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KT and the DPM

IF the Permatang Pauh by-election indirectly shortened Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s political life, the Kuala Terengganu by-election will not be much kinder to his chosen successor. It has been reported in Malaysiakini that incoming prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak sees this by-election as a do-or-die battle for the Barisan Nasional (BN). 

While such emphasis may be needed to mobilise his troops, his assertion is far from accurate. On the positive side for Najib, only the loss of this by-election by a large margin would immediately send the BN government into intensive care. That said, there would be little reward for him even if he does win this uphill battle.

Najib is given a traditional welcome as he arrives for the launch of the Felda hotel in Kuala Terengganu on 5 Jan

No miracles for Najib

Traditionally, the BN has an upper hand in by-elections as it can pull national resources from around the country to dwarf the poorly oiled opposition machinery. Possible upsets by opposition candidates therefore raise the stakes exactly because of this unlevel playing field, and by-elections can be significant in three ways.

First, they may affect the government’s legislative majority. A case in point was the Pengkalan Pasir by-election in 2005. PAS’s defeat reduced the government majority to a wafer-thin 23:22 in the 45-member Kelantan state assembly.

This will not be the case in Kuala Terengganu. In the 222-member Parliament, a BN victory will keep the government-to-opposition balance at 138:84 (62.16% majority), while a Pakatan Rakyat triumph will slightly reduce it to 137:85 (61.71%).

Second, a by-election can also be a personal battle for a defiant politician to test his or her popularity, like Tambunan (1984) for Datuk Seri Panglima Joseph Pairin Kitingan or Johor Baru (1988) for Datuk Shahrir Samad. Though the seat was vacated by his wife, Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Permatang Pauh (2008) showdown was a similar popularity test.

In those battles, a defeat would have been seriously demoralising for the politician and his supporters, but they all indeed turned out triumphant and electrified.

In Kuala Terengganu, there is no such prize for the BN. While five-term state legislator Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut is no local lightweight, his defeat, unless by a large margin, will not send shockwaves through PAS or the Pakatan Rakyat. And Najib would not even be able to claim Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh’s victory as that of his own faction. Farid is perceived so strongly to be Abdullah’s man that even Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad cannot help but attack him.

Najib greets PAS candidate Abdul Wahid Endut on
Nomination Day, 6 Jan 2009
However, if Farid loses humiliatingly, the defeat will be capitalised by the opposition as the Malay heartland’s rejection of Najib and used as a powerful weapon in the coming Sarawak state elections.

Demystifying Parit Raja

The third significance of a by-election is that it serves as a barometer for the next general election, much like mid-term elections and opinion polls. Malaysia has no mid-term elections such as staggered state elections, except in Sarawak, and opinion polls do not capture the effects of party machinery. Thus, by-elections are the darlings for both politicians and voters. This is where Kuala Terengganu really matters.

However, the usefulness of by-election results in the projection of voting trends is constrained by two factors: proximity to the general election, and representativeness of the constituency. For example, the three by-elections (Batu Talam, Machap and Ijok) in 2007 were bad estimators for the 2008 polls because they took place before the Hindraf rally.

The BN’s spin has been that the Kuala Terengganu by-election will be a replay of Parit Raja in 1988. In Parit Raja, the Umno Baru candidate marginally defeated the independent candidate, backed by Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Team B, which later became Semangat 46 (S46) in 1989. It was supposed to be a turning point for Umno as Tun Musa Hitam’s faction soon broke away from Team B to join Mahathir’s Umno Baru, leaving Razaleigh in the political wilderness till today.

On the surface, Kuala Terengganu and Parit Raja are quite similar. Both are heavily Malay seats — the Terengganu parliamentary seat has a Malay to non-Malay ratio of 88:11, while the Johor state seat had a ratio of 81:19. Both seats were also left vacant because of the demise of BN incumbents.

But Kuala Terengganu cannot be Najib’s turning point to arrest the rise of Anwar and Pakatan Rakyat like another Parit Raja, because Parit Raja itself was never such a turning point.

Which way will the scales tip in Kuala Terengganu?

Parit Raja was the third of seven by-elections held during the period between 1988 and 1989, caused by either deaths or resignations of the incumbents. With its Parit Raja victory, the BN trumped the opposition’s Johor Baru triumph and went on to enjoy two more wins (Ampang Jaya and Bentong). PAS, supported by S46 under the banner of the newly formed Angakatan Perpaduan Ummah (Apu) coalition, won the sixth by-election in the Teluk Pasu state seat in Terengganu. However, Umno had the last laugh by beating Apu in the seventh and last by-election of that period in the Tambatan state seat in Johor.

Once the ethnic context is analysed, the legend of Parit Raja can be seen to be spurious. The by-elections won by Umno after Parit Raja and the formation of Apu were not in overwhelmingly Malay-majority seats.

