The 1978 General Elections: DAP’s Finest Hour
The National Front set out to wipe out the DAP in the 1978 General elections, not by besting the DAP in a democratic contest of ideas, policies and programmes, but by holding the most undemocratic general elections in the history of Malaysia.
National Front strategists planned to make Polling DAY, July 8, the DAP’s darkest day. It turned out to be the DAP’s finest hour.
The DAP literally fought the 1978 general elections with our hands tied behind our backs, our moths sealed, while “brave” National Front leaders punched and kicked us all over the body, some even administering Siamese kicks. From outside the electoral “ring”, the New Straits Times, the Star, the Utusan papers, Television and Radio Malaysia, directed missiles at the DAP. National Front strategists had thought that the DAP would not be able to last more than a few rounds. But the DAP, with the people’s support, not only firmly stood our ground for the entire fifteen rounds of the electoral contest, and did not collapse, we were able to floor the Barisan Nasional, particularly Datuk Lee San Choon, Dr Lim Chong Eu and Tan Sri Manickavasagam.
The DAP’s victory in the 1978 general elections in winning 16 Parliamentary and 25 State Assembly seats is all the more meaningful because we won them under the most unfavourable conditions. If a fair and democratic general election had been held, the DAP would have easily won over 20 Parliamentary and over 50 State Assembly seats.
National Front Played “Foul”
The National Front played “foul” in the 1978 general elections. Their biggest secret weapon was the ban on public rallies, to deny the DAP all access to the electorate.
On 5th July 1978, the New Straits Times gave a front-page treatment to a speech by the usually reticent Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Haniff Omar to officers and men after the finals of the Police Volleyball Tournament in Ipoh calling on the Police to “maintain maximum vigilance from now until Merdeka Day on August 31” because of the possibility of violent incidents on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Communist Party of Malaya on June 30.
Tan Sri Haniff Omar also said that such incidents “may be carried out in States where there have been no previous manifestation of communist activity”.
The picture that Tan Sri Haniff Omar painted was of course a very different one from the picture which the Deputy Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was giving foreign investors in Europe only a fortnight earlier, that there was no security problem in Malaysia.
As I said in a press conference on that very same day, “the IGP’s speech is politically-motivated, general elections-directed, and meant to prepare the ground for the banning of public rallies and the imposition of restrictions on free electioneering in the coming general elections expected in a matter of weeks.”
I added at the press conference: “Any ban on public rallies and restrictions on free campaigning in the general elections is unjustifiable, and can only be motivated by the political desire of the ruling party of trying to win as many seats as possible in the general elections by every possible means.
“If the IGP is seriously of the view that the security situation would not permit public rallies or free campaigning, then it would be his duty to recommend to the Prime Minister that a general elections should not be held. After all the term of this Parliament does not expire until August 1979.
“Here, I call on the Prime Minister Dato Hussein Onn not the be the first Malaysian Prime Minister to conduct the most unfair, undemocratic general elections by banning public rallies or imposing restriction on free campaigning. If public rallies are going to be banned and free electioneering restricted, then Dato Hussein Onn should postpone general elections until after Merdeka Day on August 31.
“A general elections does not mean merely the fixing of a date where the people go and cast their votes. It involves a process whereby the people are given the opportunity to pass judgement on the record of the government, to listen, consider and weigh the various party programmes and policies to decide which on of them is worthy of their support.
“There are countries where elections are held, but where voters are allowed to vote for one list of official candidates only. This is not democracy as we understand it, and even National Front leaders mock at such “elections”. But what will be the difference between such guided elections and the Malaysian version where the people are bombarded with government propaganda through television, radio and the mass media, while the Opposition are denied effective access to reach the electorate with their policies and programmes?”
A general elections is to fulfil democracy and not to undermine it. But in the 1978 general elections, the basic democratic norms and concepts came under attack by those who want Malaysia to keep the facade of democracy but emptied of all its contents – by those who want to “use democracy to destroy democracy”.
As a result, the 1978 General Elections was the most unusual general elections – for it appeared to be an elections without issues. Every day, Malaysians read in the press the fairy tales and fiction churned out by the National Front propaganda mills to attack the DAP and discredit DAP leaders. Conspicuously absent in the elections were the great national issues which dominated and animated previous elections, and which gave meaning and purpose to the electoral process – the great national issues concerning economic justice and equality, of class exploitation resulting in the ever-widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, of educational opportunities for our children, corruption, human rights, the future of democracy and most important of all, what type of Malaysian nation we are building for our children.
