Beware the black swans

THE coming general election is developing to be a hotly contested one and the results may be driven by one or more "black swan" incidents.

A "black swan" incident, which may include a speech or action from an influential personality or a group or a new policy or specific action by the federal or a state government or the opposition, is an unexpected and seemingly insignificant event but which may create a "spark" and turn the tide in favour or against the players concerned and may even determine the outcome of the election.

An example of a "black swan" incident was the abolition of the district status and withdrawal of government services by the then Sabah government led by Harris Salleh, meted out to the Tambunan constituency of Joseph Pairin Kitingan after he left the ruling Parti Berjaya and won the by-election as an independent in December 1984. This injustice created a public backlash and the newly formed PBS led by Pairin managed to win the April 1985 state election against the odds and formed the state government with the support of the federal government.

All politicians and key players for the election should be careful or cautious of what they say or do and not unwittingly create a "black swan" which may develop into an uncontrollable and lose-lose scenario for the coalition they represent. But it is often difficult to foresee a "black swan", hence its name.

The new opposition alliance of Pakatan Harapan appears to be at its strongest compared to previous elections and it is now being led by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who headed the ruling party and ruled the country for 22 years.

The ruling Barisan Nasional, led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, is also strong. Most ruling parties can count on the power of incumbency and patronage, an important factor that tends to be underestimated.

BN, for now, appears to be more united and better organised than PH.

A "clash of the titans" appears on the horizon with both sides digging in and trying hard to consolidate their support with voters.

To the credit of both BN and PH, all past elections have been relatively peaceful, except for a brief period in 1969, reflecting a degree of maturity rare in many developing countries.

The targets of both BN and PH would be on the undecided voters or fence sitters, who may wait till the last minute before deciding who to vote for. It would be the decision of this segment that will determine the final outcome.

The number of eligible but unregistered voters, over 3 million, is a cause of concern and if you are one of them, it may not be too late to register at the post office. Apathy and the refusal to exercise the democratic right to vote is a grave moral sin and unregistered voters would have no one to blame except themselves if the duly elected government were to do things later that they do not like.

Both BN and PH are confident of victory and both have used various surveys and analyses in their favour to justify their optimism.

BN is counting on its incumbency in government, macro-economic performance and growth, strong currency, relative peace and liberal investment policies. BN is also exposing alleged abuses and scandals of PH state governments, especially in Penang, and the federal government during Mahathir's premiership.

PH is counting on a formidable Mahathir to lead the charge, highlighting the alleged scandals of the federal government, the high cost of living and other issues.

The election issues can be broadly categorised as:
 » Bread and butter issues, such as cost and ease of living, employment, financial incentives, health and transport;
 » Emotional ones, both positive emotional issues such as patriotism and national unity and negative ones such as playing the race or religious card; and
 » Alleged scandals on both sides

To avoid triggering a black swan and a backlash, it would be better if politicians were to play up the positive emotional issues and to explain clearly how their policies and programmes can benefit the people, especially the poor. Our voters, especially the youth, are better informed in the age of the internet and social media and it would be better to be honest and straightforward to win hearts and minds.

An important area often taken for granted by politicians is the history of the country, especially the struggle of our people for Merdeka (Independence). It is sad that many of our elected representatives do not seem interested to promote the multiracial struggle for Merdeka as a successful case of "unity in diversity" achieving a historical watershed and a continuing basis for our national unity. It is high time that they change such an attitude. A golden chance now exists for them to visit the Jalan Merdeka (Road to Independence) exhibition being held at Carcosa Seri Negara until March 31, from 9am to 6pm every day. Entrance is free.

The moment of truth would come soon as the next election must be called by June 24.

Some analysts have also written about the emergence of a new and ambitious "Third Force", perhaps to even form the government in some states and be a king maker in the formation of the next federal government. Such an analysis can be misleading as it suggests that this Third Force is well organised, credible and large but such an entity does not seem to exist, at least for now.

A more likely scenario, especially if there is a hung Parliament, may be the emergence of an honest, wise and responsible "white knight", acceptable to all stakeholders as a peacemaker and unifier to broker a workable deal for the sake of the country. The exact power formula is anyone's guess and would also depend on the outcome of the general election.
 
The writer is a think-tank analyst and CEO of social enterprise Asian Heritage Museum, involved in organising a patriotic and pro-national unity Jalan Merdeka exhibition at the historical site of Carcosa Seri Negara. Comments:kktan@thesundaily.com