On “prayer” and the outcome of the Malaysian elections

I am writing this entry to share two things – about how I think about “prayer” today and how I applied my mind to understanding the outcome of the Malaysian elections.

Let me begin by explaining why I chose to write my previous entry on the Malaysian elections in the form of a “prayer”. It has to do more with how I struggle with my thoughts than with any belief.

Firstly, the format of a “prayer” lends itself well to describe the limits of my own understanding. I have always known that when I do not know enough of the factors affecting a subject matter, I have to be circumscribe about what the outcome would be. It’s not a function of God answering prayers or being lucky that something turns out in my favour. It’s about knowing the real cause and effect.

For thousands of years, blacksmiths thought that when they raked pig iron over a coal fire, the heat purified the iron from other impurities and made it stronger. Little did they realize that it was the exact opposite – the heating process was inserting carbon molecules from the coal into the iron that strengthened it.

Religious people are too fast in attributing cause and effect, and very often it is not that they are “listening” to God for the answer, but interpreting the outcome in whatever ways that validated their own desired outcome.

In the days leading up to the Malaysian elections, I genuinely did not know enough to vote wisely one way or another. I was in effect, searching for the operating elements that would be determining the elections, notwithstanding the rhetoric on both sides. The something that was already in operations. I knew every elections in every country had that defining element, except that here, I could not put my finger on it.

There were too many distracting ideas at play, and the most devious of them was the idea that “this time was different.” I set to list out all that I did know and tried to find the thread that weaves them into a coherent idea that I could deal with.

Secondly, “prayer” has become the way I maintain intellectual honesty. I draw from my own religious growing up, but in a different way than what I knew as a child. I believe today that we need to be intellectually dispassionate about anything we know. Submitting to a form or a being who is higher than us helps me respect that which I do not know or understand.

I am a less “religious” person today, and by that I mean that I am less dogmatic about what I know. This is different from people who are religious in the normally understood way, which is that they profess faith and certainty about their idea of who God is. I am in a phase of my own life where it is not important to me to be certain in that way.

In fact, I believe that not being certain makes me respect God more, because I do not attribute to him ideas about who is he just so that I can shape him into my own image. I still do believe in God but I fear him by precisely not presuming to know who he is.

This thinking, and my coming to terms with my own failings as a human being, have in a real way liberated me. I have dropped out of the race to maintain a demeanor that to me was ever only a middle class definition of a “good person,” something that I should discuss in a different blog entry. But for the purposes of this blog entry, I must say that this has liberated me in order to be even more intellectually honest than I otherwise would be.

I can see why for most people, being religious means being sure of a certain God or a certain type of God. But for me, that kind of certainty is not necessary at all. If God is all powerful and all knowing, then there is no need for me to aspire to be all powerful or all knowing. Some religious people express this tendency by praying for outcomes that satisfy their own idea of what the world should be.

Most religious people who say “God’s will be done,” are not even listening hard enough to understand what this “God’s will” could be, especially if the outcome is not what they were hoping for. Even if “God’s will” was handed to them on a platter, they would not recognize it.

I must stress that being less dogmatic about who God is or how he acts, has not reduced my respect for how he can be involved in human history. In all events, I genuinely struggle to know the mind behind the mind, the issues behind the issues, the drivers behind the drivers that cause the outcome. I struggle against all of my own desires and prejudices that clouds my own judgment call.

Many if not all of these factors behind the factors are not even religious in orientation. For want of a better example, if they were given the profile of an Oskar Schindler, that unlikely amoral, hard drinking, failed businessman, Nazi party member who was “God’s hand” to save thousands of Jews from extermination by hiring them for his factories, they would not have recognized him.

In my adult life, I have been using this respect for God and his control over the unknown to struggle with the things I do not know or that which I do not understand fully. I put all the things I do not know in front of me, and I ask, what can I know from them or what is there to know that I don’t know. In my private time, I pray often and I pray so very hard. I pray by running the ideas again and again inside my head and asking for guidance from the Most Powerful Being who olds this Universe Together to see what I cannot see.

