A ‘snap poll’ in Malaysia? Political surprise, journalistic cliché

Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
May 30, 2011

MAY 30 — Once again there is talk of an early or imminent election in Malaysia.

No surprise, nothing unusual in that.

And once again the commentators are considering the likelihood of a “snap poll.”

Again, no surprise, nothing unusual in that. Just silly.

The expression “snap poll” a cliché.

And, as ever, hasty recourse to the irresistibly available cliché is a sure sign that clear, fresh and direct thinking about the matter at hand has been avoided, short-circuited. That an “end-run” (to use a cliché!) had been made around the moment of analysis, the need for thought.

What is, or was, a snap poll? The term was coined to denote an election that is called suddenly, at an unexpected moment, to take advantage of the element of surprise.

The snap poll is to political life, to electoral politics, what Pearl Harbor was to naval warfare. Suddenly, early one morning, unannounced, out of a clear blue sky…

It is an encounter, a contest, that is pretty much over before it has begun.

It is a fight — and this is the whole point of the manoeuvre or stratagem — that is as good as over from the outset: before the back-footed adversary, here the political opposition, has a chance to get up from its chair, onto its feet, and into action.

One has only to think about that for a moment and one thing becomes clear.

That the idea, and use of the term, “snap poll” in Malaysia is quite ridiculous. Not just strange, oddly inappropriate, but altogether ludicrous.

It is absurd for two reasons.

First, all Malaysian elections are in effect snap polls.

In 1969 the national election campaign period was a long one. The Tunku wanted to give the people plenty of time to consider the issues, to weigh the choice that they faced.

Never again.

Since then, all election campaign periods have been brief.

Reform of election legislation has made this brevity, this compression or “telescoping” of the political season — a concentration of pressure and, some would say, enforcing an unreflecting rush to political judgment — possible.

Election campaigns in Malaysia — from the announcement of the poll, the proroguing of Parliament, the nomination of candidates, the campaign, the vote, and the declaration of the result of the poll — can accordingly be completed, from start to finish, in about 10 days. The whole business is usually “done and dusted” within two weeks.

That kind of concentration and rapidity of electoral procedure falls fully within the ambit of the term “snap poll.”

These are not elections that run for weeks, whose date is announced months ahead or else are calendrically set by law (as in the US) for the election of candidates to a fixed term of office, say four years.

You don’t need to speculate in Malaysia whether there will be a snap poll. There always is.

Every election is sudden and a “quickie”, fast to come and fast to be over and gone.

The only question is when.

When will the government decide to call it? When will it exercise its discretion, avail itself of the incumbent power’s prerogative, to “pull the trigger” (another cliché!) or (yet another) to get the contestants to the line and “sound the starter’s gun”?

That is one reason why the term “snap poll” in Malaysia is a silly misnomer.

There is a second.

Invariably in Malaysia, once the country is about two to three years further on from its previous election, and the next is felt approaching in two to three years’ time, incessant election speculation begins to develop, mount and inexorably intensify.

How does this happen?

Quite simply, there is a popular interest in the matter.

Why not? The citizen wants to know. As a stakeholder in the political community, the citizen wants to be part of, and informed about, the process of deciding the community’s common fate — not just a spectator.

Always politically adept, the government caters to and assiduously “plays upon” this interest.

It does so constantly and continually, raising and lowering the intensity of its hints, feinting and parrying this way and that, as in some exotic sword-dance or wrong-footing silat routine.

In doing so (to change our metaphor, or flee into a different cliché), it “plays the rakyat” the way a maestro plays a violin.

Its objectives in doing so are several.

It wants to “whet and feed” the rakyat’s “political appetite.”

If elections are eventually to be held, the enthusiasm of party workers must be sustained, the political attention of voters must be activated and focused, and people need to be reminded of their political obligations (especially, as the powers of the day in every country see the matter, to acknowledge gratitude for benefits already and most recently received).

Governments, by toying with speculation about imminent elections, also seek to “test the waters” (what, another cliché!) concerning their own popularity. They raise the hypothetical possibility of a snap poll to measure their own situation and prospects, “to see how they are running.”

They also use the measured and very controlled encouragement of election speculation to “fly various kites”: in other words to assess likely public reaction to certain provisional policy initiatives, as well as the popular acceptability, persuasiveness and effect of possible campaign stratagems and rhetorical innovations, such as new slogans.

Not least of its purposes in toying openly with ideas of an imminent poll is to dismay, disorient and “bamboozle” the opposition: to keep its strategists preoccupied with the short-run possibility, however unlikely, of having soon to face the polls and so force it to redirect and consume large amounts of its scarce energies and time.

Election speculation, no matter how fabricated or implausible, usefully distracts the opposition. It diverts the government’s opponents from pursuing necessary longer-term tasks, such as the development of defensible policies and from necessary, and necessarily time-consuming, political planning.

Talk of early elections forces the opposition to operate in “rush mode”, even “panic mode”, not “thoughtfulness mode.” It keeps the opposition “tied in knots.”

By this logic, there may be an “inverse” relation between election speculation and the likelihood of an imminent poll. The louder the talk of a “snap poll”, the less likely an early election may be.

Until, of course, the last indulgence in such talk, the last tactical flirtation with the idea before the election is finally called.

But by then the clock has largely run down, time is running out, and the calling of the election usually comes as no surprise…

After years of keen anticipation and bated breath, what you hear in the end is often just a sigh of relief.

So in sum, every Malaysian election is both, in one sense, a “snap poll” and, in another, not, since no Malaysian election ever can be.

Every election comes at the end of a two-to-three year-long cycle, or barrage, of election speculation.

A snap poll, a surprise, beyond all expectations, out of a clear blue sky? Hardly!

Every election comes as the final bow-and-curtsey in a protracted political “minuet”, an intricately staged dance, an officially choreographed “waltz” full of false turns and feinting circles, this way and that.

There is no such thing as a “snap poll” in Malaysia.

So, can somebody please put an end to the use here in Malaysia of this appalling, and here entirely meaningless and ludicrously inappropriate, cliché?

Will the commentators please put an end to unreflecting talk about this mythical beast?

The idea of the “snap poll” is, with them, as bizarre a reflex as that weird, intermittently uncontrollable arm-spasm of Dr Strangelove.

A breakfast cereal company used to promote its product with the slogan “Snap, Crackle, Pop!”

Here in the nation’s electoral life we get talk of “Snap” elections, the “Crackle” of the ensuing and incessant, political static, and then, eventually, “Pop!” goes the starter’s gun.

An election?

What election?

I never saw one.

Must have missed it.

Must have been at the movies that afternoon…

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 - 8:39 am

    Najib not calling for election is fufilling his worst critics prediction. He is behaving suprisingly as expected by the earliest critics. He is predictably to constantly fall short.

    And what his critics now say? He is already dooomed. It really don’t matter anymore when he calls for election as far as he is concern..

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 - 10:35 am

    Election, no; erection, yes – so said UmnoB/BN

  3. #3 by Godfather on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 - 10:53 am

    No chance of an early GE. There will be people taking to the streets soon against all the price hikes, and it may just the ignition for change of an inefficient, corrupt and useless government.

  4. #4 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 - 6:59 pm

    Election will come lor after d identiti of d mysterious porn star with erection in d gradually widely circulated video has been announced – akan datang

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