By Wong Chin Huat
A Barisan Nasional (BN) message you can find everywhere in rallies, newspapers, radio, television and websites is that if you don’t vote for the BN, you will have no representative in the government to be an advocate for your interest – be it local development or cultural rights.
Understandably alarmed by the growing discontent in the Chinese and Indian communities, Umno’s non-Malay allies have been calling their constituents not to weaken their representation in the government.
A popular MCA parliamentarian, Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun, even got herself into a controversy in January for cautioning the Chinese to learn from the 1969 lesson, which was interpreted by China Press as the May 13 ethnic riot.
Reciprocity doesn’t work in politics
The logic behind such arguments is that we assume that Umno and the BN (and its forerunner the Alliance) operate on the logic of reciprocity. Put it positively, “you scratch my back, I scratch yours”. Put it negatively, “an eye for an eye”.
Such logic fits well with the democratic ideal because it lies on a healthy linkage between the represented and the representatives. You support party A, party A supports you. If you don’t support party A, party A should instead advance the interests of others who support it. You reap what you sow.
Unfortunately, nothing is farther from reality. Unless you have an absolutely proportional electoral system, where the parties’ seat share changes in corresponding proportion to changes in vote share, the marginal value of every vote is not the same.
Take a very simple hypothetical example. Two candidates are in a straight fight in a constituency of 10,000 voters with an expected turnout of 70%. The 3,501st vote for the winning candidate is the most valuable vote, more valuable than the 3,502nd and subsequent votes, which only strengthen his/her position. But without the 3,501st vote, it would be a tie.
In other words, the marginal value of a candidate’s ballots falls once s/he passes the winning point.
No pain, no gain
What does this mean to voters? It means if you happen to live in a safe seat, you will probably not get a good deal. The leading candidate will not bother to court you too hard because s/he does not need your vote that badly when s/he can easily get votes from the other constituents. Neither will the trailing candidate because one extra vote from you will not save him/her. This is true for both the strong seats for the ruling and opposition parties.
For the same reason, nationally, if you have elected in a government with a too comfortable majority, you may not necessarily get a good deal after that. The logic is really simple: no pain, no gain. No pain for the politicians, no gain for you. When you love them, they take your love for granted. But if you are hard to get, they will work harder to woo you.
Nobody knows this better than perhaps the ethnic Indians. For 50 years, they voted loyally for the BN but they failed to get something as simple as Thaipusam declared a public holiday in the Federal Territories (in the Klang Valley, the chariot with the deity is brought from the Sri Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur to Batu Caves in Selangor), until this year after the community voiced its discontent about being marginalised. After some 30,000 Malaysians who felt alienated took to the streets in November 2007, led by the Hindu Action Rights Force (Hindraf), suddenly the whole national leadership woke up to see the Indians’ plight.
Going by the ‘no pain, no gain’ theory then, if the Indians were to vote against the BN, they will likely get more love from the BN, for two reasons. Firstly, if the BN chooses to punish the Indians, meaning pay little heed to the community’s concerns, you could see more P. Uthayakumars (Hindraf leader) in the making. Secondly, if the opposition were to deny the BN a two-third majority of the state legislative assembly seats in states with a substantial Indian population like Selangor, Perak and Penang, the opposition lawmakers will be able to vote against any proposal for constituency redelineation in 2010. Constituencies can be redelienated in 2010 the earliest and the BN can resort to this to try to dilute the Indian voting power in these states.
The lesson of 1990
Again, going by the ‘no pain, no gain’ theory, what would happen if the BN were to do badly in this general election, say winning only 70%, like in 1990? My guess is that it will have to do a lot of soul searching and make serious policy changes to mend the fence.
The last time the BN did that was in 1990. Then, many Chinese voters deserted the BN with the MCA losing 15 out of the 32 seats it contested and Gerakan, four out of nine. It was the lowest point of Chinese representation in the BN since 1969, when the MCA won 13 out of 33 seats and Gerakan, two out of three. Had the Malays not been unnerved by the media smearing campaign of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Kadazan headwear with a cross-like sign, the BN might have been denied its two-third majority.
Did the BN hit back at the Chinese? No, the BN operated on the logic of reversed reciprocity. Three months after the bitterly-won election, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad launched his Wawasan 2020. The vision was nothing very new. Coated in another name were civil society’s ideals of multiculturalism and civil rights, as well as the DAP’s call for a Malaysian Malaysia, which was demonised as Chinese chauvinism in the media for decades.
Higher education was liberalised to allow students turned away by public universities to further their studies – there was a mushrooming of private colleges. Non-Malay cultural expression became part of the country’s tourism promotion.
So, what would happen if the opposition were to obtain 30% of the seats again? What are the ideas that the BN would adopt for its re-engineering after March 8? My guess is Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s “New Economic Agenda” which proposes a non-ethnic approach in correcting economic imbalances and PAS’s “welfare state” – both of which the BN has so far dismissed, as it did notions like a Malaysian Malaysia in the 1980s.
Wong Chin Huat is a journalism lecturer at a private university. He is completing his PhD in the University of Essex on the electoral system and party politics in West Malaysia. He is also chairman of the Writers Alliance for Media Independence and secretariat member of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.