Then I find that I have to augment these prayers with more and more information, more and more insights, hoping to piece them together. In all cases, I do not desire an outcome, even if I am struggling with a situation I don’t like. I ask for dignity to accept any outcome and the wisdom to learn from them.

So in these elections, I never prayed “God please allow the opposition to win” even though the general consensus was that the opposition winning would be the operating

I knew many people who went out on a limb for the future of the country. I prayed, “help me to see what I can’t see.”

So, it was that when I landed in Kuala Lumpur on the morning of the national elections, I was still struggling with the limited knowledge I expressed in my previous blog entry. I talked to the taxi driver. I talked to my university friends. I talked to my mother.

From all the conversations I could garner, I could see very clearly that the prime minister was alone. He was running the election with very little support from within his own party. In fact, his party members, representing the corrupt establishment, had lost all sense of perspective on what the people were now aspiring for. The coalition that held Malaysia together since 1971 elections had all but collapsed.

Then I went to the local school near my home in KL to cast my vote. There was a clear attempt by the election officers to demonstrate that the integrity of the election process was maintained. I voted for the opposition. The opposition won by a large margin in that constituency. So, I had no question about the integrity of the results in that constituency, despite hearing about irregularities in others.

It was when I woke up the next morning to learn that the prime minister had won the elections despite all odds, that I was able to see the first answer to my prayer – what was the operating element in this election. Despite more than 53% of the electorate having voted for the opposition, the prime minister’s coalition, holding together with nothing more than a string, won enough constituencies to win the right to form the next government in parliament.

The operating element was gerrymandering, pure and simple. The prime minister, in cohorts with the election commissioner, whom he appointed, had drawn up the constituencies to group the anti-government blocs together into one ward, so that the government loses that one ward, but wins all the neighboring wards by diluting the opposition elements in them.

My first response to all this was to develop a deep respect for what the prime minister achieved for himself. This was no ordinary politician. He was a very competent one, and even if I voted for the opposition, there was nothing wrong for having respect for a man who won despite all odds, and especially if he did so within the perimeters that the law allowed him.

Gerrymandering by the ruling party may appear morally reprehensible, but it is completely legal, at least in Malaysia. The country’s constitution allows the prime minister to influence the appointment of the electoral commissioner, who in turn decides the electoral boundaries after a lot of consultation. The prime minister was perfectly expected to use it, and embattled as he was, even more so. If I were an opposition member, this more than anything else, was what I would have asked for in a prayer before the elections – to be able to see the operating principle so that they could counter it beforehand.

In the process of rationalizing the operating element, I came to the realization that winning an election, outside of the symbolism and the rhetoric, is tactical warfare. It is not about ideals. Notwithstanding how hard we can argue the case, it is not about righting a wrong.

The religious diehards and the idealists who are motivated by the rhetoric for ideals such as a multi-cultural, meritocratic society would do well to understand that these ideals are not achieved in the political process. An election is not about achieving an ideal, and politicians are not statesmen. Elections are brutal wars, where there is no consolation prize.

The prime minister understood this, the opposition coalition did not. The opposition coalition went into the battle field expecting the rhetoric and the tide of the sentiments to carry them into power. The prime minister, perhaps knowing well that he had none of these on his side, treated it as tactical warfare.

Classifying and calculating the exact numbers of potential “fors” and “against” in an election is now an exact science. The prime minister quite clearly had the numbers in front of him, while still being fearful of losing the elections. The opposition was so sure it was going to win the elections, but did not submit to the science of the process. In other words, the opposition did not invest in knowing enough to win a tactical war.

In the 2008 elections, the opposition had won ground by simply working the internet and social media. The ruling government had under-estimated the power of the internet and was backwards in reading the ground. But by the 213 elections, the ruling government had learnt and moved on to be tactical, while it was the opposition that had not kept up with the times. It had to be tactical, tactical, tactical, all the way.