It was not because we had solved all these great issues of the nation. In fact, the basic issues and grave problems faced by Malaysians had never been so many, so complex and so acute than at any time in the life of our nation.
The National Front suppressed these great national issues by the ban on rallies and control of the mass media. As a result, the DAP found it virtually impossible to raise, let alone crystallise, issues in the elections campaign.
The DAP lost the political initiative in the 1978 general elections, for we could not launch political offensives.
At every general elections, the National Front had special secret weapons to try to knock out the DAP.
In 1974, it was the two-point strategy of the mass disenfranchisement of some 100,000 voters, who found on polling day that their names on the electoral rolls had been deleted and therefore lost the right to vote. The other measure was the delineation of electoral constituencies to favour the National Front and disadvantage the Opposition – leading to the present situation where Petaling Parliamentary constituency has an electorate of 90,611 voters while Kuala Krai parliamentary constituency in Kelantan has only 19,697 voters or that of Tan Sr Kadir Yusoff’s Tenggaroh constituency in Johore with 20,308 voters. By a democratic rendering of the one-man one-vote system Petaling area should have at least four Members of Parliament.
In 1978, the National Front’s “secret weapon” to crush the Opposition was the ban on public rallies, mass media control and denial of access to the electorate by the Opposition. This, however, was not their only secret weapon.
On Nomination Day, 17 DAP State Assembly and 7 Parliamentary candidates were disqualified on the most flimsy and unjustifiable of grounds, depriving the people in many areas their democratic right to choose who should be their elected representatives.
The mass indiscriminate disqualification of candidates on Nomination Day is a serious blot on the competence of the Elections Commission to conduct a meaningful general elections, for the Elections Commission’s’ role is to conduct a fair elections and not to deny the people the right to choose who should represent them. Nomination should only be rejected where there is fraud or misrepresentation. The other blot is the still serious problem of missing names of eligible voters on the electoral rolls by those who had registered themselves, and who have acknowledgement cards from the Election Commission to prove it. Is it really beyond the ability, competence and expertise of the Elections Commission to devise a system where there is no large-scale problem of “missing voters” on Polling Day?
The massive expenditure of funds in the election campaign is shocking. Although there is a law limiting election expenditure of Parliamentary candidates to $20,000 and State Assembly candidates to $15,000, it is not unusual for National Front candidates to spend $200,000 to $300,000 for parliamentary campaigns.
Those who spend so much money to get elected do not do so out of charity, but in the expectation that they can get many times return for such investment. This is where the corruption of public life starts.
In the 1978 general elections, the National Front conducted a vicious campaign against the DAP. They had wanted to use the “May 13” scare to frighten voters from voting for the DAP.
Immediately after the dissolution, National Front leaders spoke daily about the dangers of another “May 13”. This only stopped after the DAP stage a walk-out from a meeting called by Elections Commission to discuss a code of electoral conduct for all parties on June 17. The DAP had demanded that if the code of electoral behaviour was to be meaningful, then it should include a code stating that “no political leader, party or candidate should call on voters to vote purely on racial considerations, for instance Malays to vote for Malays, Chinese to vote for Chinese and Indians to vote for Indians, and that no one should be allowed to threaten voters that if any candidate or party wins, there is going to be bloodshed or repetition of May 13”.
Surprisingly, the foremost opponent to this DAP proposal was the Gerakan representatives, Dr Tan Tiong Hong, now Member of Parliament for Kepong on a minority vote. When the National Front opposed the inclusion of this DAP proposal into the code of electoral behaviour for all political parties, the DAP decided to stage a walk-out in protest to highlight the refusal of the National Front to stop using the May 13 scare on the voters.
I understand the walk-out and its reasons were given prominent international coverage both in press and broadcasting, and which had at least the effect of shaming the National Front leaders into stop using the May 13 scare openly during the campaign. This however did not stop National Front election workers from conducting a whispering campaign of another May 13 should DAP candidates win.
