Photos courtesy of Alan Teh Leam Seng.

“Decision Day is fast approach¬ing. This is the mother of all elections. Every vote counts in this coming 14th General Elections (GE14),” my friend whispers in my ear when we bump into each other recently at a mutual friend’s birthday party.

With GE14 just days away, emotions are running high and the party where we hap¬pen to meet at is no exception. Between mouthfuls of sumptuous food, the so-called ‘experts’ try their utmost best to influ¬ence the people around them. Supported by eye-catching but probably dubious images and videos from their mobile phones, they weave spellbinding tales in a bid capture their audience’s imagination.

While hovering from one group to another, listening to justifications aired about why the electorate should put their weight behind a specific party, I can’t help but start reminiscing about the early elec¬tions that were held in our nation.

Headed for the ballot box

Despite the fact that Malayans were in uncharted waters when they headed to the polling stations for the first time in 1955, almost the entire electorate was unified by the imminent danger posed by the communist terrorists waging a ruthless guerrilla warfare from the inner bowels of the jungle. The politicians mirrored the views of the people when all the political parties in the Federation vigorously and unanimously disapproved of the terrorists’ offer in June 1954 to negotiate a ceasefire.

Everyone, including the British, acknowledged that the nation had paid a heavy price for this counterproductive and unnecessary conflict. The thousands of precious lives and millions of valuable dollars lost could have been used to develop this soon-to-be independent nation.

Fortunately, the tide began to turn as the much anticipated elections approached. For the first time since the beginning of the Emergency in 1948, recorded bandit surrenders easily outnumbered kills. This clear indicator that the communist cam¬paign had failed paved the way for a suc¬cessful landmark election where, for the first time, a majority of legislators would be elected by popular ballot rather than appointed by their colonial masters.

Singapore, which was part of Malaya at that time, was the first to head for the ballot box to choose members to fill the 25 out of 32 seats in the Legislative Assembly on April 2, 1955. Automatic registration quad¬rupled the electorate size and changed the entire racial composition. No one could pre¬dict the outcome.

Four days later, on April 6, Singapore’s first government line-up was announced with successful barrister, David Marshall as Chief Minister. It wasn’t easy going for Marshall’s young and inexperienced cabinet right from the start. Trouble, which began with lorry-loads of Chinese students instigating strikers at the Hock Lee Bus Depot to picket culminated in widespread riots on May 12, 1955.

The aftermath of the May 12, 1959 riots in Singapore.

That night of terror and violence in Sin¬gapore sent shock waves throughout the rest of Malaya which was soon heading for the polls themselves. The people were worried that they would also walk down this same turbulent path once the results were announced.

Fortunately, the issues leading up to constitutional change was slightly different across the causeway. The growing spirit of nationalism following widespread opposi¬tion to the Malayan Union had earlier led to a new agreement in 1948 called the Federal Agreement.

Among the points stipulated in this historic document was the provision for an election that had to be held as soon as practicable and a common citizenship for all who regarded Malaya as their perma¬nent home.

Despite the gallant efforts of Datuk Onn Jaafar who pedalled from kampung to kampung on his push bike to arouse enthusiasm for his newly-formed Party Negara, it was Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Alliance Party (today Barisan Nasional) that won by a landslide when the July 27, 1955 election result was announced.

A new milestone

The winning coalition, which comprised three parties, United Malay National Organisation (Umno), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and Malayan Indian Con¬gress (MIC), won the hearts and minds of the three major races in the country that they represented by promising a bright future through development for all.

A 1959 newspaper report about Tunku Abdul Rahman lauding MCA’s loyalty.

Of the 52 Federal Legislative Council seats up for grabs, the Alliance party swept aside the opposition by winning all the seats, save for a solitary one, which went to the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP), today known as PAS.

The overwhelming mandate was just the tonic Tunku Abdul Rahman needed to make good upon his election promise to grant full amnesty to communist terrorists who chose to give up their armed struggle once and for all. In a little more than a month after becoming Malaya’s first elected Chief Minister, Tunku made the reprieve official.

Unfortunately, few communists sur¬rendered to the authorities. By then it was evident that the communist leaders, having had ample warning of this impend¬ing pardon, conducted intensive anti-amnesty propaganda among their rank and file while tightening discipline and issuing warnings of severe punishments to poten¬tial defectors.