The opposition’s focus on “phantom voters” demonstrates precisely the lack of tactical skills. The phantom voters were pioneered during the Mahathir era, where millions of illegal foreign workers of the Muslim faith from neighbouring countries were given instant Malaysian citizenship in exchange for voting for the ruling party. This has always been and will always be something that is very hard to proof in a court of law, whether in Malaysia, Kenya or Venezuela. Even then, I do not think that the numbers were large enough to influence districts where the voter preferences were significant one way or another. In other words, it was a marginal issue.

The prime minister was tactical in another way – he used different techniques for the different constituents in the country. In the rural constituencies, especially in East Malaysia, where a promise of a water pipe or a road, could win an election, he promised water pipes and roads. With the civil servants, where direct handouts in terms of bonuses could buy votes, he shameless declared bonuses from the country’s purse just prior to the elections. In the cities, where initiating large projects could keep the large industrialists and bankers happy, he initiated a raft of high profile projects at breakneck speed, even if it put the country’s deficit budget into a further strain. None of these were in themselves illegal. He was mercilessly tactical.

He did so many things that could have been debated as being unwise fiscally, but they were not illegal. He showed that he read his constituents very well and won them over one by one to win the election. He is a politician, not a statesman, at least not at this point in his life story, and is none the worse for it. If he lost the election, nobody was going to give him a medal for playing the elections fairly.

In my prayer before the election, I had prayed for the prime minister to have the strength of character to accept the elections if he lost. Now, I find myself praying for strength of character for the leaders of the opposition instead to be tactical so as to put the tremendous goodwill they have gained to good use.

Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, had the moral high ground of having won more than 50% of the popular vote, that he could have used tactically. He could have pitched his objections to the electoral commission, the law courts or even the “sultans”, to answer how winning more than 50% of the votes could deny him the right to form the government. That alone could have delayed the swearing in ceremony on constitutional grounds, even for a few hours just to embarrass the prime minister. Failing which, he could augment that by introducing the concept of a “shadow government” and define a constitutional crisis that would keep the government in the defense throughout its term of office.

He chose instead to angrily frame his anger on the grounds of phantom votes, which in my view, was a complete waste of his and his supporters energies and achieves nothing.

At the end of the 2008 elections, I was jubilant that the opposition had won so much ground by using the power of the internet and riding on the real aspirations of the people. But the government caught up very quickly. At the end of the 2013 election, I am seeing a prime minister who has all but stolen the agenda of the opposition and who is now in a position to act on them. Quite clearly, this was all he was asking for.

The prime minister appears to have already started work. His most important first action after the election was the sacking of the police chief. For too long, the very corrupt police force was the embodiment of the impossible to change culture at the ruling elite. Now, let’s see how the he rehabilitates the police force. He has a long list of similar work still to be done and to get down to.

For the majority of the electorate, whoever wins does not matter as long as the changes they want implemented stays on the agenda. The opposition had done a remarkable job, often at considerable personal cost, to set the agenda, and now the ruling party has bought some time to steal exactly the same agendas away from them.

The winner, one way or the other, is the country itself. If the prime minister keeps on the renewal track he finds himself on, 50 years from now he will be remembered as the statesman who renewed the country, even if the thousands of people who set the agenda for him were from the opposition. The only way to win back the right to define the agenda is to win the next election tactically, using more information on the electorate. For this, the opposition will need a leader without the historical baggage of an Anwar Ibrahim or a Lim Kit Siang, but that is just as hard to achieve as a win in the next elections.

The silent hand of God works through all the fiction. My Chinese friends tell me that they deserted the government led ethnic Chinese party, because they really want a race-free country. But in most cases, all their own friends are almost wholly Chinese and nothing else.

The real reason the Chinese and Indian government-led ethnic parties lost so much of their grounds was economics. Malaysia had been losing foreign direct investment dramatically for at least the past 10 years, and so the ability of the government to share the economic pie between the races through its race-based system shrank commensurately.

