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Fence-sitters hold the key

Young Malay villagers among the elderly at a PAS ceramah in Kampung Panji, Wakaf Mempelam on 12 Jan 2009

WITH the Chinese Malaysian voters — considered the decisive votes in the Kuala Terengganu by-election — appearing to lean towards PAS, attention is now shifting to the Malay Malaysian votes.

The Chinese Malaysian community’s enthusiastic support for Pakatan Rakyat-organised ceramah, and the increasingly threatening tenor of the Barisan Nasional (BN) campaign in this by-election, lend currency to the perception that the ruling party is losing ground here.

Now, with polling day just around the corner on 17 Jan, another long-held belief — that the Malay Malaysian vote is split 50-50 split between the BN and PAS — may no longer hold water.

Political analyst Dr Aisar Yee Abdullah, writing in her column in Sinar Harian on 11 Jan, warned that the BN’s strategy of enticing the Chinese Malaysian vote risked tipping this 50-50 balance towards PAS.

She said the Chinese Malaysian voters have been courted with development funds and federal allocations at a rate far outstripping those in Malay Malaysian-dominated areas.

This risks alienating the kampung folk who are sensitive to BN candidate Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh’s personality issues and unconvinced by the BN’s Mesra Rakyat charm offensive. Wan Ahmad Farid is facing PAS’s Abdul Wahid Endut and independent candidate Azharudin Mamat @ Adam.

With the big issues in this by-election gaining little traction among Malay Malaysian voters, it would seem that many analysts are spot-on in zeroing in on the candidate’s character as a deciding factor. But that may not be the only thing that influences fence-sitters. And if their numbers are big enough, they may make the Chinese Malaysian vote irrelevant.

BN campaign workers canvassing for votes in Losong Haji Mat Shafie,
Wakaf Mempelam, on 11 Jan
Duduk atas tong

A 60-year-old former Umno politician who did not want to be named puts the fence-sitters at a whopping 70% of the Malay Malaysian vote.

During our chat at a coffee shop in Kuala Terengganu, he makes a little show of the fickle vote by beckoning one of his younger friends: “Budak-budak awak berapa orang? Dua puluh? Kalau abang kata pakoh pah, awak pakoh pah? (How many people are under you? Twenty? If I told you to vote for PAS, would you?)” He nods and tells me with a grin: “Orang Ganu ni duduk atas tong (the Terengganu people sit on the fence).

“Orang Terengganu, dia lain daripada Kelantan,” the senior politician explains. “Kalau di Kelantan, dia ada channel 1 dan 2, lain tak tengok. Kalau dia A, dia tetap A. Pengundi Terengganu macam channel Astro, dia ada A, B, C, D…”

Which channel the voters switch to depends partly on the candidate themselves, and not the issues raised in ceramah. “Ada banyak orang pun tak suka PAS, tapi pasal Terengganu, dia kira undi atas calon, siapa calon yang baik, yang biasa pergi minum kopi sama orang kampung … Siapa dia ni Wan Farid? Semua orang tak suka … you kena cari orang yang laku, orang yang tak berpolitik wang, tapi boleh berpolitik budi bahasa.

“Isu-isu dalam ceramah, seperti kita menonton wayang,” he says. “Cuma dengar, semua tak masuk kepala. Macam tengok boxing, Muhammad Ali buat macam ni, Mike Tyson macam ini. Lepas ceramah, dia cakap cerita lain.”

He cites Permatang Pauh as an example: “Seperti kes (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim dan Saiful Bukhari, sudah main belakang, you ingat sampai 30 tahun boleh ingat, tiga bulan pun sudah habis cerita, sekarang takde lagi.”

Pushing personalities

The BN has tried to plug the personality problem by sending all their top leaders to go house-to-house, applying the blanket charms of the various BN personalities in lieu of Wan Ahmad Farid.

When Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil led a team of 10 vote canvassers around Losong Haji Mat Shafie on the morning of 9 Jan, she made sure that interaction with locals was kept to small talk. No politics, not even a request to vote.

They met Senik Salleh, a 70-year-old woman wracked with debilitating arthritis who is being taken care of by her husband, 74-year-old Muda. Shahrizat had her assistants take down their details and promised that they would push for the Welfare Department to help.

Shahrizat inquiring about the ailments of Losong Haji Mat Shafie
resident, Senik Salleh, on 9 Jan

The matter of an election going on seemed to be an afterthought, although the vote canvassers would always take down the addresses and MyKad numbers of the occupants and check how many voters were in the household. The fanfare was to show that these personalities demonstrated care and “cakna”, the Terengganu term for “concern”, which can be frequently found in BN paraphernalia.

Without a big-name personality like Shahrizat, the vote-canvassing machinery seemed to splutter as I followed up on the same area a couple of days later. The groups were smaller, and their house-to-house visits delayed by a couple of hours.

On an adjacent street, Ahmad Mat Jaih, a 71-year-old from Jeli, picks up the slack with three other men. His Member of Parliament (MP) in Jeli, Datuk Mustapa Mohamad, will be doing house-to-house visits later in the week, so Ahmad’s tact to ascertain votes is to ask if the occupants would accept Mustapa’s presence.

