‘Clearing Your Mind’ Day for our elections

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

MARCH 23 — Polling Day determines a nation’s trajectory for a considerable amount of time, in our case up to five years — half a decade.

In that duration a first former can finish secondary school, a medical student graduates to “life or death” decisions, enough time for a person to marry, divorce and remarry, or for a boyband to form, find fame and melt down.

In summary, a long time.

Leadership of a country is decided by votes cast on a single day, and thereafter, residents live through that decision for five years. Dramatic much? At least the Malaysian prime minister does not have the launch code for nuclear missiles.

To add to the serious tone, the decision is irreversible, as in difficult to nullify even if it is self-evident shortly after Election Day those chosen are incompetent, corrupt, rash or all three.

This choice of government either flourishes a nation, leaves it stagnant or worse spirals it into despair. One vote to be cast over an office day, 8am to 6pm determines so much, and to do so after a month confronted by campaigns by various parties — who tug at emotions, memories and heartstrings.

Imagine standing inside a store and an army of salesmen shouting, singing, pleading and threatening over a single purchase to be made on the same day. The noise and busyness can overpower.

Consider if the buyer did not have to deal with the nonsense for a day. A whole day, 24 hours.

And then voters head to the polling booth on election day. With a buffer of a day to process what they’ve heard, what they’ve seen.

Would his decision improve with 24 hours to mull over the choices? Maybe not, but he cannot claim he had no time to think about it in peace.

Consider the divisive state of Malaysian politics today, sentiments overriding reason, a whole day off to think about the options is not entirely crazy. It appears to be a sensible and just thing to do.

Leadership of a country is decided by votes cast on a single day, and thereafter, residents live through that decision for five years. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Leadership of a country is decided by votes cast on a single day, and thereafter, residents live through that decision for five years. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Leadership of a country is decided by votes cast on a single day, and thereafter, residents live through that decision for five years. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

The present arrangement, where a cooling-off period is just the end of the previous day, midnight, to start of polling at 8am, is just eight hours and most of it is sleep.

Sleep on it must mean more than just literally twenty-five million voters having sleep before voting starts.

They need a day to set their heads straight. The thinking is all done by them but they need the time to consider without interference.

Consider too that till midnight and sleep time, the parties and candidates spike up action and temperatures with mega rallies.

Malaysians need to wake up after the rallies, have a coffee and see things without distractions.

The Election Commission (EC) can do this. It is within their jurisdiction to set the calendar. From nomination day to voting day, and also setting the number of days to campaign and leave a day between campaign and voting.

Bad decisions cannot be legislated out of existence but rushed decisions are mitigated by this measure to add a day without campaigns before the vote.

Reminds me of what an-ex customer outreach officer for a barely known private college shared with the columnist. Her job was to be part of a team who’d set up booths in villages.

They’d regale about the greatness of their offerings and then ask students with parents to sign up on the spot, and then the students are tied up to the national loan system.

The students do not have to pay until they graduate, and if they sign then and there is a RM500 slashed from the sign-up fee of RM1,000. The whole loan is another matter altogether, but a savings of 50 per cent if they jump onboard immediately attracts rash acceptances.

There is a reason why salesmen give huge discounts for a rapid purchase, they rely on the psychological elements of customers hoodwinked by the discount rather than what they are buying. They more often than not do not realise the actual cost of the item or if there are better choices.

Rushing the decision amplifies the value and compounds the fear of losing a deal. Buyer’s remorse is usually felt much later.

This is similar if voters do not have enough time to consider their votes.

A cooling-off period is not new nor strange.

Singapore next door has a 24-hour cooling period. They introduced it in 2011. Before that, they were like us. Though the criticism is that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) introduced it to mitigate the passion-rousing oratory of opposition leaders. Surely if the message resonates, it can resonate longer than a day and a half. It has to, because the decision lasts several far more than a thousand days.

Wake up without the noise

But what happens in that one day?

Regular life without the bother of campaigners. Voters can speak to their families, friends, colleagues and neighbours without the interference of vested groups. Or choose not to speak and to ruminate the choices on their own.

An active effort to cut out campaign activities would simulate for voters the opportunity to be further away from the store.

An eight-hour cooling off period is akin to be out of the store but still in the mall. The physical and symbolic distance between the process and voters, can only improve the quality of the decision.

Twenty-four hours is that buffer. Puts people out of the store, out of the mall, somewhere downtown sipping an ice-tea.

Mentioned before is Singapore, what about our other neighbours? Thailand is not quite a day, the cooling-off begins at 6pm before voting day, six hours longer than Malaysia. The Philippines is a day, and Cambodia two days.

Most countries accept that a healthy gap between campaign energy and voting day is useful and various accommodations are implemented to allow voters space to breathe.

The glaring exception being the United States. The US prides free speech not to be contained and only bars campaigning close to voting centres. Parties can lobby for support throughout even on election day.

Consider why politicians oppose cooling-off days. The answer is similar to why authoritarian nations prefer shorts campaign periods. When rushed people pick people they are used to rather that those they share their values.

This is not to mean online campaigns are absent. But the parties would be advised to halt and they probably would in order not to appear recalcitrant or suffer a backlash for not showing restraint. The open stipulation that campaigns are NO-GO on cooling-day would result in a massive drop in campaigning.

The proposal is plain, with global precedence and evidence. It is not experimental or cost-creating. It is just a free tool to improve our democracy. Our path to a considered decision regardless for who it is for. It is non-partisan.

The arguments against are absent and hard to form. It is usually the case when the idea is solid. This one is. Over to you, EC.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.