So in turn, the ethnic Chinese building contractors could not find building projects despite supporting the right party. Then the professionals found it did not matter if they were government supporters or not. Then the intellectuals followed and the utility of the ruling coalition disintegrated. It was not the pursuit of an ideal. It was the pursuit of a web of economic dependencies.

If the opposition had won, and became successful in generating new foreign direct investment and reducing the corruption that leaks some of that economic pie in the process, they would have gone on to build their own gravy trail, for which they would be fighting the same corruption the government had failed to deal with. They seem to have just that situation in the state of Selangor, which the opposition won in 2008, and have had enough time to build an eco-system of its own, where contractors and businessmen are tugging at each other to benefit from a new reliable source of business and livelihood.

Notwithstanding that winning the states of Selangor and Penang were on the platforms of eradicating corruption, a new breed of hanger-ons can in fact corrupt them. So, the battle to maintain integrity of an ideal is a constant one that both sides need to fight every day. On whichever side they stand, the Chinese Malaysians are no less Chinese, the Malaysian Malays are no less Malays, and the Malaysian Indians are no less Indian. Each cry for equality and meritocracy in measures that justify their own economic cause.

In the same way, a number of larger global issues are shaping this country in ways that the language for discussing them are not in place as yet. The rising importance of the larger countries of China, India and Indonesia relative to smaller countries like Malaysia, advances in supply chain and manufacturing processes, the move towards a services based economy and so on influences how the common man in Malaysia is being affected in his daily life.

The problem with politics, of all kinds, on either side, is that very often it does not develop the language to deal with such complexities. Many important factors are simplified. The ideals are themselves simplified.

The 53 percent of the country whose choice of government were stolen from them by gerrymandering the constituencies have every right to be angry. It was taken from us, but it was done legally, systematically and in broad daylight. The revenge, as such, should focus on stealing the agenda back. This is harder to do than winning an elections back.

The problem of a stolen agenda is that even if he fails to deliver on it, it becomes difficult for the opposition to reconstitute around it in the future. To be clear, the prime minister is unlikely to reform the country in the same way as an inspired opposition would. But for either, it would be a humongous task. My conclusion is that sadly the opposition has now set for itself a course that will frustrate its ability to form an alternative government for a long time to come.

But that was not my prayer. My prayer was that the agenda for reform would be carried. So, in an obtuse way, my prayer was answered, at least for the moment, but not in the way I had hoped it would be.

I share all this to share two things – how I go about thinking about issues, and how I applied that thinking to the outcome of the Malaysian elections.


  1. Zenedith Meridian

    "I still do believe in God but I fear him by precisely not presuming to know who he is" – your idea of what it means to fear God does not correspond to the Christian definition. Knowing God is a core tenet of Christianity – He has arguably revealed His attributes (whether in the Bible or in creation) to all who care to find out. Ignorance of who He in spite of Him having revealed himself in various ways does not a God-fearing Christian make. 
    "Submitting to a form or a being who is higher than us helps me respect that which I do not know or understand." – There is no causal relationship between the two. It is convenient to attribute fear of the unknown with respect for God, but if man's ignorance is the defining element that keeps in place this respect,  that puts Him in a rather fragile position, don't you think? 
    With that said, your political analysis of the Malaysia elections hit the nail on the head. In the majority of cases, politics is a game rooted in realism. The opposition dug its own grave by making the foolish mistake of believing in it's own lies. 

  2. I think another thing worth mnotineing is the proportion of non-Conservative voters to Conservative voters that have shown up (in my calculation) from the numbers Dave has provided:2004 non/Con = 61%2006 non/Con = 53%2008 non/Con = 53%Ever since the Conservative party has secured its representation in Alberta by riding the vote split on the left, it seems as though fewer non-Conservative voters have been showing up to the polls. My explanation is despair as a product of disempowerment.The only explanation I have for the proportion staying the same in 2006 and 2008, and the other variable of decreased voter turnout other than increased apathy, is Conservative arrogance and non-Conservative despair.

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