For better or worse, quantity is important in a democratic contest. It is about gaining the majority. It is about popularity.
With that as the context, we have to remember we live in a young society. The Department of Statistics estimates that the median Malaysia age in 2010 was slightly above 26 years. In simpler terms, the age of one half of the population today is younger than the median just three years ago. The profile of the Malaysian electorate pretty much reflects the demographics of our society.
Thanks to their sheer size, those in their 20s and 30s are clearly the biggest and thus the most important group. If they had one mind, they collectively could decisively determine the path which the country would take.
But what makes these young people stand out further politically is that most of them will be voting in a national election for the first time in their lives. Their minds more flexible than those belonging to the older generation who more often than not are hung up on legacy issues. Ibrahim Ali, for instance, still has the May 13 incident as his talking point.
So, young adults are the cool kids on the block and the two nationally-relevant political factions are competing to be the friend of these cool kids. The Barisan Nasional-led federal government has launched several policies for that purpose and chief among them are affordable housing and other cash transfers. The federal opposition Pakatan Rakyat promises the same young adults free tertiary education, among others. Both sides are pulling out all stops to be the one special friend.
While I find many of those policies too populist, at least those policies are serious in the sense that they affect a person’s welfare. The existence of a real policy competition between two credible sides is heartening since previously, it was really all about the old, stale, suffocating issues of race and religion. That is not to say that race and religion are no longer factors but at the very least, we have something substantive to base our election on.
But I do have a feeling that the courting is starting to go a bit too far and starting to appear regressive. It is starting to go into the realm of the trivial that debases the very serious nature of our elections. In an effort to become ever more popular, political parties are starting to make entertainment the focal point of their political events, instead of what the parties stand for.
This happened in Penang recently. Barisan Nasional organized its Chinese New Year celebration with Psy, the Korean sensation — and not the Malaysian prime minister — as the star of the event. The hosts of That Effing Show — a sarcastic online talk show focusing on Malaysian affairs — were right on the money when they joked that in the United States, a singer would introduce the president to the crowd but in Malaysia, the prime minister introduced a singer. Such is the office of the prime minister which is obviously too engrossed in crass populism.
While I despise the debasement of the highest political office of the land, I think I understand the reasoning behind it. Young adults are seen wedded together with pop culture. They are the pop culture.
Maybe, just maybe, the politicians think, if they could harness the power of pop culture, if they could show that they have their finger on pop culture, then they could connect with these young adults. We could win their votes, so the politicians thought. At the end, these politicians hoped what happened in Penang stayed in Penang (Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen had a different idea in Malacca, some weeks after).
But this line of thinking — of entertainment, young adults and politics — is potentially insulting to young adults. Is entertainment the thing that matters the most in attracting them to participate in a political process? Are young adults fluffy-headed, uncritical, naïve voters to be wooed with inconsequential gimmicks? Is the future worth a trivial song in an age where one-hit wonders happen almost every week, if not every day? I pray to the god in the mirror for the answer to be no.
I know it did not work in Penang but I do not know if it will never work. I hope that it will never work so that our elections have less possibility of becoming an exercise of triviality. The truth is Barisan Nasional is not the only one guilty of putting entertainment at the center stage or a big part of a political event or rally.
The danger is that if it works and pulls in the votes. When that happens, there goes the future as votes of substantial value are traded for a trivial piece of song popular with the cool kids.
If it does happen, that will be no progress from the days of race and religion. It is just as bad as the days of old.