It's election day here in Malaysia.
You can tell that the election has been drawing near because the scale in which the political flags have come to dominate the landscape. Politics is sensitive at the best of times and Ive been very cautious in terms of sounding out local opinions about the election, the parties, candidates and prospects. To an outsider, someone with no stake in the game so to speak, it has been hard to penetrate the political landscape here. And while I have been improving my understanding of the political history of Malaysia post independence, I'm still far from savvy about it. I know it has been plagued by allegations of corruption, abuses of power, waste and all kinds of insider trading and backhanders. I know that a single coalition has governed Malaysia in the 50 plus years since independence. I remember the ongoing imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim. And I know that social unrest is a real potential outcome of the election.
But in fear of being bogged down in something that I'm poorly qualified to speak on I've decided to look at a part of the election cycle in Malaysia that I personally find incredibly interesting. Again picking up the lens that I/we rely too heavily on, that being the one we develop within our own environment; and applying it here reveals some really clear differences in how we approach things. When I think back to last October's election in NZ it all seems so modest, humble and I suppose Kiwi. Local candidates erect their own hoardings and it has the same twee feel about it as some of our other cultural undertakings have, those like the Blue Light Disco and after match functions with asparagus rolls. It was a non-event until the change of leadership in the Labour party, and like many callers on talkback radio, it was only then that I took much interest. Here in Malaysia there exists an invisible but powerful manifestation, invisible in the sense that there is no personal authorship to be seen, no face or identity, no people. But the presence is unavoidably compelling, the evidence of effort is undeniable. People really, really care, I just can't tell who.
Over the three weeks since I have been in Kuala Lumpur the landscape has changed on a daily basis. The very first morning I was here I walked to a local shop to get some water and bread. Crossing a bridge I spotted a solitary flag, hanging on a bamboo pole and notable for its apparent lack of context. The green flag with the white circle, so simple and strong, so flag like. I took a photo and wondered as I wandered, as to it's significance. A few days later there was a row of about half a dozen of these flag across the bridge, spaced out at seemingly regular intervals. A few days later still, a new flag emerged on the scene. Or to be more accurate, flags. Plural. A competing set of around half a dozen flags had been put up on the other side of the bridge. And from there this territorial turf war has well and truly bloomed to epic proportions ranging right across this city of 9 million people and I'm sure, beyond that to the rest of the country. And this is what is blowing my mind everyday. The number of flags that must be flying right now in this country is beyond what I can conceive. And this is on top of the flags that already populate the business and homes of many of the locals. The national flag of Malaysia flies alongside the Selangor state flag on a daily basis in what is actually a quite nationalistic country. I can only equate it with what I have seen in the United States in terms of ongoing public declarations of affinity for your country. You are never in much doubt as to where you are. These political flags that have invaded Kuala Lumpur perform a similar function to flags I observed in New York. Walking through Brooklyn it was clear when you crossed from a Polish neighbourhood into a Puerto Rican one, if nothing else did then the flags in the windows of the homes or shops told you. Here, these flags can perform much the same function, though where the delineation seemed neat and clean in New York, with the flags simply part of the permanent presence of the neighbourhood much like a shop sign or a post box. Here, within the context of this election, while you still get a sense of whose turf you are in, the flags act like evidence of overnight skirmishes with squads from each team out to achieve the dominant presence in all key locations. It is dynamic, it is live, it is responsive. Where I stay it was mostly green flag turf, slowly the red and blue gang started to show their colours, this representing a pretty accurate picture of the community. They were later joined by the big player, Barisan Nasional, the current government. And while they left their run late, they made up for it with a clear advantage in resources. And this is how it has progressed, its unclear as to the communities predisposition or preferences now. Where locally you were able to read the likely voting pattern of any particular suburb, village or kampong, it has become so contested that it's now less of an exercise in promotion and more of one in site dressing the city on a grand scale. All the key public spaces have become no mans land as the parties install more and more flags, saturating these pubic spaces to incredible levels.
To the credit of all, it does not appear that the removal of opposition flags is part of the game, they simply ramp up the volume of their own party through more flags, bigger flags and better sites. And I think that is what I'm affected by the most, the volume of these things, literally yes there's many, but metaphorically this is a LOUD election process. In NZ we are very polite. Our placards, hoardings and attempts to raise profile are really quite cute by comparison. Collective public tolerance for the placards are tested as it is. Not too many, don't block peoples views, try not to cover other parties placards please. Plus you make sure there is a photo of some smiling candidate on there extolling us via a strapline how voting for them improves our lives. Oh and it's the law to put the name and address of the person you can complain to on there as well - just in case. The spirit in which the political flags have been put up in Malaysia is joyous. Truly. There's evidence of abandon, improvisation, determination, cunning, even recklessness.
It's like there are professional and amateur teams on rotating shifts here. I speculate because of the thousands and thousands of flags I have seen, I am yet to observe anyone putting them up. The pros must get the big flags out, they get them up high, on prized spots and in places where they fly in unison with an authority implied through consistent distribution and installation. The amateurs, well they seem to really go for quantity, their access to high quality sites is more limited than the pros, but they will make up for in sheer numbers, their efforts sometimes hanging limp in displays of a cultural vernacular I am learning.
These political flags are singular in appearance and form. One identity focused through the strength of a simple and strong design, not a sports team/country hybrid flag, but an actual flag. These flags have claimed the public space, they have demonstrated very clearly who is here, where their turf lies, where they want to take more turf. It's the lack of identities, the people and faces, the lack of slogans, the lack of everything else but this push of a singular identity that makes it all so compelling. At least to my foreign eyes it does anyway. The effort, the manpower, the logistics, the cost.. I'm practically minded and as mentioned before, I feel very challenged by the scale of the activity that I see. I can't tell if its rolled out strategically or instinctually. I don't think it matters actually, but I guess I reach for the familiar when confronted by something that is so hard to comprehend. Im sensitive to space, to public space. How it is used, not used, interrupted, taken, given. I feel the way in which people move through space, how they behave in space. I think about these things on a daily basis and will always champion local self determination in public space be it in the form of graffiti, place-making, community gardens, events or art. What I enjoy so much about the spectacle of this election, is that from the highest level, license has been seemingly granted to go and participate in this huge territorial game without rules, clipboards or oversight. It feels organic and honest. Even if it's not, through benefit of a detached, objective but agenda filled eye, it has illustrated for me the fundamental qualities of why I started working in public space in the first place.