics and the beginning of a discourse that finally addresses class. I turned to the nearest person next to me who was heading towards the field and asked her if she had any idea who was speaking that night. She said she didn’t know and didn’t care. What mattered more was to show up to support Pakatan Rakyat.
Motorcycles and cars were parked outside the entrance of CLS, leaving only one narrow lane for moving traffic. Swarms of people mingled with traffic. It was carnival time and it seemed to me that much more seemed to be happening on the streets than in the speeches in the padang (field). I was distracted for a good twenty minutes taking photographs of the crowds and bystanders, the flags and the party, the cheering exuberant people. Being among them, it was hard to imagine that there were those who might be tempted by the short term material gains offered by local and federal BN fat cats.
Squeezing my way into the field with many other sweaty bodies, beyond the food stands of smelly tofu and roasted chestnuts at one corner, and sitting down in the back, I could hardly see the speakers. There were so many people. The trumpeting vuvuzuelas from the enthusiastic supporters outside the field coupled with the echo made it difficult to hear much. But in reality, it didn’t matter. Two nights before polling day, no one here was really coming to learn something new. We were here because Penangites were rejecting the gross display of wealth and power by the BN. They were disgusted by the wastage and the dark blue buntings and banners that ringed the trees, impaired visibility, that symbolised arrogance, bullying and gross abuse of power. They were showing that they wanted change at the federal level. And they were all here gaining strength and hope from one another in a mega-communal experience. The man next to me when asked to estimate the crowd size said he reckoned there were 120,000. The next day, Malaysiakini posted that there were 100,000.
Tomorrow morning I cast my virgin vote. I’m hoping that it counts. For too long, older generation Malaysians like my father, like Uncle Rahim and Uncle Rumi, have lived to see their postcolonial national dreams crushed, derailed by the Mahathir years. Tomorrow offers the possibility of the realisation of a life-long dream. Tomorrow the suturing of a multicultural past and a post-racial future begins.
Khoo Gaik Cheng teaches Film and Television at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham–Malaysia.