The “miracle” on Jalan Gasing

[Updated at 8:50am, 1 March 2008 with correction]

ON the evening of Feb 27, the Catholic Church of Saint Francis Xavier (SFX) on Jalan Gasing in Petaling Jaya hosted a debate for the public to get to know the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Opposition candidates running in their constituency. The candidates were: MCA candidate Datuk Donald Lim Siang Chai and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Hee Loy Sian for the parliamentary seat of Petaling Jaya Selatan (P105), and Gerakan candidate Datuk Dr. Lim Thuan Seng and DAP candidate Edward Lee Poh Lin for the Bukit Gasing state constituency (N34). Sharaad Kuttan, who was at the forum, shares his observations with

IN a large hall that probably only reverberates with songs and religious sermons, a unique event took place on Feb 27 night at Loyola Hall at the SFX Church. Parishioners were in the privileged position to have assembled before them all the candidates from opposing camps for the contest of the parliamentary seat of PJ Selatan and the state seat of Bukit Gasing.

The promised “dialogue” between the incumbent BN candidates (MCA’s Donald and Gerakan’s Thuan Seng) and the Barisan Alternatif (PKR’s Hee and DAP’s Lee) drew a healthy crowd of approximately 500 leaving no folding chair unused. What transpired over the course of the next two hours was a distinct departure from the ceramah fare that the Malaysian voter is all too often limited to.

We were far from the passive spectator, whose repertoire of applause, chant, heckle and guffaw, gave way to a broader spectrum of expression. Though far from perfect, it was certain by the end of the evening that Malaysians have the capacity to ask clear and pointed questions of individuals seeking public office. Something in the structure of the evening encouraged this breakthrough.

Margaret Martinez moderated the dialogue and explained, and enforced, the house rules. The quintessential “headmistress”, by her own admission, she leapt into the fray when the crowd first went boisterous. MCA’s Donald made his first crowd-displeasing comment when he happily compared Malaysia’s fifty years of achievement with the sadder state of affairs in Myanmar. Heckles and guffaws of contempt were quelled by Martinez, who asked that the speaker be allowed to complete his presentation. While she could have done more to compensate for the increasing imbalance in the direction of questions (mostly hostile, mostly toward the BN), she symbolised the importance of civility in the proceedings.

The panelists themselves began with a short presentation, varied in their approach but all, with the exception of DAP’s Lee, speaking in a low drone. PKR’s Hee did pick up his pace while he read his party’s five-point commitment in halting English. We would not hear from him again throughout the proceedings. After the event, I asked him why he chose not to speak and he explained that none of the questions were directed to him. My suspicion is, based on listening to him at a roadside ceramah the night before, that despite the claims in his brochure, Hee is not fluent in English. Comfortable in Mandarin, Hee clearly needs to think through a strategy when dealing with a predominantly English-speaking crowd. His silence was a bad choice. After all Donald could hardly be described as speaking the best English but he did have a certain confidence about him. You might not vote for him but you won’t forget who he is. Hee faded into the plain burgundy backdrop.

The Lims of the BN and Lee of the DAP did engage as best they could. In their opening presentations both Lee and Donald spoke directly to the middle-class, Christian audience. Lee tried to connect through the lens of his shared religious identity while Donald spoke of his shared class background. “I am like many of you,” he said. “I am a professional. I play golf”.

Thuan Seng and Lee both displayed their shared local knowledge though the latter had the privilege of not having to bear the burden of a municipal council popularly perceived as corrupt, incompetent and indifferent to the community’s needs. Thuan Seng was left with what some might consider a feeble defense: decrying the empty promises of the opposition, he said that he had to “work within constraints”. It would become his mantra for the night. Donald’s mantra was “I can bring it up with…” Lee seemed devoid of that stock response, perhaps because he is still new at the game.

The Malaysian public is often its worst enemy when it comes to “public” discussions but on the night of Feb 27, we were spared some of these bad habits: going off on a tangent, making a speech disguised as a preamble to a question, indulging very publicly in some private anguish, or formulating a question badly (I am very sympathetic to this particular failing).