And arguably the opposition lost the three by-elections after Parit Raja because of non-Malay votes. In Ampang Jaya (68% Malay), Chinese Malaysian voters were alienated by Team B candidate Datuk Harun Idris, who was seen by some as responsible for the 13 May 1969 riots. In Bentong (34.5% Malay) and Tambatan (60.7% Malay), the non-Muslims’ fear of PAS’s Islamic state agenda was successfully exploited by the MCA.

Beyond Parit Raja

Amidst all this, Musa Hitam rejoined Umno after the Ampang Jaya by-election. Incidentally, Musa also chose to rejoin the party after Mahathir’s heart operation, which sparked speculation that the former was motivated by prospects of capitalising on an impending leadership vacuum in Umno.

Most importantly, the 1990 elections showed a different result. These elections saw the formation of the multiracial Gagasan Rakyat, consisting of S46 (which also remained part of the Muslim Apu), the DAP, Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) and the Indian Progressive Front (IPF). Thus, non-Malay Malaysians were not afraid to vote for the opposition, including S46 and to a lesser extent PAS.

The opposition’s failure in 1990 was largely because of the smear campaign against Razaleigh. Accused of selling out Muslims, photos of Razaleigh donning Kadazan headwear with a crucifix-like pattern were circulated widely. As a result, S46 candidates won only eight seats that year out of the 61 seats the party contested. Seven of those victories were in Razaleigh’s home state, Kelantan, while the only non-Kelantan victory occurred in Terengganu.

Rais Yatim (© British Foreign and
Commonwealth Office /
Of S46’s losses, 15 were near misses, where candidates lost narrowly with margins smaller than 20%, including Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim, who lost by only 395 votes. If not for the smear campaign, S46 could have been victorious in more than eight seats.

The 1988 Parit Raja legend, in this sense, is merely a myth covering up the reality of Mahathir’s racist tactics in 1990.

A real turning point?

If Najib is lucky, what real turning point can he hope for?

The answer is a reduction of the Pakatan Rakyat’s Malay support to below 45% or that of its non-Malay support to 25% in Kuala Terengganu. That is the rough average of its support in constituencies with 75% or more Malay constituents. There were 55 such constituencies, exactly one-third of peninsular seats, in 2008. Of these, Umno won 34.

Only a fall of Malay support below 45% should alarm PKR and PAS, and induce them to lean more towards Malay-Muslim causes and strain their relations with the DAP and non-Malays constituents.

More plausible is a fall of non-Malay support to below a quarter, or an extremely low turnout of non-Malay voters. Many non-Malay Malaysians have felt betrayed by Pakatan Rakyat leaders on issues such as the PKNS general manager appointment, the alcohol ban and hudud. If that happens, the Pakatan Rakyat would have to kiss its dreams of power goodbye as PAS would likely lose all its mixed seats in the future, and PKR would probably follow suit.

Wong Chin Huat believes that voters are the bosses of politicians. They must cast their ballots to indicate their preference — even if they dislike all the candidates.

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11 Responses to “KT and the DPM”

  1. Andrew I says:

    At last, reporting as it should be. I’m becoming a big fan. Will spread the word.

    Keep up the good work. Cheers.

  2. FSLAM says:

    This reporting is definitely biased and follows the mainstream media’s slant towards BN.

    What has hudud, alcohol and appointment of the PKNS general manager do with non-Muslim support for PAS ?

    Why beyond Parit Raja and why not beyond Permatang Pauh ?

    Non-Malays are nowadays more receptive to new ideas and will not hesitate to vote PAS or PKR if their ideals are good.

  3. Andrew I says:

    Well, the last part FSLAM pointed out might be slanted but as a whole, it’s definitely not as biased as some of the traditional media reports.

    Read the part about the portrayal of Ku Li as some kind of bishop wannabe. That has long been forgotten. It just goes to show how well some people can do the limbo rock.

  4. Thanks for the comments from Andrew, FSLAM and other readers for my previous columns.

    I think it is important for Pakatan Rakyat supporters not to dismiss anything not portraying the opposition in a 100% positive light as biased against it.

    Believing in its own propaganda is part of the reason why BN suffered the 8 March tsunami.

    My last paragraph merely suggests if the non-Malay support for BN goes beyond 75%, then Pakatan Rakyat would need to take this sign seriously as it would signal a stronger setback in mixed constituencies. I did not assert that this *will* happen.

    In 2008, according to some estimates, BN got only about 65% support amongst the non-Malays in KT.

    If that number falls by 10% and below the average for the Malay heartland, should Pakatan Rakyat bury its head in the sand and insist that hudud, banning alcohol and appointment of the PKNS general manager has nothing to do with it?

