The give and take of Malaysia's ceramah

To really feel part of the country's political process a ceramah is where it is at.


    The joke in Kuala Lumpur is that you go to a Barisan Nasional rally to get money and a Pakatan Rakyat rally to give it.

    In that respect, my haul from all the Barisan functions I have been to has been pretty dismal.

    A karaoke DVD, a Barisan banner, a Barisan clapper, a Malaysia bottle of water stamped with the legend "Not for Sale", a glossy brochure listing in minute detail the candidate’s achievements, a rather offensive caricature pamphlet warning of the evils of the Islamic party and Hudud, and a book titled, "Why I left Anwar" (except some of those people are now back with him).

    No one offered me money. Not even a bite to eat. Even though, at one of the events, there were tables arranged for that very purpose.

    On the Pakatan side, I have seen the donation boxes passed around, with most people popping in a note or two. But the freebies are few and far between: half a metre of yellow packaging string to symbolise free and fair elections and a small ABU (Anyone But UMNO) sticker thrust in my hand by a passing motorcyclist. That is it.

    Political rallies, or ceramah, as they are known in Malaysia are the cornerstone of this country’s elections.

    From the small and intimate Ceramah Kelompok, to the stadium-busting Ceramah Besar, the opposition uses these gatherings to take its message direct to the voters, by-passing the mainstream newspapers and TV stations, which are controlled by the other side.

    It is also a good way for the parties to raise money. At an event in Penang last week Pakatan collected 237,000 ringgit ($78,135) from the 70,000 strong crowd.

    While some candidates are content simply to rattle off their policy prescriptions, the better ones are like performers, using humour, self-deprecation and hope to engage and inspire their audience.

    Naturally, they attack the other side, but the best speeches can be potently emotional. Some are so good they address several events a day.

    Barisan holds its rallies, too, though there seem to be fewer of them. They are a little different from the ones held by their rivals, more choreographed and formal.

    At the front, there will be a gaggle of supporters in blue Barisan shirts, holding flags and cheering on cue. Some may have been bussed in from other parts of the constituency or other areas entirely.

    There will be a speech by the candidate – usually delivered from behind a lectern – lots of patriotic music, proudly played, and an enthusiastic MC eager to keep the crowd engaged.

    Of course, there’s still room for walkabouts in local communities, door-to-door canvassing and baby kissing, but to really feel part of the political process a ceramah is where it is at.

    Even if you go away empty handed.



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