The DAP has now won 16 Parliamentary seats, the biggest for any Opposition party in the history of Malaysia. Is there another May 13? Who wants to start another May 13?
The press performance, especially the New Straits Times, Star and the Utusan papers, has not been the most glorious chapter of journalism in Malaysia. The New Straits Times was hand-in-glove with the National Front to try to destroy the DAP by discrediting DAP leaders, picturing them as dictatorial and self-seeking, giving great prominence to the most trivial and frivolous Barisan statements while blacking out DAP news and activities.
For instance, the New Straits Times carried on its front page on June 26 in full a statement from the UMNO headquarters posing five questions to the DAP. These five questions must have been penned by some party hack in the UMNO headquarters, and only the New Straits Times have the journalistic insight that they are of such earth-shattering importance as to deserve full front-page treatment! The UMNO and the New Straits Times probably thought that these five questions would deliver the coup-de-grace to finish off the DAP.
When I subsequently rang up the New Straits Times Group Editor, Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee, to ask him whether the New Straits Times would also publish the DAP’s reply in full and on the front page, Tan Sri Lee said: “I am sorry. I do not discuss these things”
I am not surprised by Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee’s declaration of journalistic independence! It is virtually public knowledge that the giants of New Straits Times journalism also do not discuss “these things: with UMNO and National Front leaders. They just take directives and implement orders issued by UMNO and National Front leaders. If by some inadvertent mistake, they omit a comma or semi-colon in such UMNO or Barisan National statements the greats of New Straits Times would go into a cold sweat!
The MCA-owned Star is of course not a newspaper, but a MCA broad-sheet. The Star cannot even sell its master, MCA, to the people, how can it sell ordinary advertisements to the public?
The meaning of the 1978 General Elections
Although the National Front tried to suppress issues and make the people think that the 1978 elections is merely a contest of personalities, the electorate have demonstrated their political sophistication and understanding of the need to save democracy from the attempts of those who wish to foist on Malaysia a one-party state through the destruction of the Opposition by a general elections.
The DAP has emerged from the 1978 general elections as the undisputed representative of the urban areas. We have more support from the Malaysian Chinse than the MCA which claims to represent the five million Chinese in Malaysia.
The 16 DAP MPs have a total of 380,000 votes, while the entire DAP Parliamentary slate have about 700,000 votes. On the other hand, the MCA, with 17 MPs, have ony over 200,000 votes. And according to former MCA President, Tun Tan Siew Sin, in a special interview with Utusan Malaysia, the MCA MPs won because of Malay votes. No wonder Datuk Lee San Choon was booed on 25th July when he appeared at the official opening of the Asian Women Basketball competition in Kuala Lumpur.
The DAP can lay claim to be more representative of the Malaysian Indians than the MIC, for we have four MPs of Indian origin, while the MIC has only three.
The DAP has also increasing support from the Malay electorate, both in the urban and the rural areas.
All in all, the DAP is the only party which is multi-racial in character and support in Malaysia.
All the component parties in the National Front thrive on racial appeals, and when Ghaffar Baba said after the elections that Malaysia must do way with communal politics, let him answer what he is doing to do away with the communal politics of UMNO, MCA, and MIC.
Several Barisan Nasional leaders have expresses concern that the election results have demonstrated increased polarisation in the country.
On July 15, Tengku Razeleigh was reported as saying that the Government would take steps to overcome the trend of voting along communal lines as see from the recent elections. He cited urban areas such as Damansara, Ipoh and Petaling Jaya as examples of racial voting. He said that the Government would take five to six years to deal with this problem.
Tengku Razaleigh’s statement is most disturbing and he should come out clearly and explicitly to explain what he meant when he said that the Government would take five or six years to deal with the problem.
And is Tengku Razaleigh saying that when people vote for the DAP, it is communal voting while if people vote for UMNO, MCA or MIC, it is non-communal voting?
The Barisan Nasional leaders’ talk about polarisation was taken up by the international press and weeklies, to the extent that Dr Mahathir Mohamad became worried that it would nullify his efforts to woo foreign investors to Malaysia.
We have then the spectacle of Dr Mahathir Mohamad denouncing foreign press and magazines for writing about “polarisation”. As Dr Mahathir put in his speech at the opening of the Central Region Investment Seminar organised by the Negeri Sembilan, Perak and Selangor Development Corporations and the Federal Industrial Development Authority on July 25:
“Every time we launch a campaign to attract investments from abroad, these so called authoritative magazines publish articles which are intended to frighten away potential investors.
