by Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan
Malaysia is a country moved by a very large part by trends involving politics. Some of these are tiresome, often undermining the democratic process and, most frustratingly, off-limits to be commented upon especially when expressed by certain politicians. With the 14th general election so near, discussions on the validity and qualifications of the choices present in front of voters have begun. Interestingly, though, many voters are expressing anarchic tendencies by advocating for spoiling ballots, casting ‘undi rosak’, as they feel both the incumbent and largest opposition coalitions do not deserve to win.
While the distaste for Barisan is a given, having been present for many elections prior, fresh hate has fallen unto Pakatan Harapan who seem to have sunk to a new low by making a deal with the proverbial devil, Tun Mahathir, a previous prime minister and long-time foe of the de facto Harapan leader, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently incarcerated. While complicated, the intertwining fates are reminiscent of complex storylines within Indian serials, so is extremely entertaining in its own way.
But I digress. The main point of this article is whether the movement to spoil votes is justified to preach their call to action or if their detractors, who lament the shortsightedness of this act they inane, are right to say that the act of spoiling votes only hands the election to one side or the other with nary a whimper. As with many uninteresting problems, this one is multifaceted and both sides seem to have a point.
First, the proponents of vote-spoiling. As a person who deeply disagrees with many policies from both sides and would be happy seeing at least huge personnel changes on both sides, the neutral perspective would be to not choose at all. The problem with choice, especially when elections almost always come down to choosing between two parties such as we have had in Malaysia thus far, is that, sometimes, both sides would be terrible choices. Each usually is encompassed in their own silo where good ideas and on-the-ground issues are ignored to placate a voter-base to strengthen their claim to power. Many have surmised that this is the reality they are facing and want to express their dissatisfaction.
What’s more, acts such as not going out to vote or spoiling votes may manifest that dissatisfaction in raw figures when vote-statistics are released post-election. It forces the powers that be to really look into the wants and needs of the public, potentially lessening the involvement of pure chance to get good leaders. The power dynamic between politicians and voters could also be radically shifted through such an action, as anarchy does not bode well for politicians who will, essentially, lose relevance and their jobs as a result.
Hence, undi rosak seems like an understandable act. It’s not completely filled with emotion and recklessness as claimed by its detractors, seemingly quite astute. However, it can be argued that vote-spoiling is too idealistic and is akin to not being able to see the woods for the trees. The bigger picture, it is argued is lost on, essentially well-to-do, middle-class people who probably wouldn’t be affected by the unseen ramifications of such an act or young people who are simply too idealistic. While I have lived my life rejecting such arguments that belittle the agency of anyone, in this regard, I sympathise with the sentiment.
When it comes to voting, it often comes down to 2 considerations; a personal one and a communal one. The personal consideration revolves around who one thinks deserves to be voted in, whereas the communal one takes into consideration the overall effect of that choice to society. The latter is often used by those who are against voting for third parties to persuade voters to choose only from the largest opposing factions. However, as we can see in Malaysia,that might lead to two very similar parties that use identity politics to smear each other’s name rather than focusing on policies themselves.
Rather, voting for a deserving third party introduces a real threat to the status quo, injecting much needed fresh blood into the mix, pushing forward a change in mindset within parliament, admittedly slowly, but in the grand scheme of things may lead to better policies, either due to the third party itself or because the original components of parliament are forced to do their jobs better due to recognising the changing perspectives of the people as represented in parliament.
This, compared to vote spoiling, is a better alternative. Simply spoiling voting ballots might send a message to politicians, but whether they would actually be inspired to come down to the level of voters to understand their problems is another story. What is more likely is these politicians would double down on policies that benefit no one but their core block of voters. With like-minded peers in parliament, on both sides, believing what they have promised to be enough, stagnation sets in. Hence, those who don’t believe in voting the mainstream politicians should opt for voting in third party politicians rather than not voting or spoiling their vote.
However, what if there is no third party or if everyone running is a bad choice? This is where the lesser of two evils argument comes in. Whether we like it or not, someone is going to be voted in. It is our responsibility to make sure the one who is voted in is as benign as possible. This is where the communal mindset comes in, we should seek to make sure those who represent us are not going to cause as much harm as the other would have, whether this means keeping the incumbent around to preserve political stability or opting for a change that would catalyse more accountability and political maturity. In my eyes, the scales are not as even as they are made out to be, certainly not even enough for undi rosak to be implemented. For now, the side that would be better in helping form the foundation of building a better system in the future should be the choice.
What needs to be understood is whether or not the side that wins is acceptable, the bigger picture is cleaning up the political system and holding our politicians accountable. That cannot be done over one election or just through a show of disapproval through vote spoiling. Those who believe that a change in the entire system is needed should organise and speak out through different areas, especially civil societies. I for one can name several ones such as the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism C4, Suara Rakyat Malaysia, BEBAS and even the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs for those with a libertarian inclination that could use help and support to further the cause of accountability. Activism does not start and end during elections, it must be ongoing, and I hope those who expressed their very understandable desire for a better system, one that I, myself, agree with, would not shy away from it.
On a final note, it must be said that these views are personal and valid, as are any others’. Everyone has a desire to be heard and deserves to air out their frustrations and suggest steps to solve problems that are presented to them. So long as these are lawful and in conjunction with human rights, vilifying and demeaning them solves nothing. It belittles very real concerns to such trivialities that it is akin to living in isolation, oblivious to what people really want. Voting is a right, and so is not voting. We shouldn’t make those who are genuinely tired of constant ignorance feel as if they don’t matter, when it is their voice which must sound the loudest. It is childish to come up with demeaning memes and throw around some deeply hurtful comments vilifying those who are genuinely tired of not having a deserving option to choose to represent them. It takes away from politicians having to really analyse the needs and wants of the rakyat making our country worse in the process. Seriously, stop it.