We set out, the state assembly candidate Young Syefura, the parliamentary candidate Wong Tuck and I with a small group of supporters to go house-to-house canvassing. Rara, as Syefura is known, had described the small housing estate we were going to as “elite”, which in Ketari, the state constituency she was standing in, is a relative term. The houses were mostly simple and one-storeyed, often with untidy gardens, and seemed to be occupied mostly by elderly Malays. Their children lived in the big cities and only came to visit them at weekends.
A group of young boys on motorcycles followed us as we walked along, near enough to make us aware of their presence yet far enough to not seem too threatening. “They’re not trying to intimidate us,” said Wong Tuck, “They’re trying to intimidate the people in the houses.”
A Special Branch officer, also on a motorcycle, followed us, to keep us safe, he said.
When we called out “Assalamualikum”, most doors, if there were people indoors, eventually opened and we could introduce ourselves and hand over our campaign materials. People were polite and willing to give a listen. One old woman sat outside on a swing unable to come to the gate because her legs hurt. During our chat, Wong Tuck told her about a free acupuncture clinic in nearby Bentong she could go to for treatment.
Another house belonged to a retired professor and his wife who offered that change had to come because “that’s what young people want”. While most people were not as open, some gave a wink as they took our flyers and said “Ini kalilah”, this is the time, the slogan for change since the previous election in 2013. Only one house was outrightly hostile, a Barisan Nasional flag hoisted high in its front garden, its occupants refusing to even turn around to face us.
Rara’s house-to-house canvassing was the least hectic type of campaigning I participated in throughout the election drive. For most of those 11 days, campaigning was a blur of driving to small towns or suburbs, getting on a stage to give a 20-minute speech, and then getting back in the car to go to the next ceramah (talk) venue. After visiting some 20 houses with Rara, we had a quick dinner and then went on to two ceramah spots, a raucous one in a Chinese area and another more sedate one in a Malay village. There I risked electrocution on a metal stage just as lightning began to flash overhead.
One night the former Bersih chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasen and I drove to Gemas in Johor state where we were met by a large contingent of yellow-shirted Bersih supporters. They escorted us to Batu Anam, the start of the marathon tag-team ceramahs Ambiga and I had to do. At each venue, she would speak and then dash off to the next spot while I took to the stage, following her as soon as I had finished, until we were done at Tangkak at midnight before driving home to Kuala Lumpur.
It was like that throughout the campaign — marathon evenings of at least two rallies, with speakers doing relays from one to the other. In some cases, I never saw my fellow speakers because we missed each other as we dashed from one place to another. As all rallies began at eight at night, there was no hope of ever getting to bed before 1 a.m.
But the crowds made it all worthwhile. They turned out in great numbers, greeted the Pakatan Harapan candidates and supporting speakers warmly, chanted slogans enthusiastically and yelled encouragement. We fed off their energy and it kept us going those brutal days. They wanted to hear what we had to say. But they also wanted to be entertained. Most of all, they wanted to be respected and not insulted with cash offers and empty promises.
As a novice campaigner, I made a total of 15 speeches in 10 days, a lot less than the actual candidates. I didn’t have to kiss babies or shake hundreds of hands at local markets. But being a friendly presence is important to Malaysian voters, adept at observing a person’s demeanour just from body language and manner of speaking.
For the record, both Rara and Wong Tuck won their seats, the latter a giant-killer having defeated the president of the Malaysian Chinese Association party himself. Another 120 Pakatan Harapan parliamentary candidates also won, more than enough to take over the federal government. It was a change that the people clearly wanted, even those who sat silently at the sidelines watching and listening. In the end, it was the walk to the polling booth that talked.
Marina Mahathir is a newspaper columnist and an advocate for women’s rights