    You decide. And the voters would do their part.

  5. Phua Kai Lit says:

    It’s different today.

    It’s not so easy to fool the people because of the existence of the Internet and alternative media.

  6. Eric says:

    FSLAM, please take my word for it. Malaysia and Pakatan Rakyat need more people like Chin Huat who need to distance themselves a tad from the here and now. Believe me, Chin Huat is not slanted like the traditional media.

  7. FSLAM says:

    Alcohol ban had been in existence in the east coast state of Kelantan for many years now. Hudud law is in place in Kelantan and Terengganu but not implemented or “activated ”
    What is so bad about hudud law ? If it is that bad I am sure Islam will not adopt it.

    The alcohol ban and hudud issue is brought up to confuse and frightened the voters in KT. If there is no election or by-election, this issue of alcohol ban and hudud will still exist, right ?

    Your statement that non-Malay Malaysians felt betrayed by Pakatan Rakyat leaders on the GM issue in PKNS is worded in an editorial mode to give the impression that Pakatan is not trusted!

    Well, the GM issue was instigated by the now state opposition members.

    Anyway, the rakyat will have the final say as they do not want to relive the days of corruption, arrogance of power, threats, social justice, non-transparency, divide-and-rule policy and what have you.

  8. Andrew I says:

    Good response, FSLAM. Maybe Wong Chin Huat might like to respond to that. We’re listening.

  9. Andrew I says:

    Actually, come to think of it, there’s no complete alchohol ban on the east coast, since Chinese restaurants are allowed to serve beer. Benefit of the doubt for a half truth?

  10. Eskay says:

    I feel that many people have been had by Khairy Jamaluddin; the son-in-law is pulling a fast one regarding hudud.

    If PAS had been able to implement this Islamic Law, it would have been done so legally in Kelantan and Terengganu a long, long time ago.

    I think this hudud is a non-issue.

  11. chin huat says:

    FSLAM’s main points on Hudud, which may be shared by others, as I understand, are:
    (a) “hudud” and “alcohol ban” are not new — and even good — in the East Coast and not objected by the non-Malays (more precisely non-Muslims) there.
    (b) these issues were brought up to confuse voters in KT, so independent writers must not discuss this or would be seen as echoing the mainstream media.

    On the first point, while the “alcohol ban” and hudud law (on paper) have been in the northeastern states for some times, they were brought under the spot light only because there was a plan to extend alcohol restriction in Selangor and PAS vice-president Husam when challenged by Khairy Jamaluddin had pledged that Pakatan Rakyat would implement it once it comes to power (a statement which was soon effectively retracted by admitting PAS would need PKR and DAP’s consent on this).

    So, these issues are not “local” but certainly “current”. The question then is whether the KT Chinese/non-Malay voters care much about them. It looks like that they don’t care much at the present. However, is it wrong or confused or misled if they do care?

    (In the case of KT, I would argue, as long as they also reject Umno for Khairy’s pledge to push for hudud law, a vote against PAS *can* be an informed choice. In other words, a voter who rejects hudud law could reject both Umno *and* PAS, whether at the ballot box or elsewhere.)

    The ultimate question: is a conscious and informed vote against Pakatan Rakyat an oxymoron? In my humble opinion, Pakatan Rakyat supporters would do great service to the coalition by refraining from such a patronising thought, expressed thus: you do not support us because you haven’t understood our idea.

    This brings us to the second point. Voters have every right to question the parties on their offer. The Star’s editorial is therefore right in principle and wrong only in the sense that it avoids questioning the BN’s stand on the same issue.

    The ultimate problem with the hudud controversy is that PAS has not found the discursive breakthrough on such thorny issues that it could hold its core supporters without alienating new converts. I understand some in PAS are working hard on that.

    To help PAS, and by extension Pakatan Rakyat, is not to bury your head in the sand by blaming it on the mainstream media, and asking everyone else to do so. Husam was not misquoted. To help them is to encourage frank and in-depth debate on the issue so that an innovative and acceptable-to-all ideological position may be found sooner rather than later. Read the comments on Khalid Samad’s “Hudud and Democracy” in the letters to the editor section of The Nut Graph and you should see good examples of intelligent exchange.

    As to whether many non-Malay Malaysians have felt betrayed by some Pakatan Rakyat readers, you may read Haris Ibrahim’s posting (who is incidentally not a non-Malay but an anak bangsa Malaysia whose views are shared by many) here:

    Did I give “the impression that Pakatan is not to be trusted”? You judge.

    Suffice to say, one of the things about the BN that turns me off the most is its insistence to force its propaganda down the throats of citizens. I have too high a regard for Pakatan Rakyat to tolerate it going down the same path.

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