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The KT boomerang

PERHAPS the most puzzling question in the recent Kuala Terengganu by-election is this: why did enthusiastic Chinese attendance at Pakatan Rakyat rallies not translate into votes? I personally saw Chinese Malaysians cheering, laughing, and clapping for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim every four minutes throughout his 40-minute “da ren, xiao ren” (great mind, little mind) speech at Ocean Restaurant.

The MCA was the first to claim that Chinese Malaysians have in fact increased their support for the Barisan Nasional (BN). You can sense their excitement and pride: “We have held our ground!” That Malay Malaysians have swung away from Umno perhaps adds to the joy.

However, it was probably a nightmare for the DAP, reminiscent of the overwhelming crowds attending the party’s rallies in Penang in 1995, which nevertheless translated into a loss of all but one of its state seats. Learning from this mistake, the DAP measured its support in the 2008 general election by donation and not by mere attendance. After all, if you put money where your mouth is, you have got to be serious about your support for a particular party.

And donate the voters did in Kuala Terengganu. Not only to the DAP — still the brand name Chinese Malaysians in towns like Kuala Terengganu identify with — but also to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which received ang pows from voters. While bank notes are good, votes are the real currency in elections. Where did Chinese Malaysian votes go?

Whither the Chinese vote?

Umno did secure more Chinese Malaysian votes in all the four polling districts with a Chinese majority or sizeable Chinese minority.  Umno even increased its lead in Kampung Cina — the polling district with the highest percentage of Chinese voters, 84.67% — by 61 votes. Umno’s share of the votes increased by 2.20% based on the total votes garnered by the BN and Pakatan Rakyat. Votes for Umno grew by 4.06% based on all votes cast — for the BN, Pakatan, and independent candidates, as well as spoilt votes.

Members of the Chinese Malaysian community
greeting a by-election candidate (Pic by
Danny Lim)
But that’s all the MCA can boast of.

In the three other polling districts, the BN’s lead was reduced — in absolute numbers, percentage of the two-party total, and percentage of total votes cast. Interestingly, in Pejabat Bandaran, with the second highest percentage of Chinese voters (71.61%), PAS reduced Umno’s lead by 92 votes. Umno’s share of the votes here decreased by 2.58% of the two-party total, and 3.5% of the total votes cast. Could this be because there are 13% more Malay and non-Chinese voters in Pejabat Bandaran, compared with Kampung Cina?

I doubt it. While I am still waiting for more data to produce estimates with confidence, my initial reading is that Chinese Malaysian support for Umno did go up moderately. This support was offset, however, by a slight reduction in Pejabat Bandaran and Paya Bunga, while support in Pulau Kambing stayed put, based on preliminary estimates not shown here.

Thus, the Chinese voting pattern in Kuala Terengganu was almost the same as in March 2008, albeit against a backdrop of reduced voter turnout. The entire Kuala Terengganu parliamentary constituency saw a reduction of 2.5% in voter turnout. These four polling districts out of 38 in total, however, registered a 7% reduction. Until proven otherwise, a reasonable person would assume that most of the abstained voters were Chinese Malaysian.

One could perhaps further divide the abstaining Chinese Malaysian voters into two groups: out-of-town and local.

The out-of-town group are generally young, working in the west coast of the peninsula, and, as even MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek admits, more likely to vote opposition. The by-election was held too close to Chinese New Year, and hence saved the MCA’s face.

Why would some local Chinese voters also choose to stay at home? A likely explanation is that they did not want to help PAS win and get blamed, then penalised, by Umno. And yet, they didn’t want the BN to win, either.

But this fear could be easily overcome in a general election, where voters can change the national and state governments all at once, hence protecting themselves from the wrath of a spurned incumbent. If this theory is true, is there anything to cheer about for Umno and the MCA?

Voting in KT in areas with a substantial Chinese Malaysian population, 8 March 2008

Voting in KT in areas with a substantial Chinese Malaysian population, 17 Jan 2009

The next election

PAS might have suffered from Mohd Sabu’s “outsider” factor in March 2008 but in this by-election, PAS candidate Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut, a five-term state assemblyperson for Wakaf Mempelam, didn’t have that problem. But Umno candidate Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Ahmad faced an even bigger challenge since he suffered from personality attacks and the perceived connection to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi.

Hence, any reduction in spoiled votes and support for the independent candidate was likely to go to PAS instead of Umno. So, if fewer voters turned out to vote this time round, as was the case, this may have cost PAS some potential votes. Especially since out-of-town Chinese Malaysian voters who did not make it back for the by-election would most likely have supported the opposition.

But in a general election, out-of-towners are more likely to return home to vote. Hence, PAS could easily win the lion’s share of the Chinese Malaysian votes come the next general election.

What about a swing across parties? Clearly, some voters have shifted from supporting Umno to PAS or, as some would point out, the DAP. I personally haven’t come across any who said they had shifted from PAS to Umno.

I did meet the BN’s Chinese Malaysian supporters during my brief visit to Kuala Terengganu, and they were upfront about their voting patterns. Some were not impressed by PAS’s rule from 1999 to 2004. True, they did not care much about hudud as they thought this was not an issue for an ethnic minority to decide on. Nevertheless, a hotel owner did feel that other Islamisation measures — like gender segregation in public and private spaces — made Kuala Terengganu look backward, hurting tourism.

