My 85-Year-Old Grandfather Tells Me What It Was Like When Malaysians Voted In GE1

"There was something in the air. It was very meriah."

Cover image via Katrina Khairul Azman

The much anticipated GE14, dubbed the "mother of all elections", is almost upon us. Come 9 May, registered Malaysian voters will play their part in determining which party will govern the country for the next five years.

With all the buzz surrounding the 14th general election, I brought up the topic of the country's previous general elections during a family dinner. What was it like to participate in the first-ever parliamentary election in Malaysia?

It was then when my 85-year-old grandfather revealed to me that he had not only voted in GE1, but was also the Returning Officer in Kelantan, back in 1959!

My grandfather, Abdul Aziz, was born in Kampung Pasir Pekan, Kelantan in 1933. He has voted in every single general election of Malaysia!

To get a glimpse of what it was like when GE1 was held, I asked my grandfather to take us on a walk down memory lane to the Federation of Malaya in 1959.

How did you become a Returning Officer on the day of GE1?

Abdul Aziz: I was in Pasir Mas, Kelantan. I was Assistant District Officer there, and the District Officer was an Englishman who didn't want to be involved in the election process, so he appointed me to be a returning officer in Pasir Mas. 

The role made me responsible for overseeing GE1. 

Abdul Aziz became Assistant District Officer of Pasir Mas, Kelantan in 1956.

Image via Katrina Khairul Azman

What was the atmosphere like on the day of GE1?

Abdul Aziz: It didn't feel like just any ordinary day. It was the first ever general election post-Merdeka, and there was something in the air. It was very meriah.

Abdul Aziz speaking as Chairman of the Machang Youth Club in Kelantan in 1960.

Image via Katrina Khairul Azman

Abdul Aziz: In the days leading up to GE1, the government had to work hard to persuade people to vote because many didn't understand what the voting was for. To those who were educated and understood, this was a very important occasion. They paid a lot of attention to the campaigns and made effort to persuade others to vote for their preferred candidates.

With proper encouragement and dissemination of information, I think maybe around 70% of the people in Kelantan came out to vote. That added a little drama to the day itself, because we weren't sure many people were going to turn up. We were all on our toes.

A gotong-royong project to build a road in Pasir Mas in 1960.

Image via Katrina Khairul Azman

What memory of GE1 stands out to you the most?

Abdul Aziz: Everyone was quite confused. It was an exciting moment in time, yes, but it was also a historic one. The first general election after Hari Merdeka, the first parliamentary election in Malaya. Many people didn't know how to vote, and didn't bother finding out beforehand.

Abdul Aziz (third from bottom left) and friends at the Lions Club of Kota Bharu function in 1960.

Image via Katrina Khairul Azman

Abdul Aziz: Instead of crossing the ballot paper and putting it into the ballot box, many just drew an 'X' on the wall of the polling booth, placed their identity cards into the ballot box, and took home the ballot papers!

How did I know that? When the other officers and I counted the votes that night, we found so many identity cards and noticed the markings on the booth walls! It took us a few days to trace back all the owners of the ICs, and when we visited them to return their ICs, they all gave us back the ballot papers they took home. 

It was a shame that their votes weren't counted, but I couldn't help but find it a little funny.

Do you have a message to young Malaysian voters?

Abdul Aziz: This is our tanah air. Every Malaysian shares a responsibility to protect it. We do this by choosing wisely who we think can lead us to greater heights; who has the best intentions for Malaysia, and who has the best plans for Malaysia.

I can remember a time when we didn't have a choice who lead us. Now we have a choice, and I hope Malaysians make full use of it. Decide which party and which candidate you believe in, and then go out and vote for them.

Abdul Aziz delivering a speech at Machang, Kelantan during the launching of electricity supply in the district in 1960.

Image via Katrina Khairul Azman

Will you be voting on 9 May?

Abdul Aziz: Of course! I have voted in every single general election in this country to date. For as long as I live, I will go out and exercise my right to vote.

Abdul Aziz in 2017.

Image via Katrina Khairul Azman

Find out more about GE1 or any of the other general elections in the country's history here:

For GE14-related stories on SAYS:

Head over to the SAYS GE14 microsite for verified, live results of all seats:

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