I’m trying hard to give a damn

khairie hisyam

Khairie Hisyam Aliman, Malay Mail Online

I have (or had) a dirty little secret: For most of my life, I did not follow any politics whatsoever.

It’s hard to get interested growing up. I was born under the administration of both Malaysia’s longest-serving chief minister in history and her longest-serving prime minister. We subscribed to a daily paper but the leading news seemed always to be about some good thing or other that a white-haired guy did.

Which is why elections never meant much to me. Polling day? Sure. We get a holiday sometimes I think, which is nice. Political soundbites and news invade my television, which is bad. But that’s okay, I have comic books and Terry Brooks to retreat to for a while.

I used to be part of a big problem: political apathy. And I do not think I was alone. Take the 2013 general election and consider the official voter turnout of 84.84 per cent. But this is a percentage of registered voters ― if you put the total number of votes against the entire voting age population, both registered and not, this turnout goes down to 62.95 per cent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

The percentage is worse for the three general elections preceding 2013: in 1999 the total turnout of voting age Malaysians even fell as low as 49.62 per cent despite how the Asian Financial Crisis might have been expected to motivate people to go and make themselves heard through their votes.

In our recent history, we’ve seen just over six in every 10 Malaysian of voting age ― at most ― actually go put their votes in every time Parliament is dissolved.

Now this is in reality a pretty high number. But to put it in further perspective, an extra person or two out of every 10 on polling day might change our political landscape in unimaginable ways.


Then I started paying attention once I started making my own living. I filled in the gaps of my historical knowledge with strategic Googling and by reading some older books by people like Terence Gomez and K.S. Jomo.

I realised three things. First, there is a lot to catch up on. Two, there is a lot of bullshit just there to be seen. Three, a lot of us just don’t care enough to look ― even if we do, we don’t care enough to do something about it.

The last two things lead to the first consequence of our political indifference. Have you wondered why some politicians just say the dumbest things over and over? Because there is no real consequence in the end. That politicians’ voters either didn’t hear about the dumb stuff or simply don’t care enough to vote him or her out.

Now apply this to more serious shenanigans and the hanky-panky that goes on. We want to know more about whether politicians are corrupt and how they are corrupt exactly. Journalism has improved along with greater freedom these days, yet how many people take the time to read the exposés and the like that comes out? And does knowledge of these translate into more or fewer votes for or against these people?

No, we are indifferent and lazy. We don’t have time for a two-page scathing commentary in a broadsheet newspaper. Neither do we have time for an hour-long speech on Youtube. We turn to the other side, who readily give us summarised one-liners of the on-goings.

And this is how mistruths spread. This is how false information becomes embedded in our consciousness.

Sometimes these one-liners are downright inaccurate, the product of grandstanding and a desire to rouse the crowd, make the news. But they are catchy, they are provocative. They shock and enrage. And they become mantras for people who are neither inclined nor care enough to fact-check their political rhetoric.

Another consequence of the politically apathetic group is extremism. You and I, we may be in the middle. We don’t think highly of either side of the political divide. Some people do, however, for their own perceived “side.”

This is the group for which the outrageous things are meant for. Politicians preach to their choir, to secure support from the most engaged voters. Often they do that by painting the other side as enemy. And this feeds into a cycle where political co-operation, even when it is in fact beneficial to all voters, is often seen as dirty because you are now “sleeping with the enemy.”

So how does this affect our politics? It’s broken. Don’t underestimate the impact of the minority ― physicist Hans van Leeuwen of Leiden University in the Netherlands showed us this year that a single domino, small enough to fit in your palm, can topple a tower over 100 metres high.

If there is to be change in Malaysia, this is the place to start. Reach out to the politically indifferent. Maybe they are the youths of today, just finding their feet in the adult world, with bigger problems other than what goes on in Putrajaya. Maybe they are the jaded middle-aged group, who feel like they’ve seen enough shit for two lifetimes.

Whoever they are, they will have eyes and ears. Get them interested to learn and see the bullshit in politics and how they can contribute to fixing it. Because whoever they are, the sickness today is killing their future.