The first three households are happy to do so, but the fourth is sheepishly reluctant. So Ahmad asks point blank, “Undi apa?” The woman peeking out the door says, “Pakoh bulang (vote PAS).”

Hafsin, resident of Losong Haji Mat Shafie

The fifth household turns out to be a no-brainer, as 44-year-old Hafsin invites the vote canvassers in, and reveals that he’s hosting some Umno campaign workers. Hafsin insists that while his kampung in Wakaf Mempelam is a PAS stronghold, the older folk’s support for the BN is unshakeable.

“Saya bimbang pengundi luar, terutamanya orang muda, pelajar-pelajar yang tak akan undi BN, dia senang terpengaruh.” According to Hafsin, the Losong Haji Mat Shafie peti undi, with about 3,700 voters, saw only four BN votes in the saluran for young voters in the last general election. Even Ahmad himself, who has been in Umno for 48 years, admits that his son, who studies in Kuala Lumpur, is an Anwar supporter.

Rise of the young kampung voter

A major change in rural and sub-rural areas in places like the Wakaf Mempelam state constituency is the rise of the young Malay Malaysian kampung voter. According to Hafsin, they don’t share the party comradeship of generations past.

In Kampung Panji, Wakaf Mempelam, 24-year-old student Mohd Hafiz, who is studying for a degree in counselling in Unitar, has avidly attended both PAS and Umno ceramah. His answers to questions have a textbook quality: articulate and stripped of the gurgling local dialect.

“Orang muda terpengaruh pertama sekali, dari segi karektor calon, keduanya dari segi apa perjuangannya dan manifesto dia,” he says. “BN utamakan pembangunan, dan dia kata sudah memadai bahawa Terengganu dipimpin oleh kerajaan BN dengan bantuan mereka kepada kebajikan dan pendidikan. Saya suka perjuangan PAS yang ingin menubuhkan negara Islam, di mana Islam for all, semua orang boleh terima pentadbirannya, dari segi agama dan akhlak.”

Over in Batu Burok, another young voter, Mohd Faldi, offers a less robotically trenchant voice. Living with his parents, wife and two-year-old daughter in the Jalan Kenanga area, the 30-year-old doesn’t seem too concerned about politics or the issues surrounding it, but he is resolutely for PAS.

Mohd Faldi outside his house in Batu Burok
Why? “Sebab keluarga,” he admits sheepishly, which he also says is a common factor. He knows of friends who support the BN but don’t like the candidate, so they will either abstain from voting or go for PAS.

His parents, while staunch PAS supporters, are admiring of the old days when Umno ruled supreme in Terengganu. Only when Tok Guru Datuk Seri Nik Aziz Nik Mat and Tuan Guru Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang appeared on the scene during the 1970s did the local political landscape change.

“Sekarang, ceramah BN, isu apa benda? Tak ada benda isu. Duit royalti, pembangunan, itu saja politik dia,” Faldi’s father says.

Through the green-tinted lenses of this family, PAS would reign supreme — considering the three state constituences they hold in Kuala Terengganu — but for one factor. “Biasa yang atas pagar, ikut ini,” says Faldi, as he rubs his thumb and forefinger together.

Money and mismanagement

My Umno politician coffee chum concurs, but adds: “I cakap terang-terang, I suka BN, sebab so far, tak ada masalah-masalah, ekonomi merosot pun you masih boleh makan, harga satu pinggan nasi pun you boleh bayar. Tapi management dia tak betul.”

He goes on to list a string of problems, mainly to do with his view of a BN government being a divisive influence in the way it discriminates against opposition-linked citizens. He believes that the PAS government that ruled Terengganu from 1999 to 2004 also did the same thing, which was partly why they were kicked out.

People like him have “given up” on politics. “Actually, Malaysia ni sudah rosak, baru orang faham ini politik, dia dah nampak,” he says.

PAS campaign paraphernalia in a home on Jalan
Kenanga, Batu Burok
In many ways, the range of disparate problems and motivations that propelled the March 2008 political tsunami has remained in status quo for the Malay Malaysian vote. Given this situation, the by-election results seem predictably in PAS’s favour. But a few old hands express caution, remembering the Pengkalan Pasir by-election that seemed to favour PAS but swung to the BN at the very last minute.

Significant changes to the everyday lives of the Kuala Terengganu folk will not come, whatever the result of this by-election. Its impact, however, will resonate in the future, when the voter’s bargaining power will be even stronger.

“Bila pilihanraya umum yang akan datang ini, I kena cari calon, letak pistol,” the politician says, pointing his forefinger to his temple. “Kalau you nak mintak I tolong you, you nak bagi tolong I tak?”

Danny Lim is a freelance journalist and photographer.

See also:
Positive and negative campaigning
Assessing Chinese Malaysian support
KT’s decorative touch
Wahid’s likeability factor
Getting the message across in KT
Politicising Islam in KT
KT’s odd man out
Contrasting campaign styles in KT

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