“These international news magazines being unable to point to obvious evidence to suggest that Malaysia was not worth investing in, had now resorted to manufacturing evidence of potential political and economic instability.”
Dr Mahathir should have turned his attention nearer home, and coordinated with the Finance Minister, Tengku Razaleigh, and Ghaffar Baba, to tell them not to talk about polarisation, as it would frighten away investors!
However, polarisation in Malaysia cannot be wished away either by denouncing foreign journals, or keeping quiet about it. We can only deal with the problem of defusing polarisation by recognising the problem and resolving its root causes.
As I said in the first meeting of DAP Members of Parliament and State Assemblymen in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, July 16, 1978:
“Let me make it very clear that there is polarisation in Malaysia, along two levels. There is polarisation along racial lines, and there is polarisation along class lines.
“Racial polarisation in Malaysia has been created, not by the 1978 general election results, but by the long-standing neglect and indifference to the legitimate demands and aspirations of all the races in Malaysia.
“The 1978 general election results have not created the problem of racial polarisation, but merely confirmed the problem of polarisation due to the policies of Barisan Nasional.
“Racial polarisation must be halted, It is not halted by warning that the government would be doing something underhand to try to deal with the problem. It can only be halted by the government recognition that the racial dissatisfaction in the country exist, and must be resolved.
“The DAP has secured some 700,000 votes in the 1978 general eecltion. This is not an ‘anti-establishment’ vote as claimed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Utusan Malaysia yesterday. This is a sizable vote of the people of Malaysia for change in the educational, economic, social, cultural, political and nation building policies of the Barisan Nasional.
“The Barisan Nasional and the Prime Minister, Datuk Hussein Onn, should come to terms with this popular will of the Malaysian electorate, by re-appraising its nation building policies and making adjustment and changes in its policies.
“The purpose of a general elections is for the people to express their popular will about government policies. In a democratic country, the ruling party should respond to the popular will of the people and make the necessary accommodations, for this is the meaning of democracy in action.
“As the Malaysian voters in the 1978 general elections have made very clear that they want a change in educational, economic and nation building policies, the Prime Minister, Dato Hussein Onn, must accede to such popular demands. Otherwise, general elections have no meaning. Datuk Hussein Onn must heed the voice of the people as expressed in the 1978 general elections, and if the Barisan Nasional respect democracy and the views of the people, then it must respond to the popular will of the people as expressed on July 8.
“In the interest of national unity, I call on the Prime Minister, Datuk Hussein Onn, not to ignore the long-standing grievances of the different races and classes in Malaysia. The DAP is ever ready to co-operate with Datuk Hussein to overcome these problems and obstacles to national building. The ball is in Datuk Hussein Onn’s court.
“The basic policy changes must involve the following:
“1. Changes in the education policies in the government to ensure:
“(i) that there is expansion of higher education opportunities for Malaysian students in our own country, including the approval for the establishment of the proposed Merdeka University which is fully in conformity with the letter and spirit of Article 152 of the Malaysian Constitution.
“(ii) Iron-clad guarantees that mother-tongue education in Malaysia will be promoted and that Chinese primary schools would not be converted into national primary schools. This can only be achieved by the repeal of Clause 21(2) of the 1961 Education Act which empowers the Minister of Education to convert Chinese primary schools into national primary schools by the stroke of the pen. Furthermore, the Government should financially assist Independent Chinese Secondary Schools, without affecting its education direction and policies, as government funds are the people’s money.
“(iii) Uplifting of the standards of education at all levels of the education system. The present education system is producing ‘educated illiterates’ who create more social problems in the country.
“2. Change in economic policies to ensure that government policies do not benefit only a handful of people, the wealthy in MCA, he UMNO-putras in UMNO and the other well-connected in the Barisan Nasional. The New Economic Policy is used to perpetuate the interest of the class by exploitation of the politics of race. Economic policies of the country must be directed to help the poor of all races, who constitute the majority in the country.