A young restaurant boss had other concerns, as Raja Petra Kamarudin and other pundits found out. He did not mind a PAS victory. He just did not want to be the determining vote in case a slim majority of Malay Malaysians voted for Umno, and the party and its supporters decided to punish Chinese Malaysians who delivered victory to PAS. To him, a change would have to be wholesale — federal and state governments all at once so that the incumbent is no longer in power to retaliate.

PAS spiritual leader Datuk Seri Nik Aziz Nik Mat speaking at a DAP ceramah in a Chinese restaurant on 14 Jan,
while Lim Kit Siang and Datuk Zaid Ibrahim listen, and prominent blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin
takes photos (Pic by Danny Lim)

How now?

What does this mean for everyone now? Will Kuala Terengganu Chinese Malaysians be spared Umno’s wrath? Will the MCA be appreciated more by Umno? Will Umno realise the importance of Chinese, and other non-Malay Malaysian votes, and tone down its ethnocentrism?

In politics, unintended consequences and counter-intuitive outcomes are more common than most people notice. What you cast away often recoils and returns to you, like a boomerang.

PAS, on one hand, might have moved more to the centre and formed stronger ties with the DAP and PKR. But Umno now needs to save its Malay Malaysian votes. It just cannot afford to be too nice to Chinese Malaysians. Thus, the more fair-minded in Umno may not dare to move too far to avoid attacks from within the party as the hunt for scapegoats begins. This is especially since Umno is content to stand by its accusations that PAS is a flip-flop party that panders too much to non-Malay Malaysians, rather than acknowledge that it could learn from PAS’s more inclusive approach with non-Malay Malaysians.

There is nothing to inspire Umno to abandon its etho-nationalist agenda; the party did not lose its non-Malay Malaysian votes in Kuala Terengganu. It is dismissing the alarm bells, and still does not see the impending danger of losing non-Malay Malaysian votes elsewhere. And instead of sounding a louder alarm, the MCA decided to silence the bells by delivering short-term Chinese Malaysian votes to the BN in this by-election.

What will this eventually mean? My guess is that the MCA, Gerakan, and MIC will frustrate more non-Malay Malaysian voters. These voters will seek to bury the BN’s non-Malay parties and Umno come the next elections.

In other words, the retention of Chinese Malaysian votes is a curse in disguise for Umno and the BN. And when the Umno warlords finally realise this, the MCA will be blamed yet again.

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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6 Responses to “The KT boomerang”

  1. FSLAM says:

    I believe that this increase in Chinese votes for the BN is a short term gain by the MCA but the BN may lose the war ultimately.Threats and to some extent lies will eventually turn the Chinese away from MCA and Gerakan.

    My analysis of the Chinese vote in KT by-election is as follows :-

    1. Basically the older Chinese in KT can be classified as “rural” urban in the sense that they, unlike their urban counterparts, are not “exposed” to the change mindset as yet. Most of these Chinese in KT are less exposed to the internet news, and they depended a lot on the main Chinese media for information on national issues which are mainly pro-BN. The younger set are now being exposed more to the outside world and are slowly looking at the political scenario in two ways. Being more educated, the young of today are amenable to change.

    2. The older section of the Chinese society cling on to older practices like loyalty to clan associations and Chinese business guilds. They are less susceptible to change and looked to the elders in the clan and guild hierarchy for guidance especially where this by-election was concerned. Especially more so, when large amounts of money were pumped into the system which indirectly benefits the members of the clans, Chinese schools and guild associations. They would look at the short term benefits.

    3. The presence of the MCA where they target and appealing to the different clans sealed some of the votes.

    4. Other goodies like allocations for a Chinese community hall, etc., would appeal to the older Chinese but not the younger ones.

    5. The state government was applying pressure and threat tactics which was calculated to frighten older Chinese into voting for the BN.

    However, the erosion of confidence for MCA and Gerakan will start when the opposition, like DAP and Keadilan, start to have a constant dialogue and engagement with these “rural” urban Chinese. The opposition needs to penetrate the closely-knit and loyal members of the clansmen, guilds and associations, and school boards and develop a genuine appeal to the community leaders.

    The Chinese here had the innate ability to sense that the swing is to PAS and therefore to enjoy the goodies promised they tried to show that they are still with the BN.

  2. Sunny says:

    From what locals have observed and told me, many at the restaurants were merely outsiders brought in by DAP and PKR to put up a show. Donations? I was told that locals are not that generous especially in political campaigns. I was told that many “donations” were paid by their own party representatives to “impress” their PAS counterparts. Having been with the locals for quite sometime, I too find it incredulous that locals are that charitable to a political cause. No way!

  3. johnny says:

    A lot of young Chinese voters did not return home to cast thier votes. Very sure that their votes would have gone to PAS.

  4. Eric says:

    Sunny, I was at the dinners and I disagree with your observations. Most of the diners were locals.

  5. Wave33 says:


    Were you at ground zero?

    “From what locals have observed and told me”

    You mean Umno locals?

    Sorry, Sunny, we need facts here.

  6. Sunny says:

    Of course it is the Chinese locals who told me. Went through the photos taken by a reporter friend of the event with two local friends. They confirmed most of the faces were outsiders. And one even commented that locals were too “kiamsiap” (stingy) to have “donated” the amount “raised”.

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