(Corrected at 3.34pm on 1 April 2009)
OF the three simultaneous and upcoming by-elections on 7 April, the Bukit Selambau state seat in Kedah appears to be the most fascinating.
On 12 March 2009, The Star reported that the Kedah police force had identified three “hot spots” in Bukit Selambau. Then on 19 March 2009, the New Straits Times‘s Zubaidah Abu Bakar said police had upped that figure to at least 17 hotspots.
And suspicions of how police would handle such “hot spots” were piqued on 23 March 2009, when water cannons were used to disperse a crowd of 5,000 Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) supporters.
“Of course we are worried,” PKR candidate S Manikumar tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview. “On our side, we are civilised. But as you can see on 23 March, the police stormed our ceramah and sprayed chemical-laced water on us.”
Sivarasa (File pic) Nevertheless, PKR vice-president R Sivarasa is reluctant to give in to rhetoric about “hot spots” in Bukit Selambau. “It’s unnecessarily alarmist talk,” he says in a phone interview, stressing that the police themselves should refrain from playing up the issue.
“Besides, it is not accurate to compare Bukit Selambau this time to the violence that happened in the Lunas by-election in 2000. That happened on the last day, and it was because of this phenomenon of bringing in busloads of outside voters on the last day.”
MIC candidate for this state seat in Kedah, Datuk S Ganesan, predictably defends the police’s actions. “The rules are very clear and apply to the Barisan Nasional (BN), Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and independent candidates,” he tells The Nut Graph over the phone. “If a permit is required for a ceramah, then we have to get it. If not, things will be chaotic.”
But chaos in Bukit Selambau is going to be inevitable, “hot spots” or not. Already, in addition to the BN and PR candidates, there are a record-breaking 13 independent candidates vying for the seat.
Husaini Yaacob There is already talk that the motives of some of these independent candidates may not be altogether altruistic. Independent candidate Husaini Yaacob’s election deposit, for example, was reportedly paid by Zahran Abdullah, whose father, Datuk Abdullah Ismail, is an Umno veteran and former Kedah state assembly speaker.
“These are baseless accusations and speculations,” says Kedah Gerakan Youth chief Tan Keng Liang.
“This is the thing about having too many independent candidates — it fuels too many rumours,” he says in a phone interview. Besides, Tan says, there are also rumours that some of the independent candidates are PR-sponsored. “It’s best to ignore these rumours,” he says.
Referendum of sorts
If Tan is right, then the real battle will really be between the PR’s Manikumar and BN’s Ganesan. And both PR and BN feel equally strongly that the by-election will be a referendum of sorts.
“The Bukit Selambau by-election will definitely be a referendum on the BN’s and Umno’s gangster culture,” says PKR’s Sivarasa. “Forming 30% of the constituency, already SMSes are circulating regarding the marginalisation of Indian [Malaysians], A Kugan’s death in police custody, and the fatal police shooting of six individuals in Kulim recently.”
Ironically, Gerakan’s Tan agrees, but for opposite reasons. “It should be a referendum of the PR’s performance in Kedah,” he says. “The voters should vote based on the PR’s performance as a state government, and should stop behaving as though the BN is still in power here.”
State BN chief and former Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid concurs. “Bukit Selambau will be the rakyat’s referendum on both the BN and PR. And it will be quite decisive because all races are represented quite substantially in this seat.”
Ironically, this is almost identical to the ethnic composition in the Ijok state seat in Selangor. Although the BN candidate from MIC won the Ijok by-election in 2007, the seat went to PKR in the general election 11 months later.
Issues, issues, issues
Mahdzir, who recently got elected into the Umno supreme council, says it is therefore important for the BN to strip away any hints of racism in its election campaign
“We have to look at the economy. This is an industrial area and there could be layoffs from the factories. And even though it is a largely urban constituency, there are also some estates and villages here,” he says.
Mahdzir (Source: mykedah2.com)According to Mahdzir, the majority of urban dwellers occupy low- to medium-cost houses, and they either work in the services industry or factories. Hence, the economic slowdown will be a chief concern.
Sivarasa feels that the issues that will concern the voters will be a mixture of both the local and the national. “People will be concerned about the BN’s takeover of the Perak government, and we will definitely bring it up in our campaign. We will also talk about how former assemblyperson V Arumugam faced all sorts of threats,” he says.
Tan, however, feels that the PR government in Kedah should not be too confident of victory. “For example, their raising of the bumiputera housing quota to 50% came under heavy fire. They have also not done much to address the economic downturn. Have they reduced quit rent and cukai pintu?”
Tan points out that the PAS-led state government also ignored protests about its plans to log in the Ulu Muda forest reserve. The previous BN state government had also planned to carry out logging in the area, but the federal government stepped in and scrapped the idea after widespread protests.
The contest between the PR and BN is therefore far from clear-cut, even down to the level of internal support for their respective candidates. The Merbok division of Umno, for example, was adamant that the BN should have fielded an Umno candidate, while Gerakan lobbied for an MIC candidate.
The PR side has been no less challenged with internal dissent. The Makkal Sakthi faction in PKR, for one, protested the selection of Manikumar openly.
Both the BN and PR are downplaying these dissensions now.
Tan Keng Liang (File pic) “There was no fight between Gerakan and Umno,” says Tan. “These were just expressions of interest. Merbok Umno has since pledged support for the MIC candidate.”
Mahdzir is equally smooth in his response. “It’s all been settled,” he says. “The BN spirit is alive among the component parties.”
At least on the level of rhetoric, Mahdzir and Tan appear to be right about the closing of ranks in the BN. Ironically, it is the PR side now that has yet to iron out its internal factionalising.
“The protests are only from a small faction,” says Manikumar. “Besides, these rumours were started by outsiders. These are not people who are from Bukit Selambau themselves,” he says.
Sivarasa is more circumspect. “Such reactions to the naming of candidates are normal. After a while, common sense will prevail once people see that PKR has fielded a credible Indian [Malaysian] candidate to face the MIC,” he says.
“Our objective is to retain the seat with a bigger majority,” Sivarasa concludes. But can he truly discount the BN’s confidence?
“We are certain that the multiracial voters will know how to evaluate PR’s performance to date,” says Mahdzir.
Ultimately, MIC’s Ganesan puts it best: “We have to go to the ground, get to know the voters, and be humble,” he says. “After that, the result is not up to us — it’s in the voters’ hands.”
Ganesan (left) greeting voters at a coffee shop in Bukit Selambau