“3. The removal of the National Bureau of Investigation from the Attorney General’s Department to Parliament so that the NBI is answerable only to Parliament and not subject to any Ministerial control or interference. Corruption is rampant in Malaysia, although Datuk Hussein Onn has a reputation of being personally clean and incorrupt. The question is whether Datuk Hussein Onn can master the system, or whether he is helpless in the face of the system.
“4. Genuine dedication and commitment to a democratic Malaysia. The Barisan Nasional should stop all its undemocratic policies, and stop persecuting Opposition leaders either by way of arrests under the Internal Security Act or by legal prosecutions. The Prime Minister should immediately release Sdr Chiang Heng Kai and Sdr Chan Kok Kit who were both elected MPs with great majorities.”
After the elections, there were rumours that the DAP was joining the National Front. At a dinner given by the people of Klang on 20th July to me and Sdr Lee Lam Thye for our election victory, I nailed this rumour, but it was again blacked out.
For the record, this was what I said:
“The post-election period has been a season of rumours. There was firstly the rumour that the top MCA leader has been put under house arrest. There was the other tumour that the MCA would pull out of the Cabinet. The latest rumour is that the DAP would join the Barisan Nasional.
“My initial reaction to the rumours that the DAP would join the Barisan Nasional was to ignore it altogether. DAP leaders are in politics for self-gain, but for our political beliefs, for which many leaders have paid a heavy price in terms of personal liberties and hardships – just as at this very present moment of time, two of our MPs Sdr. Chian Heng Kai and Sdr. Chan Kok Kit are still in detention.
“But what shocks me is that these rumours take on a life of their own, especially as they are coupled with alleged details giving the impression that they are true. For instance, it has been rumoured that the DAP and Barisan leaders had talks, that the DAP is asking for two Minister and two Deputy Minister posts, that Michael Chen is the middleman in trying to arrange this DAP- Barisan get-together.
“It is obvious that these rumours are manufactured by the Lee San Choon faction in MCA, hoping to kill two birds with one stone to attempt to discredit the DAP leaders and to further the on-going Lee San Choon – Michael Chan power feun inside the MCA.
“After the election results, apart from meeting Datuk Senu bin Abdul Rahman on the plane to Sabah (where he wet in and I was thrown out), I have not met a single Barisan leader not discussed anything with anyone of them. There is absolutely no truth in rumours that the DAP has drawn up conditions or guidelines for entry into Barisan, or that the DAP is demanding two Ministerial and two Deputy Ministerial posts.
“The idea of DAP joining the Barisan has never occurred in the minds of DAP leaders. It has never been discussed. It is a mere fabrication by rumour-mongers who their own axe to grind!
“To give these of rumours some credence, these rumour-mongers point to my speech to DAP MPs and State Assemblyman last Sunday declaring that the DAP was prepared to co-operate with the Prime Minister, Datuk Hussein Onn, to overcome the problems and obstacles in nation building.
“This has been the stand of the DAP right from the beginning, that we ae prepared to work with anybody to help build a Malaysian nation on just and equal basis, to save democracy, to combat poverty and class exploitation, to uphold human rights and to fight corruption. We are not an Opposition for Opposition sake.
“In fact, when Datuk Hussein took over as Prime Minister after the death of Tun Razak, I made exactly the same point in Parliament in the motion of confidence on Datuk Hussein Onn as Prime Minister.
“We in the DAP are reasonable people. But we will be firm and unyielding in our political principles and beliefs. But we will be firm and unyielding in a reasonable way.
“We will seek, for the interests of the country and for the future of our children, to make the government see our point of view, to understand the people’s deepest hopes and dreams. We will do this by speaking up inside and outside Parliament and the State Assemblies, and in meetings with the Prime Minister and other government leaders. We will do so, not to ask for Minister or Deputy Minister posts or to get entry into the Barisan , but to change thinking and assessments by all political leaders on basic problems of the nation.”
I want to thank the people of Malaysia for the support they have given to the DAP in the 1978 general elections. The people’s rights and liberties demand eternal vigilance on the part of every citizen, and we welcome Malaysians to come forward and join us in our long-term political crusade to make Malaysia a freer, more just and equal Malaysia.
The first edition of 10,000copies of “Time Bombs in Malaysia” was sold out in less than three weeks. Hence the production of this second edition, which includes a few more parliamentary speeches and illustrations.
Lim Kit Siang