You know how sometimes life gives you some surprises right? Mine happened 4 days before the GE day, 5 May.
I wasn’t prepared to be a Polling Agent or Counting Agent (or what’s called PACA) this general election. I thought that the most I’d do was turn up early on Sunday and vote and sit at home the whole day and watch the results.
When Vimala called me up a few days before 5th May, she sounded desperate. “Could you help out as a PACA? DAP really needs more volunteers.” She even emailed me and I forwarded her request out. She is a business woman and a friend and while she doesn’t belong to my women’s entrepreneur group, we somehow find time to email and call each other. Mainly because we have the same motivations. We like the same stuff.
I then googled my area to find the DAP Service Centre but I couldn’t find any. In the end I contacted a friend whom I knew was with PKR and she told me of a PACA training a day away.
I guess in life I usually am fortunate because I NEVER know what I am signing up for! If I knew, I’d backed out. My dad used to be called up for GE duties but as a teenager I never really bothered. I knew that my dad helped out with the polling process but I never asked.
This year, my sister – as most teachers are – enlisted for duty with the SPR. She helped check voters’ names and saluran outside the voting centres. Her job finished at 5pm; mine didn’t.
On reflection, I am happy I went ahead to help out at the Kompleks Belia & Sukan on 5 May. Now I know what really happens inside each polling stream or saluran. That morning, Nic and I had woken up really early in order to be at Kompleks Belia at 7 am. We weren’t allowed to go into our respective stations until 7.30. When I finally went into Saluran 1, which is basically for senior citizens, I knew I had to be friendly with the Ketua Tempat Mengundi (KTM). She was a woman. I even made an effort to smile and pass her our pink and white forms stating the 4 individuals under PKR who would be Polling Agents that day.
I had a checklist of things I had to ensure were done. Firstly, this KTM spent her time showing us (me and the BN fella) the empty, transparent ballot boxes and spent time carefully kitting the boxes up with the SPR cable ties and all. Fine.
Then I requested to check the ballot books. She must’ve been taken aback as I asked her if she filled Borang 13. She said she would do it later. I was already a bit miffed. How would the voting slips tally if she didn’t fill up Borang 13? But one mustn’t argue with the KTM – she has the veto power you know. (And she DID tell me that in no uncertain terms that she had the power. Oh you little Napolean, go ahead.)
One thing I did notice was that the KTM had snacks at her table. She was snacking away when she was at her KTM table. That put me off. Aren’t you supposed to have eaten your breakfast and be on duty in a professional manner?
The other thing that made me realize the power of being young (or at least being younger, much younger than your BN Polling Agent). The BN fella was an old guy who was probably in his late 50s. He did not have the speed or alertness of young people. Either that or he was just plain lazy.
When the clerk calls out the voter’s name and IC, we each had our voters’ list to cross out. I had another sheet to fill up the nombor bilangan. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the old guy was simply flipping the pages unable to find most of the names called out! He wasn’t there to be a PA on duty. He was probably there just to keep an eye on things. And bark at the KTM. The KTM seemed to be afraid of this nasty guy.
I call this guy nasty because there was a voter – an old Chinese man – who claimed his name was in the SPR list but we couldn’t find his name in our list. Under regular rules, the KTM had to fill up a Borang 11 so that SPR could check on his status. I asked to snap a pic of the Borang that she had filled up and she agreed. Then the nasty guy barked and said, “No cameras allowed in here.” She got all nervous and asked me to delete the photo! I just thought I’d save myself some time instead of jotting down the Chinese man’s details. What a dimwit!
As there were many senior citizens who came in wheelchairs, some of their caregivers had to fill up Borang 10 if they helped them to cross their voting slips. This took up some time as voters just kept filing in.
