Stumped by the Trump victory


Joceline Tan, The Star

POLITICIANS in Malaysia rarely have nothing to say about anything but they were dumbfounded when Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States.

Days later, many of them are still stumped and Pakatan Harapan, which was reportedly rooting for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, has yet to formally congratulate the President-elect.

Pakatan politicians are fond of extrapolating political changes, be it the Arab Spring or electoral upsets around the world, as a sign of things to come in Malaysia.

But they have been strangely restrained about the “Trump revolution”, many of them refraining from analysing what the election outcome means for Malaysian politics.

In hindsight, that might have been a wise thing because the US media reported that the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina is planning a victory parade for Trump.

The Barisan Nasional side has been equally stunned. Clinton was not exactly the average Umno politician’s cup of tea. As for Trump, they are not even sure whether it is going to be tea or coffee.

What is clear is that politicians of all stripes had closely followed the presidential campaign as “America’s nastiest election” played out in the final lap.

It was like the greatest reality TV show in the world and it seemed only fitting that the man credited with creating reality TV should win the race. The man with the Samy Vellu hairstyle played the media and his audience like a pro and he got the viewership and the votes.

The good, the bad and the ugly of American election politics was on display.

The race began reasonably enough with two flawed and highly polarised candidates. Then it kept hitting new lows – mudslinging, character assassination and name calling.

Past sex peccadilloes involving Trump were dredged up, Clinton’s e-mail scandal resurfaced days before polling.

There were claims of voter fraud and that the election would be rigged. The media was accused of bias and taking sides.

At one point, said well-known columnist Datuk Johan Jaaffar, it was like a contest for the worst soundbites.

“Is this what too much democracy is like? I never imagined it could happen to America. This is the country that likes to preach to others how to run their elections,” said Johan.

During the campaign, Trump had refused to say whether he would accept the election result if he lost and the irony was that when he won, those who did not support him held protests rejecting him as the president.

That he did not win the popular vote was also held against him. The fact is that the US presidential election is won on electoral college votes the way the Malaysian election is determined along the Westminster system where the side with the most parliamentary seats forms the government.

The election ended with a nation deeply divided.

From campaign to the finale, so much of it was reminiscent of what Malaysians went through in the 2013 general election.

“Both sides are stumped for words because they are guilty of the things they saw happen in the American campaign. The insults, the grandstanding, stoking racial feelings, our politicians on both sides are equally guilty,” said Fui K. Soong, CEO of the CENSE think-tank.

The American polls have been an eye-opener for Malaysians. It opened their minds to a more complete picture of the real America which is more than just Hollywood and L.A, sophisticated talk shows and New York and the ever politically correct media.

We had a glimpse of the other half of America – blue collar workers, evangelical and anti-Islam types, predominantly white folks who are resentful of establishment politicians and Wall Street.

It is not unlike our own divide between the Chinese dominated west coast belt and the predominantly Malay east coast belt where lives revolve around the mosque and surau.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s reaction to the election result was spot on. The Prime Minister said the outcome showed that politicians should not take voters for granted.

He pointed out that Americans who had been left behind want their government to be more focused on their interests and welfare and be less embroiled in foreign intervention.

Clinton did not take care of what the US media described as her blue wall, the Democrat’s traditional stronghold states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania which swung to Trump.

“Najib has protected his own blue wall very well. He understands the needs of our version of the ‘rust belt’. He has taken care of the Malays, Felda, Sarawak and Sabah,” said business tycoon Datuk John Soh Chee Wen who used to be a political strategist for PKR.

Soh said that this is where visible deliverables like BR1M and affordable housing come into the picture and which are crucial for the survival of any political party.

“It should be a wake-up call for Barisan. It shows that establishment political parties need to move in tandem with the electorate and not the other way around,” said Selangor Gerakan Youth vice-chairman Ivanpal S. Grewal.

The US economy, said Ivanpal, showed better growth than the G7 countries, but people on the ground did not feel that their lives were better than four years ago.

“Growth figures have to translate into making the everyday lives of citizens better. The gap between political rhetoric and what is happening on the ground cannot be too big,” he said.

According to Ivanpal, the American polls showed that there was a middleclass flight to Trump.

In Malaysia, the rich can take care of themselves and the poor get taken care of, but the middleclass have to fend for themselves.

“They are the largest group now, they feel the pinch. How do we address this middleclass challenge?” said Ivanpal.

A concern for the Pakatan side is the millennials who stayed away because they were not inspired by either candidate.

Voter turnout was only about 52% and only half of those eligible to vote cast their ballot.

“That may happen in Malaysia and it’s a cause of worry for us. The young voters, the social media generation, are disenchanted but we need their support to offset the possible swing voters,” said a Pakatan politician.

Sex scandals do not seem to sway the voters about a candidate.

The Access Hollywood tape depicting Trump making sexual and disrespectful remarks about women did not seem to affect his support among women.

He insulted 57% of the electorate who are females but 53% of those who voted for him were females. Hopefully, that will not give ideas to Malaysian politicians.

The media, the pollsters and even Facebook came under attack for the role they played, for getting it wrong, for being biased.

According to KRA Group CEO Karim Raslan, it can only get more complicated as social media overtakes conventional sources of news.

“As more and more people get their news updates from Facebook and social media, they tend to live in a filter bubble that blinds them to other perspectives,” said Karim.

He said that this phenomenon is something that politicians and political parties should take note of.

One thing which the American election can teach us is how to accept defeat like a champion. It was shattering for Clinton but there was no such idiocy like not accepting the results of the polls.

She gave a classy speech, urging her supporters to give Trump “an open mind and a chance to lead” but her message was to young people, especially young women.

“Many of you are at the beginning of your professional, public and political careers. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts. But please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. It is worth it,” she said a day after the polls, standing in a hall under a glass ceiling that she failed to break.

Najib’s congratulatory message to Trump was a talking point of sorts.

“I congratulate him on his extraordinary victory and look forward to meeting him again soon,” said Najib.

It had a much more cosy tone than any other congratulatory notes he had sent to other victorious political leaders, especially that bit about meeting Trump again.

Najib has said of Trump: “I know him personally. He is not a stranger to me.”

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister played host to the “Trump of the Philippines”, that is, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines whose gung-ho political style has drawn parallels to his American counterpart.

Duterte was on a two-day state visit to Malaysia and he and Najib bonded over karaoke where they let down their hair and belted out some golden oldies.

The real Trump will be making his way to these parts.

The former Apprentice star is more a golfer than into karaoke. But golf will be a luxury because he has got to do all those absurd things that he promised like building the Mexican wall and jailing his opponent.

And that’s another lesson from the American polls for our politicians – don’t make promises you cannot keep.