NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
Midway through the Sarawak campaign I received a text message from an unfamiliar number. The sender turned out to be a woman in Kuching, wanting to know when my next layover at the state capital would be.
Feeling perplexed, I glanced at my campaign itinerary. Some days I didn’t even know where I was. Spaced out as I was by the constant travelling, I was even more bemused by the rest of her message.
She went on to explain that her teenage daughter had a collection of five Ubah (the DAP hornbill mascot) plush toys, four of them bearing autographs of various party leaders and ceramah speakers. One of them, still in its original plastic wrapping, had been especially reserved for my John Hancock. Hence, she wanted to know if Kuching would be part of my tour.
It was then that I confirmed my growing suspicions that a new political dynamic was emerging. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Barely a week into our campaign, the Ubah plush toys had already sold out (30,000 units), and word was that it had spawned a private selling market with autographed toys going for as high as RM1,000 a piece.
The media had been reporting record ceramah attendances but anyone who was there will tell you that there was something more than just numbers.
Our ceramahs attracted just about everybody. There were elderly residents who brought their own chairs, listening with quiet intent from seven o’clock until the lights went off before midnight; the ardent supporters who whooped and cheered at every opportunity and pockets of the politically curious, who would smile and applaud politely on cue. But that was normal. What wasn’t normal, however, were the kids.
Teenagers in Ubah T-shirts, faces adorned with Ubah stickers and armed with Ubah plush toys. Not only would they stay throughout the ceramah which was punctuated with sing-alongs and video slideshows, at the end of the night they would also mob our speakers for autographs and photos. On some nights, I even felt like a minor pop star.
Our leaders practically became celebrities, and this was most evident in the case of speaker extraordinaire Dr Hew Kuan Yau, notoriously called “Superman” for his trademark T-shirts that bore the “S” emblem. He had burst onto the scene with his fiery rhetoric and quickly gained infamy through some controversial (but hilarious) remarks about a certain BN component party. And then we started to receive reports that Superman T-shirts were selling out in every locality he visited.
Something strange was happening. Kids who were hitherto apolitical were thronging our events and accessorising themselves with our merchandise. Semi-cult followings were developing. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the DAP campaign had inadvertently transcended politics and made its way into the realm of pop culture.
A veteran reporter and incorrigible cynic even remarked to me that he had never witnessed such a phenomenon in all his years of covering Malaysian politics.
A new dynamic was indeed emerging, and it was something incomprehensible to most people used to the natural order of politics. This is especially so for those seated in the gilded thrones of power. In their distress and bewilderment, they attempt to frame it in the only language they know how: race and religion. And while they know this to be untrue, they are also beset by the realisation that they could never, ever, replicate this kind of popularity and success.
The fact is, it only works because our struggle is one that claims the moral high ground. And therein lies the irony. The more they attempt to suppress us through the system and the more they antagonise the people with their inflammatory rhetoric, the more it will legitimise our perception as a champion of the oppressed against a tyrannical regime.
Yet it must be put into perspective. Such a situation was allowed to evolve only because the political reality in Malaysia is not ideologically-substantiated. In other words, Malaysian politics is a case of black and white. Theorists may balk and cringe, but the truth is that our political discourse revolves around the perception of good against evil, justice against tyranny, freedom against oppression, fairness against inequality.
The bad guys are obvious and we have appeared to take up the mantle of the people’s champion, a theme that was fully encapsulated in our Sarawak campaign video, which saw our mascot Ubah taking the stage against an indomitable foe in the guise of Chief Minister Taib.
Thus, we have managed to position ourselves as the underdog carrying the hopes and dreams of the people. In short, we have become Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed.
And in true underdog style, we are up against all odds imaginable. Not only are we resource-limited, we are also constrained by a lack of democratic space, blacked out by the state-owned media and forced to battle against an Election Commission that is determined to wax an already slippery path for us.
But a champion’s cause is only as great as the sins of his foe. The sense of injustice, the palpable greed and corruption, rising inflation and a bigoted regime intent on dividing the people, these sentiments are real.
It is precisely these injustices that bolster our claim to moral superiority. Without the yin there would be no yang. And this great battle of good versus evil will continue so long as the BN government continues its corrupt and self-serving ways.
However, it is important for us to remind ourselves that everything is variable and nothing is constant in the politics of perception. Let us not forget that while Apollo Creed was the overconfident “bad guy” in the first two movies, he was reinvented as an all-American hero in the third and fourth. Perceptions change, and so can pop culture fads.