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Challenges in Kuala Terengganu

Corrected on 8 Dec 2008 at 1.00pm

The Crystal Mosque

The architecture for the Crystal Mosque in Kuala Terengganu’s Islamic Heritage Park has some Chinese characteristics (Pic by Danny Lim)

BY-ELECTIONS, either at the state or parliamentary level, receive national attention because they are often seen as bellwethers of the political climate.

The upcoming Kuala Terengganu by-election, which has been called following the death of its Member of Parliament (MP) Datuk Razali Ismail from the Barisan Nasional (BN), is no different.

Both the ruling and opposition coalitions have their work cut out for them if they want to emerge victorious in this by-election, which is set for 17 Jan 2009.

BN’s challenges

For the BN, it is impossible to escape the argument that this by-election is a referendum on Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s acceptability among Malay Malaysians as the next prime minister. All the more so if the precedent of having the deputy premier as the point person for a by-election of this importance is followed. Of course, Najib, knowing this, may not want to assume this role and might lobby for it to be passed on to another person who can then prove his or her mettle before the March 2009 Umno elections.

But barring unforeseen circumstances, Najib will most likely be the sixth prime minister when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi steps down, as promised, in March.


Thus far, Najib has played a good game in forcing Abdullah out of power without being seen to be directly involved in the process. The cloud of uncertainty which hung over his head from the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder trial seems to have lifted after the acquittal of close aide Abdul Razak Baginda. But stories of corruption and bloated military contracts continue to dog him.

Additionally, Najib has yet to give the rakyat a vision of what his administration will look like and how it will differ from Abdullah’s. One can be sure that the opposition coalition of Pakatan Rakyat, led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, will unleash its very best to undermine the prime-minister-in-waiting. Hence, one of Najib’s main challenges in this by-election will be to formulate an effective narrative, at the local as well as national level, to counter these attacks.

MCA’s quandary

Kuala Terengganu is the only parliamentary seat in the east coast state of Terengganu where the Chinese Malaysian vote actually matters (see tomorrow for Part II). As such, the dynamics between Umno and MCA, as well as some of the internal dimensions of MCA politics, can and probably will play a role in determining this by-election’s outcome.


The MCA has been grappling, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to regroup itself since its disastrous performance in the March 2008 general election. It has not managed to find a way to “soften” up Umno, whose arrogance and ineffectiveness were widely perceived to be among the main reasons why non-Malay Malaysians abandoned the BN in droves in March.

The recent back and forth between Umno and MCA on the interpretation of and the need for ketuanan Melayu surely cannot help the MCA’s attempts to win back the non-Malay Malaysian vote.

One can also be sure that the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) will go to town (in the Chinese Malaysian parts of Kuala Terengganu town, that is) with Umno Youth chief hopeful Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir’s latest salvo against vernacular schools. Interestingly, if the opposition wins the Kuala Terengganu by-election, Mukhriz will surely have to take some of the blame because of his statements to integrate vernacular schools into national schools.

Lastly, if the rifts between MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat and his deputy Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek become more publicly unpleasant, the MCA’s ability to ensure Chinese Malaysian support in this by-election may be affected.

Pakatan Rakyat’s challenges

This is not to say that Pakatan Rakyat’s ride to victory will be easy. If this by-election is the closest thing to a Malay referendum on Najib, the same may be said of Anwar, who has been targeting the premier’s office since winning the Permatang Pauh by-election in August 2008.

They are both the flip sides of the same coin — one will probably be the next prime minister in March, the other is hoping to supplant him.

Anwar has not had many things go his way since his return to Parliament as opposition leader. His attempt to topple the federal government on 16 Sept, through crossovers of BN MPs to the opposition, was a whimper of an unfulfilled promise. Anwar failed to entice a single MP from the BN to cross over to his side. (Corrected) Only two MPs from the small Sabah-based party of SAPP left the BN but they chose to remain independent and did not join Pakatan Rakyat.


Anwar has also not set up anything resembling a shadow cabinet despite many calls, some even from within his own party, to do so. He has not established any mechanisms by which the different Pakatan Rakyat parties of PKR, DAP and PAS can resolve their differences, whether these are within state, between states, or national level differences on a variety of issues. These include issues such as the management of water catchment areas, appointees to state-owned corporations and housing quotas.