Two hours isn’t a long time when you’re on duty at the polling stream. As a Polling Agent, I had to listen for the clerk calling out the voter’s name, IC and nombor bilangan. Then I had to observe the voters who were placing their votes into the ballot boxes. Then I had to call the KTM to check for those caregivers needing to fill Borang 10. And I was supposed to eye the clerk stamping the voting slips and the clerk inking the fingers of the voters. With all these activities going on, it was like having 10 pairs of eyes zooming back and forth. The fella next to me was a confused cat or a lazy cat because he couldn’t be really bothered to cross out most names that were called out.
My replacement PA came in at 9.55am to relieve me and even that made the BN fella fuss. He was “upset” that I had not gotten up when Chee, my replacement, sat down. I ignored the nasty one and took my copy of Borang 13 to the KTM’s table. I was going to get my serial numbers whether she liked it or not.
In the end I did but I could see she wasn’t happy. Well, too bad, lady. If you’re inefficient, it’s your problem, not mine. I am not here to be as complacent and tidak apa as you. She had remarked that my checklist was from PKR so she wasn’t going to “follow” it when I asked why she didn’t fill up Borang 13 before 8am.
My Counting Agent partner and I went back into the same hall around 4pm the same day. He was to observe the counting process for the Negeri ballot box while I did the Parliment box. Again I was polite to the KTM. She didn’t want to be polite.
As the Negeri ballots were to be counted first, I told my partner, Chee that he had to let the KTM know we needed our Borang 13 and Borang 14. Chee is a really nice guy so I thought having a guy smiling at her might melt her a bit.
She didn’t seem to hear his request but I thought he had worked his magic when she came over to our table and asked us to sign Borang 13. (Borang 13 is where the numbers of ballot books issued are noted at the beginning of the day and noted again at the end of the day. It’s like accounting. How much did you start off with in the morning and how much did you actually use? The numbers of ballot slips given out had to tally.)
What happened next was incredible. I took my own sweet time to check and triple-check the details on the form. I wasn’t putting my signature on something I haven’t agreed with. Finally I signed.
She coolly took the forms back to her table.
I asked her levelly, “You are going to give us a copy of that, aren’t you?”
To my utter surprise, she says, “No. It’s not in my SPR guidebook that I have to give Counting Agents a copy of the form.”
Now this got my blood boiling. I could tolerate her inefficiency in the morning but this was going too far. As the PKR trainers kept stressing, you must get both forms, Borang 13 and 14. If you don’t, we’re all going to be doomed. (Borang 14 is where the official results are written down and verified with the signatures of the KTM and Counting Agents of the respective parties. It had to be stamped too.)
She was already going to open up the ballot box for Negeri and start the counting process. She called the silly policeman to say that I was making a ruckus and not letting her do her job.
I called my Ketua and explained my situation. He wanted me to pass the phone to her but she ignored me! The 3 clerks looked like lost lambs and didn’t know what to do while the KTM was attempting to open the ballot box.
I told Chee to keep his eyes on the voting slips and tally the counting while I talked (very loudly) on the phone to my Ketua saying that the KTM does not want to give us Borang 13 and 14.
Finally after two more calls, her Ketua comes toddling in and whispers in her ear. That turned the tide. She then begrudgingly gave us the needed forms.
As Counting Agents, Chee and I were in the hall throughout the process, even observing the KTM and her clerks packing up the ballot boxes and zipping up the yellow bags. (And I also mentioned to the KTM that she almost forgot to sign on the sticker on top of the sealed ballot box. Of course she wasn’t happy. By this time, I really couldn’t be bothered with niceties. I had tried my best but she chose to be bitchy.)
I held on the precious two sets of Borang 13 and 14, all signed – by the Counting Agent of each respective party and by the KTM and stamped with the official stamp. One set was for Negeri and the other was for Parlimen. Again in many ways I was lucky as my senior citizen saluran only had 291 voters out of a respectable 350 so the counting process was quick. Some saluran had 500 to 700 voters so these took up more time especially if there are recounts needed.