Despite this lukewarm response, the fact remained that the Chief Minister’s signature on the thousands of leaflets dropped over the communist jungle hide¬outs had robbed the bandits of their last possible claim to represent the will of the people and, at the same time, united public opinion in demanding an end to this cruel and futile war.

Tunku Abdul Rahman canvassing for voters in Kelantan.

The Malayan people, regardless of race and colour, had placed their complete trust in Tunku Abdul Rahman in the 1955 elec¬tions to lead them forward. It was also through this first election exercise that they gained a whole new experience which would stand them in good stead in future elections.

The first polls

“Do not spoil your votes. Exercise your con¬stitutional right!” These statements come within earshot as I head towards the buffet table for second helpings. Curious to know more, I inch closer and soon find myself looking at several animated images on a tablet screen promoting things that voters should and shouldn’t do during polling day.

A polling information sheet issued for the 1955 elections.

Judging from the style of the picture and number of accompanying languages, I deduce that these were produced for the 1959 elections. Looking at the eye-catching images and their striking captions make me realise that these polling rules are still applicable today. The regulations have remained largely the same for nearly 60 years!

Like this coming GE14, voters heading for the voting stations back in 1959 were assured that their votes were confidential and that no one had the right to prevent them from making their decision. Voters were reminded to bring their identity cards and ensure that their names were in the electoral rolls before joining the queue to wait for their turn.

The 1959 General Election was sig¬nificant because it was the first polls held after Malaya achieved independence. Unlike today, the Parliamentary and State Elections back then were held separately. Following the dissolution of the State and Federal Legislative Councils, the Election Commission issued election writs for both councils in April and July, respectively.

Voters forming a queue before casting their votes.

This paved the way for the State Legis¬lative Council elections to take place in all 282 state constituencies belonging to the 11 Malayan states from May 20 to June 24, 1959. The Alliance Party won four seats uncontested and when the final results were in, the party led by Tunku Abdul Rahman secured over 50 per cent of the votes in every state except Kelantan and Terengganu.

Triumph for the Alliance Party

Back in 1955, the overwhelm¬ing results in favour of the Alliance Party came with the support of an electorate com¬posed of some nine Malays to every one Chinese. Four years later, despite the significant change in the social landscape brought about by the enforcement of the new citizenship laws which changed the ratio roughly to one of 10 to six, the Alliance Party still won admirably in the state elections.

This showed that the Malay vote had remained loyal and a large majority of the 600,000 new Chinese citizens, exercising their rights for the first time, had thrown in their support for the party that represented all races.

Banking on a nation grateful for the successful conclusion of the 1957 Merdeka campaign, Tunku Abdul Rahman led the Alliance Party into the first general elec¬tions after independence advocating the principle of peace, co-operation and bal¬ance among the races as well prosperity and development for the nation.

A voter casting his vote in the 1959 State Elections.

Things, however, was not smooth sailing for the incumbent ruling party as it was seized by internal crisis on the eve of Nomination Day for the Federal elections. The strife stemmed from demands for more MCA members to be nominated as Alliance candidates. Fortunately, the peril subsided as quickly as it surfaced thanks to a successful dialogue between Tunku Abdul Rahman and the-then MCA presi¬dent, Dr Lim Chong Eu.

Making good on promises

Like the upcoming GE14, the General Election to elect members to the first Parliament of the Federation of Malaya was also held on a Wednesday — on Aug 19, 1959 to be exact. Voting took place simultaneously in all 104 parliamentary constituencies from which the Alliance Par¬ty secured a convincing two thirds majority by winning a total of 74 seats.

Returned to power by the people, the Alliance Party quickly set about mak¬ing good on its election promises. A host of initiatives were put in place to lift the living standards of rural families, many of whom were subsisting on no more than $30 a month.

Farmers’ and fishermen’s coopera¬tives began springing up everywhere with experts brought in to advise the people on modern techniques in agriculture and hus¬bandry. This initiative was primarily aimed at boosting the income of rural folks. At the same time, road and bridge construction projects, as well as land development and resettlement schemes, were given priority. Malaya was on the right path to becoming an Asian economic powerhouse.

I’m jolted from my reverie by a gentle tap on my left shoulder. It’s my friend again. Realising that I’m about to leave, he wants to hitch a ride to the commuter sta¬tion. Along the way to my car, he continues his mutterings on politics. As for me, I’m just looking forward to Wednesday when I can get my opportunity to vote for a peace¬ful and stable Malaysia for generations to come.

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