Sketches of GE14: A Little Night Music

Pakatan Harapan Ceramah GE 14 - New Naratif

Charis Loke brings us the sights of Malaysia’s 14th general election in this series of sketches. Her previous entry can be found here.

6 May 2018: Barisan Nasional ‘Konsert Gegar Indian Malaysia Superstar’ in Thivy Jaya (8pm)

Konsert Gegar Indian Malaysia Superstar GE14 - New Naratif

On Sunday I finally manage to find a poster for a Barisan Nasional event that’ll take place in Taman Thivy Jaya, a residential area I used to pass on my way to school every day.

Loud Bollywood music is playing from the speakers; this is, after all, a “Konsert Gegar Indian Malaysian Superstar”. Most of the concertgoers are Indian families from the residential area. There are a handful of older Chinese women and men but almost no Malays.

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) candidate for my state constituency dances on stage with one of the featured singers for the night. About 150 people are sitting on red plastic chairs, fanning themselves with plastic fans printed with photos of candidates, or milling around outside the tent. The emcee exhorts the crowd to applaud during every speech; the candidates plead for a chance to serve as their representatives.

The phrases “undilah dengan waras (vote with a sound mind)” and “keharmonian negara (harmony of the nation)” are used more than once, but almost no mention of policy or economy is made. After each speech, there’s singing or dancing.

It’s hard to miss the mountain bike on stage—one of many lucky draw prizes for the night—even though it’s frequently wreathed in smoke from a fog machine. At one point, large containers of free mee hoon and warm tea are carried out from a van; people line up to grab a bite.

Finally, the MCA candidate for the parliamentary seat of Rasah takes the stage. He condemns a recent social media post by an opposition candidate as divisive, and tells the audience to continue voting Barisan National for national harmony. There’s some clapping from the crowd. The loudest clapping comes from party members dressed in blue who are sitting up front.

Collection 2 of Charis Loke's Sketches For GE14 - New Naratif
From left: a child holds a goodie bag after performing a dance with her classmates; youth chat on their motorcycles nearby; members of the audience watch the performances.

Shortly after his speech, he’s surrounded by a group of roughly ten to fifteen young adults who ask to speak to him.

“What are they talking about?” I ask two teens hovering on the edge of the circle.

“They’re asking him what Barisan Nasional plans to do about inequality in Malaysia,” one of them says.

The candidate is joined by his colleagues from MCA and MIC, who take turns explaining issues like the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which both Pakatan Harapan and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) have pledged to abolish. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying over the pulsing beat of dance music and the singers’ voices. It strikes me that this conversation is happening under a street lamp beside a drain instead of on stage, under the spotlight.

7 May 2018: Pakatan Harapan Ceramah in Oakland, 8pm

Pakatan Harapan Ceramah GE 14 - New Naratif
From left: a speaker commands the crowd’s attention; people wave mobile phone flashlights for a photo op.

“Is Hannah Yeoh here?” an older lady asks. It’s 9pm but people are still streaming into the street in Oakland Commercial Centre where tonight’s Pakatan Harapan ceramah is taking place.

“We’re here to see Hannah Yeoh,” her husband reiterates.

“Has Karpal Singh’s son spoken yet?” another auntie asks me in Cantonese.

Tonight’s crowd—1700 at least—is the largest I’ve seen in Seremban so far, in no small part because well- known Pakatan figures like Tony Pua and Gobind Singh Deo are slated to speak. Rapidly switching between Malay and Mandarin, Tony talks about the increase in both expenditure and reserves for the state of Selangor, which is under Pakatan governance. Both he and the incumbent Member of Parliament for this area, Loke Siew Fook, receive raucous applause when they speak. The crowd cheers when the latter announces that a few miles away in Paroi, Azmin Ali, the Selangor Chief Minister, is speaking to a Malay crowd that numbers in the thousands. (It turns out that Hannah is with him; several people are watching the livestream of that event on their phones.)

“Gobind is on his way here from Nilai,” Loke announces. “Please be patient”. The emcee gets the crowd to sing along to a Pakatan Harapan song, This Is The Time. The music video flashes on the large screen behind him. An upbeat tune plays as Mahathir Mohamad, dressed in a grey suit, hands a red puzzle piece to a young girl.

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” one Indian lady says to another.

“The majority of the crowd here is Chinese, that’s why they’re playing the Mandarin version,” her friend replies.

Since both the audio and subtitles are in Mandarin, I don’t understand the song either. (The official version is in Malay—during the Seremban 2 ceramah on 4 May, the organisers handed out lyric sheets with Malay and English lyrics to the crowd).

A deep-seated worry of mine bubbles to the surface: that the ceramah tonight has been overwhelmingly targeted towards a Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking Chinese audience, and that this will be taken as a sign that Pakatan only cares about Chinese voters. I’ve seen countless comments on social media along the lines of “don’t vote for this candidate—he’s Chinese”; memes with “[Chinese-led Democratic Action Party] inside” superimposed within the eye that the opposition coalition has adopted as their logo; Photoshopped images of politicians with “UNDI PKR + UNDI KOMUNIS (Vote PKR + Vote Communists)”.

Running events in specific ways to cater for a specific ethnic group isn’t a new thing—the same has been done in Barisan campaigning for decades. Barisan’s main component parties in Peninsular Malaysia are unabashedly mono-racial: the United Malays National Organisation, Malaysian Chinese Association, Malaysian Indian Congress. Last night’s Bollywood affair was an awkward, contrived meeting between MCA candidates and Indian constituents.

The candidates take to the stage again after the song. “Our saudara Gobind Singh will not be able to make it tonight,” one of them announces, and there’s an audible groan from the crowd. “He is on his way back to Seri Serdang—I apologise, I truly apologise. I know many of you came tonight to hear him. He agreed to speak here even before nomination day. But I would ask of you—if you can, please head over to Taman Ampangan now to show your support. The Chief Minister of Selangor, Azmin Ali, is there…”

And the crowd disperses as This Is The Time plays over the loudspeakers, this time in Malay.

Collection 1 of Charis Loke's Sketches For GE14 - New Naratif
From left: a Pakatan Harapan volunteer sports the PKR ‘eye’ flag on his cheek; two ceramah-goers await Gobind Singh Deo’s arrival; a man listens to the speeches.

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