Mad about empowering voters

March 02, 2014

P. Y. Wong set up Tindak Malaysia, a civil society movement to lobby for electoral reforms, in 2008. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, March 2, 2014.

His friends told him he was crazy when he mooted the idea in 2008 to start a civil society movement to lobby for electoral reforms. They said his idea would flop and was not worth giving up a lucrative construction business abroad.

But P. Y. Wong ignored the naysayers. Driven by idealism and a self-confessed “half madness”, he set up Tindak Malaysia (TM).

"They told me I was mad and that I will not pull it off. But I guess one has to be half mad and idealistic to want to do something like this," said Wong, 64.

Today, 6 years later, his "lonely journey" is finally bearing fruit. TM has finally come into its own with nearly 5,000 volunteers.

Some of his critics have joined the cause as well.

Redelineation exercise

But more importantly, TM is ready with a counter proposal to the possible redelineation process to be carried out by the Election Commission (EC) as early as this month.

It has completed its own re-drawing of parliament boundaries aimed at promoting a balance of voter population ratio across districts.

This means that when EC's map is unveiled, civil society would be able to compare it with TM's map to see if it complies with the "one person, one vote" principle in democracy.

While waiting for this to take place, Wong said that TM volunteers would be embarking on a roadshow across the country to present their version of the re-drawn boundaries and consult the people whether any adjustments were needed.

He said they were also discussing with other NGOs how and when to present TM's version of the re-drawing of boundaries to the EC.

However, Wong is not expecting the EC to accept TM's version.

"We expect them to reject our map but no effort has been wasted on our part, this is all about voter education.

"It is about giving people the knowledge that fairer boundaries can be drawn, and if it was not done, the people should question why," he added.

Citing the oft-used example of Kapar, which is nine times the size of Putrajaya, but both having one member of parliament each, Wong said this meant that if one stayed in Putrajaya, their vote was nine times more valuable than the person staying in Kapar, and this did not conform with the one-person-one-vote principle.

Electoral reforms

He said that electoral reform was also crucial for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), adding that there was no party in the world that could maintain power forever.

"If you watch the trend, it is very clear, something might happen in GE14 or GE15.

"And it is proven that for parties to make a comeback, they need a fair electoral system, otherwise they have no chance," he warned.

He added that TM's primary objective was to give power back to the people.

Wong also spoke about the complex process involved in re-drawing the boundaries, explaining that although hundreds of professionals tried their hand at it, they gave up after two to three sessions of training.

"In the end, it was the engineers, and those who are typically map readers, who were able to do this," he said.

Contributing back to society

An engineer himself, Wong gave up a successful construction business in Brunei and returned home for good in 1998, after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as deputy prime minister, because he decided that it was time he gave back to society.

"People of my generation were busy trying to make a living and keep out of trouble, but there comes a point in time where you decide that you have to do something, if not for yourself, then for the future generation," he said.

Wong said that when he first started, he had to develop the big picture, draw up a plan and break it down to smaller do-able elements.

This was how he convinced his friends to join him in his cause, he added.

"I got them in at the smaller do-able level, which was getting involved as polling agents for a start.

"A lot of people my age are driven by idealism, so if you show them that you are sincere and committed to a cause, the right people will come," he said.

Wong added that those who were attracted to the cause had also felt some form of economic pain, of trying to make a living and raise a family.

"Only when you suffer pain and go through some kind of struggle will you develop an appreciation for certain things in life and also develop the mental resilience to put up with hardship.

"For many years I was struggling alone, people didn't believe in my plan, so it was just me trying to reach out to people, from 1998 until the end of 2011, only then people started to come in," he said.

Wong started the TM website in October 2008, with the main intention of setting up a library for research purposes, after a stint with Parti Keadilan Rakyat as a backroom operations person.

In TM, he embarked on conducting voter education and training polling agents to participate in GE13.

Training for these agents was on election laws and Wong recalled agents complaining that the training sessions were too long.

"But after their experience in GE13, they came back and told us we did not train them enough," he added, laughing.

However, Wong is reluctant to take credit for getting civil society actively involved as polling agents, saying that it had existed all along but was driven by political parties.

"Perhaps the consciousness was not there, so we probably contributed to raising public awareness about the importance of this role, it was a form of voter education empowerment," he said.

He said that after GE13, the feedback from the polling agents was that the role gave them a “sense of participation and control over our political destiny rather than just being helpless onlookers”.

Helping Bersih

Post-GE13, TM sees its main role as supporting electoral watchdog, Bersih 2.0, said Wong.

Other than that, TM would focus on identifying problems and solutions rather than agitate for change.

"We develop solutions to major problems rather than protest, we talk to both sides of the political divide and offer our solutions," he said.

Wong said that TM's role was not meant to give any political party the advantage, but to restore human rights for all Malaysians.

He hoped to see change in his lifetime, clarifying that this did not necessarily mean a change of government.

"When I say change, I mean a change in the system where the people are the ultimate arbiters in the running of the government.

"If you have a ruling party that treats the people fairly and runs the country efficiently and honestly, there is no reason not to support them," Wong said.

Until then, he is committed to TM’s cause. He said he and the rest of the TM team were proud of how far they have come as a non-governmental organisation.

"Many people have asked me to get involved in business, but I told them forget it, I just want to concentrate on this cause," he added. – March 2, 2014.