Mak Bedah's the Name, Gender's the Game by Lainie Yeoh
The most interesting personality in the elections this time around wears big sunglasses, matched with a smile and framed by a selendang. She’s a makcik with guts, who manages to confront candidates from both sides of the fence on gender issues, while raising tiga anak angkat on her own. Her fashion accessory? A 10-point manifesto literally taller than her.
Mak Bedah could be real (except for the supersize manifesto perhaps) but actually, she’s a conceptual, non-partisan citizen created by the Women’s Candidacy Iniatiative, in lieu of independent candidate Toni Kassim, who withdrew from this General Elections for health reasons.
The Women's Candidacy Initiative introduced the character of Mak Bedah to the masses on the 24th of February at the nomination centre for PJ Selatan. I was invited to join her retinue as part of KataGender, a collective that has had some experience in the theatre of street demonstrations.
I presumed the feminist-NGO link would lead to an exclusively gynocentric view, but was proven wrong. In fact, Mak Bedah's manifesto reflects WCI's agenda, as explained on its website:
"Our focus on gender does not preclude our commitment to equality and justice for all – regardless of race, religion, financial status, disability, age or sexual identity."
Mak Bedah can be seen at political rallies and pasar malams, talking to politicians and public alike. Several citizens have morphed themselves into Mak Bedah, encapsulating her persona to different degrees of succes. (Proving the point that it takes more than a few good women to fill in the shoes of the inimitable Toni Kassim).
Neutrality not allowed
It was easy to spot the enthusiastic Mak Bedah in PJ State pushing her trolley cart, accompanied by slogan-chanting fans wearing tshirts that said "Shopping for a REAL candidate" and leafleting.
“2-4-6-8 Shopping for our candidate!
A-B-C-D Justice and equality!”
Upon attempting entry into the PJ Selatan nominations centre, we discovered that the police had separated the crowd of supporters into two camps: Barisan Nasional, and the Opposition. We were turned away as we didn't look like pro-BN supporters, and ordered to take the entrance designated for Opposition supporters.
We explained we were a non-partisan group who weren't here to cheer either party on, but merely wanted to ask the candidates some questions. No success. We grudgingly had to make our way as ordered - kind of like taking the back door in, or sitting at the back of the bus, I guess.
Upon our entry with our shopping trolleys, shouting slogans, waving cheap placards, and clattering "tin kosongs" with coins in them, we quickly got to the front of the line. We even had a song:
"Mak Bedah wants real democracy (x2)
She's shopping for our calon
A woman we can count on
Mak Bedah wants real democracy"
(to the tune of She'll be coming round the mountains when she comes)
Having no neutral ground for us to stand on, the Opposition quickly engulfed us, co-opting the slogans, hoisting the WCI banner above their flags. The person acting as Mak Bedah assessed the situation, broke from character and called for a tactical retreat, as we tried to find a space to stand that said "Not Part of Barisan Alternatif".
My flag pole is bigger than your flag pole
From our point of retreat, Mak Bedah was back again, watching the aggressive posturing of both opposition and BN supporters. She remarks "This is like Hari Sukan. My flag is bigger than your flag", then whips back to the crowds, pumping her hand in the air and shouting "Rumah kuning! Rumah kuning!" to the amusement of those who noticed.
After much waiting in the sun without any excitement beyond partisan posturing, Mak Bedah fanned herself - "No wonder they're so happy to see us. It's so boring here".
One Mak Bedah fan watching the other supporters observed "They look ridiculous. They're just shouting at each other". In return, Mak Bedah alternated between being treated as a ludic NGO display and an Opposition supporter, depending on who was doing the treating. Every so often a man in plainclothes standing near the policemen panned a video camera over us.
Eventually the nominees came out. The Democratic Action Party's (DAP) candidate, Edward Lee, was very accommodating, even asking for a copy of WCI's manifesto. Donald Lim of Barisan Nasional (BN) snubbed Mak Bedah, though his PA invited us to his press conference the next day. The women candidates, Munaliza Hamzah (BN) and Haniza Mohd Talha (PKR), made determined beelines towards their supporters, also ignoring Mak Bedah's cries. With that, we left PJ Selatan, disappointed that some candidates had not spoken with us.
Mak Bedah, cannily picking up on the snub from both parties, looked dejected, saying "Hampalah, saya hampa". We walked off, and my friend said "Yeah, Mak Bedah has to go home and jaga anak now".
Mak Bedah does Brickfields
A few days later, I meet the WCI crew again. This time, several other Mak Bedahs are trying to catch PKR’s Nurul Izzah Anwar's ceramah in Brickfields.
We then had to find a way to approach the candidates at this Nurul Izzah ceramah to talk to them. "You would think it's expected kan, to have Q&A after ceramah? But takde! How to ask them what we need to know?", asked a Mak Bedah who predominantly spoke English with a tinge of a Malay accent. I looked around. Considering the throngs in Brickfields, it would be a task to get to the candidates at all, even with our placards.
Not stopping at merely having our presence acknowledged by Nurul Izzah during her ceramah, I spotted a more proactive Mak Bedah climbing up onstage to talk to her during the next speaker's ceramah. Both had their heads bent together, nodding and gesturing furiously
After the ceremah, this Mak Bedah narrated their conversation over supper. Confronted with the questions "Can I tell the women's groups here that men and women have the right to choose another religion when they do not profess to Islam?", and "Do you endorse the principles of WCI?", Nurul Izzah replied positively. Mak Bedah then laughs and tells us Nurul Izzah’s personal aide anxiously asked Nurul twice if she had read the manifesto, before backing down when she confirmed "Yes, I have!".
Nurul expressed much surprise when informed by Mak Bedah of Badawi's statement in 2007 that a 20% representation of women in parliament is adequate (a statement noticeably unchallenged by Dato' Sri Shahrizat, our Minister of Women, Family and Community). Nurul agreed to push for women to have more than a 30% decision-making role in parliament.
At the end of the discussion, Nurul Izzah asks a question many others have - "What's your real name ah?".
I think this particular Mak Bedah's questions showed fairly more knowledge than the norm, but her biodata does say she was once an "aktivis kampong dan wanita".
Breaking it down
I liked that Mak Bedah directly engaged candidates - It seemed more effective than making the manifesto available online where far fewer candidates (if at all) would read it. At any rate, such encounters have been recorded down (by the press and videographers), and would serve as a point of reference, whoever wins the seat or runs again.
In my eyes, Mak Bedah is made up of different women I know, women who are aware of gender issues. However, she avoids the use of an intellectual vocabulary that can alienate. She takes on a less intimidating– but no less knowledgeable – persona and attempts to address the necessary issues without compromise. With the elections just around the corner, perhaps the efforts of educating voters are too late. Nevertheless, as an experiment, Mak Bedah is proving effective at getting gender into the media space.
More refreshingly, there's a sense of idealism here that I do not usually sense in the activists I meet. Her antics have rejuvenated some of my interest in politics, and even if some candidates seem to be talking to her just for the press coverage. The closer interaction gave me a more human perspective from which to evaluate some of our candidates. I think the public, and even some of our candidates, forget that there shouldn't be such chasam between us and the people who want to represent us.
All in all, it's pleasant to see that not all citizen duties have to be a chore. That we can approach a candidate, expect an answer to the questions we have on what they will do for us, and if the space does not exist, we merely have to climb up their ceramah platforms and stalk them, as Mak Bedah did.