Question time
Let me list some of the questions put to the panelists. The first dealt with the seemingly arbitrary ways in which an assessment on property was calculated. Thuan Seng responded with the bureaucratic perspective, noting that there are “formulas” and ending with the reassurance that “we will take your views into consideration and convey…” Lee bested him by announcing, as member of the Condominium, Apartment and High-Rise Committee, that these “formulas” would be reviewed in the near future. Local issues like the development of Bukit Gasing would emerge several times, ending with a dramatic handing over of a declaration by one of the audience to the panelists.

The second question moved away from the local in spectacular fashion. Having heard from the BN candidates, somebody from the audience said it was “too little too late”. “What are you going to do beyond cleaning monsoons drains,” he asked to thunderous applause. Sounding a little defeated, Thuan Seng tried to project himself as a sincere man not given to false promises. On his part, Donald managed to invoke Myanmar again and the hall erupted in laughter and jeering. He was unfazed; after all he had said when he was first jeered, “If you boo, I also can boo.”

Thuan Seng would remark that the crowd was clearly not a sympathetic one. Perhaps this was so but by directing the questions almost exclusively at the BN panelists, the “pro-opposition” questioners were depriving the PKR and DAP panelists of a rare opportunity to engage. Surely being asked no question is worse than being asked a tough one. By using questions as a form of attack, the audience lost the opportunity for a deeper dialogue. Still one memorable rhetorical question was posed thus: “Donald, do you think it’s prudent of me to keep voting for the BN when it keeps taking away my rights?”

The next real question dealt with the problem of the migration of talent to which Donald was quick to note, in sympathy, that his sister-in-law had migrated, too. He then unwittingly insulted the crowd by suggesting that those who are capable were migrating leaving behind those of lesser talent. The crowd groaned and guffawed again. He Thuan Seng noted more optimistically that South Koreans were eager to retire in Malaysia (to astonished cries).

In an attempt to rescue the caretaker tourism deputy minister, Thuan Seng noted quite frankly that the government lacked policy on this matter. He shared a more elaborate anecdote: that a leading immunologist based at Chicago University had trouble finding a job in Malaysia and was eventually hired in Singapore and given PR status. He referred to this human resource as “our treasures”: the frustration was thick in his voice. Lee took the microphone and underscored what he felt to be the problem: the lack of political leadership.

One young bright spark pointed out the bad economics on a BN banner about the comparative price of chicken, to which the BN panelists offered a serving of bad faith. Donald suggested writing to “The Star or the Ministry” and Thuan Seng, sounding somewhat defeated, said, “I have to follow the Federal…”

Two questions revolved around the People’s Declaration. The more sober of which was a woman declaring herself to be independent who asked rather pointedly of the BN candidates, “What is in the Declaration that you found difficult to endorse?” She added, in lament, that if the BN parties had done so it would have been a document “owned by all”.

The evening was almost complete: with issues both local and national; the emotional tenor going from sober statistics to open derision; and rhetorical strategies from avoidance (mantras) to attempts at eliciting sympathy. What was lacking was more debate partly because the moderator held back from shaping the dialogue and the panelists did not direct their comments to each other.

It was remarkable all the same. I can even imagine party leaders organising a panel of independent interlocutors to engage them in front of audiences both partisan and otherwise. Such an event would deepen voters’ understanding, and perhaps commitment, towards the arduous process of democratising Malaysia.

The evening ended with Father O.C. Lim of the SFX Church inviting all to join, including the candidates, in an all-night prayer vigil for a “miracle” which is how he chose to characterise the possibility of a “free and fair” election in Malaysia. An assertion as audacious as his closing prayer, beginning with, “Allah, Our Father.”

(Note: Total number of voters in PJ Selatan: 73,192. Chinese (46.6%), Malay (36.8%), Indian (15.6%), Others (1%). It is made up of the Taman Medan and Bukit Gasing state constituencies.