PAS supporters on nomination day, 17 Aug 2009 (Pic courtesy of theSun)
THE Permatang Pasir by-election was an unquestionable success for PAS and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). PAS’s share of the total votes cast, excluding spoilt votes, went from 66.39% in the March 2008 elections to 65.50% — a drop of barely 1%. The reduction in terms of PAS’s majority was from 5,433 votes to 4,551 this time, and was due mainly to a reduced voter turnout.
The victory is sweet even after analysing communal voting trends. According to party sources, the preliminary analysis shows that PAS has increased its Chinese Malaysian support from about 70% in 2008 to 75%, although its Malay Malaysian support declined, from 65% to 60%.
The actual decline in Malay Malaysian support may be less than the data indicates, considering the lower turnout. The majority of the 2,000 voters who did not turn up to vote on 25 Aug 2009 were younger Malay Malaysian voters, who would probably be more likely to support PAS than Umno if the trends elsewhere are any indicator. Had polling fallen on a weekend or public holiday, PAS might have easily bagged a few hundred more Malay Malaysian votes and raised their winning margin.
Winds of change?
The result was definitely a big blow to the deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, who claimed to see a “wind of change”. A wind of change indeed swept through Permatang Pasir, just not in the direction that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would have liked. Instead, it blew away much of the hope for Umno and the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s renewal, without even providing a near miss as it did in Manik Urai just a month ago.
Umno had, of course, picked the wrong candidate. Either Rohaizat Othman had successfully fooled the Umno leadership into picking him, or the other potential candidates were no better than him. Either way, this speaks volumes of the problems with Umno’s talent pool and candidate selection.
The BN/Umno’s problem, however, is much larger than candidacy. It is institutional. It is a question of relevance, of raison d’être.
Why should a voter cast his or her vote for Umno? The best answer Umno could offer in Permatang Pasir was pathetic: federal incumbency. The “anak emas” (literally “golden child”) argument, that Permatang Pasir would get the best financial support from the federal government with a BN representative, is one of default by position, not by capacity or choice. Any party controlling the federal government and willing to abuse its power can do that. There is no “added value” by voting for the BN.
Clearly, such incentive works only when the federal ruling party is a given. After the March 2008 elections, the BN’s federal incumbency has progressively looked less like a given with each passing day. So why would voters elect the BN/Umno to discriminate against those who do not?
Poster of BN candidate Rohaizat next to one of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak
The BN/Umno should have offered itself on two grounds. The first is that of consensual appeal or “valence issues” like efficiency, effectiveness and integrity of the government machinery. The BN should have shown that they could deliver governance and development better than their opponents; to beat the DAP-led state government in the CAT (competency, accountability and transparency) game, if you like. For obvious reasons, Umno did not define its battle based on good governance.
The second ground is that of ideological or programmatic appeal, where parties make different offers. Here, the BN/Umno was caught in a dilemma right from the start: should it have stressed on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s inclusive 1Malaysia slogan, or should it have charged with Muhyiddin’s ultra-nationalist “traitor” war cry?
Umno and its satellite partners decided to go with doublespeak, attacking PAS for selling Islam to the DAP in Malay Malaysian areas, and attacking the DAP for selling non-Muslims to PAS in non-Malay Malaysian neighbourhoods. They would have won if there were no such things like blogs, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter or SMS, or if Malaysians lived in linguistic ghettos.
Winning PAS candidate Mohd Salleh Man Failing to appeal on both non-ideological and ideological grounds, the BN/Umno’s colossal defeat was therefore the only reasonable outcome. A superior candidate from Umno might have pulled more support among Malay Malaysians and misled them for a while, but here’s the naked truth: the euphoria of a new prime minister and his million-dollar spinning has come to an early end. This party and this coalition are simply incapable of modern electioneering, in even mildly mixed-race seats.
Even if the propaganda war launched by Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and Umno politicians themselves were to work in eroding Malay Malaysian support for the PR, there are only 30 parliamentary seats with 90% or more Malay Malaysian voters.
In contrast, there are 51 seats with a non-Malay Malaysian majority and 42 more with a sizeable non-Malay Malaysian minority of one-third or above. If 75% of the non-Malay Malaysian votes are solidly behind the PR, could the BN/Umno survive even if it commanded 60% of Malay Malaysian support? You do the math.
Pakatan’s hidden Najib supporters
But politics is not mathematics. It’s more like biology — chameleon-like experts in disguise and mutants abound.
Najib can easily be saved come the next elections, not by the Umno/BN machinery but by PR politicians. To be specific, he has supporters, two groups of them at that, within the PR to help dismantle the opposition coalition.
The first group comprises those ready to join the BN either on their own, or bringing their party along if possible, when the price is right. Call them opportunists — they would find a thousand reasons why the nation, the community or even God needs protection under a strong government.
The second group is made up of naïve ideologues. They are lost in the new politics, where political fault lines are cut not along but across ethno-religious lines.
Siti Mariah Mahmud They cannot handle novelties such as the fact that PAS’s strongest vote puller (scoring 67.4% of popular votes) in 2008 was a woman, Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud. Mariah had beaten an Indian Malaysian MIC candidate in a non-Malay-Malaysian majority seat.
They cannot handle the fact that PAS is now more popular among non-Malay Malaysians (75%) than Malay Malaysians (60%) in Permatang Pasir. They feel a crisis of both identity and employability, like unskilled labourers resisting automation.
Don’t ask me if Selangor’s PAS executive councillor Datuk Dr Hassan Ali, who has proposed a moral police squad made of mosque officers, or PAS Youth chief Nasrudin Hassan, whose latest enemy is the Danish band Michael Learns to Rock, belong to the first or second group. I don’t know. But it is quite clear that they are trying to revive PAS’s Islamic state agenda, which in 2004 undid the party’s 27-seat parliamentary revival in 1999. Consciously or unconsciously, they are Najib’s supporters now in undoing the PR.
Don’t accuse me of belittling Islam, which by definition cannot be belittled by mere mortals. Religio-political leaders can be popular and respectable beyond their faith communities. In Islamic history, the prophet Muhammad, the Umayyad caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, and army general Saladin during the Crusades were well-respected by non-believers.
PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, whose humility and grace have won a growing army of supporters among non-Muslims — just watch Amir Muhammad’s Tree and read the comments — is a good contemporary example.
Self-righteousness and self-centrism represent not spirituality, but worldly arrogance. Victory that fuels arrogance can be deadly. The BN probably would not have suffered the March 2008 tsunami if it had not won a 91% parliamentary majority in 2004. PAS probably would not have become overexcited with its Islamic state blueprint if it had not won 27 extra parliamentary seats and its second state government, Terengganu, in 1999.
Will Permatang Pasir be the kiss of death for the PR that emboldens the likes of Hassan Ali and Nasrudin Hassan and swells their followings? Najib might hope so. But insya Allah, no.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. His Merdeka Day wish is for a nation that is able to employ reason, and is hence capable of upholding freedom and equality, and does not panic upon listening to Michael Learns to Rock.