In addition to these perceived shortcomings, Anwar’s biggest challenge in the Kuala Terengganu by-election is to see if his more inclusive message will sell well among the Malay Malaysian voters in this constituency. He can be sure that the BN, most notably Umno, will accuse him of selling out Malay Malaysian interests to non-Malay Malaysians.

Anwar will probably counter by saying that his more inclusive message will not disadvantage the Malay Malaysian, but is aimed at eradicating the pervasive culture of corruption and cronyism within the BN, specifically in Umno. It will be interesting to see if Anwar’s narrative can effectively counter Umno’s attacks.

The PAS factor

The Pakatan Rakyat has already decided that it will be a PAS candidate who contests in Kuala Terengganu.


Terengganu is the home state of Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, the PAS president, who was also once the state’s Menteri Besar. Abdul Hadi has been cautious, and reluctant to accept not only Anwar’s leadership in Pakatan Rakyat but also his more inclusive message. Indeed, it is noteworthy that PAS vice-president Husam Musa, and not Hadi, was the PAS representative who signed the 8 Sept Pakatan Rakyat statement with DAP advisor Lim Kit Siang and Anwar.

Would Hadi be willing to let Anwar dominate the limelight in this campaign, which is on his turf, so to speak?

And what about influential PAS leaders such as former de facto Deputy Menteri Besar Datuk Mustafa Ali and PAS deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa. Both are seen as wanting more cooperation with Umno rather than with PKR and DAP. Would these two be willing to accommodate their Pakatan Rakyat partners in the Kuala Terengganu by-election?

PAS may also drop Mohamad Sabu, who contested in the Kuala Terengganu seat on 8 March and lost by 628 votes, because he does not have deep local roots. The former Kuala Kedah MP is originally from Penang.

Mat Sabu
(pic courtesy of Danny Lim)

Mohamad Sabu’s outsider status and the presence of an independent candidate in the March general election probably contributed to PAS’s loss then. PAS won three out of the four state seats in the Kuala Terengganu constituency.

If you take all the votes that PAS won at the state seat level in 2008 within the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary constituency and add them together, and compare them with the total votes won by the BN at the state level, you would find that PAS actually polled more votes than the BN — 2,283 votes to be precise. But if you look at the parliamentary results, Mohamad Sabu actually lost by 628 votes. So split voting went against PAS at the parliamentary level.

But replacing Mohamad Sabu means dropping a candidate who has worked with other opposition leaders such as DAP secretary-general and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

PAS’s choice will signal the future direction the party will be taking vis-à-vis its Pakatan Rakyat partners. The Islamist party could pick a moderate, such as former Kuala Terengganu MP Dr Syed Azman Ahmad Nawawi, who is the current assemblyperson for Batu Buruk (a state constituency within Kuala Terengganu). Or its choice could be a more exclusive candidate who is favoured by the party’s anti-Erdogans (non-progressives).

For certain, tensions within the Pakatan Rakyat will emerge but it remains to be seen if these will affect the by-election’s outcome.

Ong Kian Ming is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University. He can be reached at [email protected]. He thanks Lai Soon Keat and Dr Bridget Welsh for the 2004 and 2008 elections polling station data.

Part II: Swing voters in Kuala Terengganu

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3 Responses to “Challenges in Kuala Terengganu”

  1. Ajang Laing Liling says:

    “Only two MPs from the small Sarawak-based party of SAPP left the BN but they chose to remain independent and did not join Pakatan Rakyat.” This sentence is proof again that Peninsular Malaysians doesn’t understand the eastern states. SAPP is a political party from Sabah, not Sarawak. Please amend it and please do more research before writing anything. Your article will further mislead other people in believing SAPP is from Sarawak. This very wrong.

  2. Hi Ajang,

    Thanks so much for drawing our attention to our mistake. You’re right, it really demonstrates how little we know of politics in both Sabah and Sarawak. But more importantly, it shows us yet again how careful we need to be in our writing and reporting.

    We stand corrected and humbled.

    The Nut Graph

  3. anwar says:

    The vernacular school issue brought up by Mukhriz should be one of the factors that can effect the swing vote. Pakatan Rakyat’s broad-minded politics will be highlighted by campaigners compared with the struggling Umno’s politics for their own survival.

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