When we finished, it was about 8pm. The CA from the other parties had long scooted off, knowing that they’d lost in this saluran to PKR. Chee and I still sat in the hall waiting for some instructions from my Ketua. We were both hungry, tired and thirsty and the hall was locked and sealed though it had started raining outside.
Finally at 9.30, Nic comes over from his saluran and says we can leave as long as we pass our forms to the Ketua outside.
I was immensely exhausted from the ordeal of having to argue with the KTM. I didn’t like her but I was there to do my job. But it also dawned on me that SPR doesn’t seem to train these “staff” of theirs at all. They don’t follow procedures when they should’ve. They do what they please and seem to take pleasure in being the “boss” with the ultimate power in their voting station. My KTM was wishy-washy and could suddenly change her mind if the BN fellow barked at her. Did she read her SPR guidebook? I don’t think she even flipped through it. She was paid to be a KTM but that’s just it.
That was why she was intrigued why we PKR Counting Agents were so gung-ho. We must have been paid a lot to do our job and to keep our eagle eyes on the KTM. She approached Nic once our saluran counting was done and asked how much we were paid to be CAs. The answer probably floored her.
“Demi rakyat,” replied my husband. I doubt she understood that doing a job well wasn’t always about money.
So what have I learnt as a Polling Agent and Counting Agent?
1. PACAs must be of a certain age (30’s and above and with work experience is good) and be firm in all situations. Never let the KTM scare you even if she thinks she can get the policeman to frighten you. Most times, the policemen don’t want to get into deep shit. They’re human after all.
2. Insist on getting Borang 13 filled up before the polling stream is open to voters. If that doesn’t happen, call for backup help and authority.
3. As much as the KTM has a right to overwrite you as a PACA, you have a right to file your complaints too.
4. Insist on getting Borang 14. But triple-check everything.
5. As PACAs, we should be better trained for crisis management. For the next GE, I suggest PACAs be trained to handle all types of uncertainty so that we know our Plan B should Plan A be dethroned.
6. PACAs should be trained from now even though GE14 is still 4.5 years away. In Bayan Baru, most of us who were PACAs are engineers, teachers and middle-class professionals who are literate and urban. That made our PACA duties easier. Even with urbanites, we still had problems. What about the rural areas?
7. Involve more Malaysians as PACAs – I don’t regret the experience. It’s made me a more involved citizen… better than saying “I voted” and then sat at home waiting for the election results. The more PACAs who volunteer, the more eyes we have to check if there are any hanky-panky or inconsistencies or non-compliance of procedures happening.
8. While the counting process is important, please tell fellow CAs what to do once they’ve got their Borang 13 and 14. Can they get out of the hall? Must they still watch the ballot boxes like hawks? Can they leave?
9. Play nice. If that doesn’t work, try another tack. The SPR people just want to get the damn thing over and done with and go home and sleep. Their hearts aren’t into it at all. They’re paid to do their jobs. Most of the PACAs I know are in this for a totally different reason and it’s not about money. It’s about integrity and making sure proper procedures are followed and not left to the whims of the petulant KTM.
10. Counting Agents or Polling Agents with their official tags have every right to be in the polling room. The KTM, however clueless, cannot throw you out. She will make all sorts of excuses – no place to sit, too many people hanging about etc. Even if they have to re-arrange the tables for the counting process, you must never step out of the room. Like ever. Once you step out, you won’t be allowed in. Their rules are rules. Our rules – what rules? Yes, it’s unfair. That is why this experience has opened up my eyes to the actual process which makes me wonder, in those days without PACAs from other parties, what REALLY happens during the counting process?
As my CA partner remarked, “You’ve grown an inch of thicker skin after this PACA duty.”
I gave him a wry smile.
[Update: Of course I was terribly disappointed on 6 May. Like many Malaysians who had hoped for a true change, it was a day we all wished we never woke up to. I was mentally and physically exhausted. The day started bleary and dull too. Mourn? Yes, I did but I know that I and many others will be much more prepared come the next general election. I know for sure I made the right choice in NOT voting in racists.]