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Lessons from Kuala Terengganu

ULTIMATELY, the heart of the battle for Kuala Terengganu was always the Malay Malaysian vote, which was, by extension, a referendum on the relevance of Umno. But the fact that Chinese Malaysians largely stayed with the Barisan Nasional (BN) is perhaps indicative of the DAP’s and Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s inability to penetrate non-Malay enclaves on the east coast. Indeed, sentiments about human rights in the peninsula’s east may not yet be on par with that in the west.

The 17 Jan Kuala Terengganu by-election results throw up lessons for both the ruling and opposition coalitions. How quickly these lessons will be learnt might just determine the results of the next general election.

DAP and PKR rejected

The morning after the by-election result was announced, a DAP leader conceded that Chinese Malaysians, some 11% of the electorate, did not swing en masse to the Pakatan Rakyat as expected.

Even though PAS won in the MCA-held Bandar state seat by a 100-plus majority, Bandar assemblyperson and state MCA chief Toh Chin Yaw says votes for PAS here came from Malay Malaysians.

Toh says Bandar’s Kampung Cina voting district, which comprises 83% of Kuala Terengganu’s Chinese Malaysians, is reflective of the community’s preference for the BN. The district gave the BN a slightly increased majority of 457 votes this time, compared with 396 in the 2008 general election.

The BN’s majority in Bandar’s other racially mixed polling districts was also slightly higher, but these gains were negated by the greater number of votes for PAS in Malay-dominated districts.

This raises a question about the Pakatan Rakyat’s collaboration. Did PAS win this by-election alone? No doubt, the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) dazzled voters through their show of unity with the Islamist party. In fact, the coalition displayed unprecedented cohesion despite threats by the DAP chairperson Karpal Singh to pull out of the Pakatan Rakyat over the issue of implementing hudud.

Targeted Chinese Malaysian voters turned up in droves at Pakatan Rakyat ceramah and parted with money when the hat was passed around. But were these voters’ enthusiasm misread? Did they, in the end, come simply out of curiosity to see political celebrities like blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, or to experience the inimitable charisma of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim?

Raja Petra Kamarudin having his picture taken with supporters at a Pakatan Rakyat
ceramah in Kampung Cina in the Bandar state constituency (Pic by Danny Lim)

A PKR leader told The Nut Graph during the campaign that the Pakatan Rakyat strategy was to leave Malay Malaysian areas to PAS, while the DAP and PKR focused almost entirely on the Chinese Malaysians. Ironically, PAS won the by-election, but its two partners were rejected.

But this will not necessarily weaken their ties. “It is historic that the DAP campaigned for PAS. With PKR, they are signalling a new kind of politics for Malaysia based on a two-party system,” says political analyst Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff.

Lessons for Pakatan Rakyat

However, the DAP and PKR need to fine-tune their understanding of the electorate beyond the peninsula’s west coast.

Some locals have said that Terengganu-born Chinese Malaysians tend to feel more “loyal” to the BN because of their small numbers and their dependence on the state for services. They may feel disturbed by ethnic issues and slurs against their community; they may be just as angry about corruption, abuse of power and wastage; but they are not sure if a PAS government would fare any better.

The lesson then for the Pakatan Rakyat: the DAP and PKR need to tune into the wavelengths of target groups beyond Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. They cannot use ideological issues as selling points, but need to address the daily grind of minorities in Malay-majority areas.

Indeed, the Pakatan Rakyat has time before the next general election, which must be held by 2012, to show that they are pragmatic administrators and not activists through their governance of Penang, Perak and Selangor.

Tens of thousands of PAS and Pakatan Rakyat supporters gathered outside the tallying centre at the
Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Indoor Stadium to listen to the poll results on 17 Jan (Pic by Danny Lim)

Umno tak laku

The by-election should have been an easy fight for Umno had it been a stronger party at the division level, a Kuala Terengganu Umno member tells The Nut Graph on condition of anonymity lest he be seen as being too critical.

Indeed, PAS is not formidable here. It has around 10,000 members or about 14% of the Malay Malaysian electorate in Kuala Terengganu, according to state PAS deputy commissioner Datuk Wan Mutalib Embong. Umno, on the other hand, has over 15,000 members.

But Umno has lost touch with the way Malay Malaysians think and feel on the ground, the long-time party member, who is a local entrepreneur with links with the Umno-led state government, says. This was reflected in a few ways:

  1. the choice of Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Ahmad as candidate. Even though he was the best choice from Umno’s perspective, he could not connect with the people, who focused on his flaws and compared him with PAS’s affable candidate Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut;
  2. Umno’s reliance on the development card, and making development contingent upon votes. This did not go well with conservative and pious Malay Malaysians. PAS in its campaign called these “bribes” and cautioned Muslims not to be swayed. Most Malay Malaysians in Kuala Terengganu also don’t feel like they benefit from the state’s mega projects such as the Islamic theme park and the Monsoon Cup;
  3. a misreading of sentiments about corrupt leaders and money politics. Umno is too immersed in its own culture of patronage and has failed to realise that it cannot treat voters the same way it does party members. An independent poll on Kuala Terengganu voters found that more Malay Malaysians felt that their political power was at risk from “corrupt and self-serving leaders” than those who felt that non-Malay communities were a threat.

Lesson for Umno: “The Malay [Malaysians] chose PAS this time because the local Umno leadership was not in tune with the people. It’s not about infighting and factions, which exists in every political party. The leaders just aren’t in touch with the ground,” the Kuala Terengganu division member surmises.

BN at crossroads

The BN’s win among Chinese Malaysian voters and loss to PAS among Malay Malaysian voters puts Umno in a bind.

Members of the Chinese Malaysian community
meeting a by-election candidate on 12 Jan
(Pic by Danny Lim)
For certain, the MCA will leverage on retaining the Chinese Malaysian vote in Kuala Terengganu in its relationship with Umno within the BN’s power-sharing bargain. At the same time, the by-election results won’t help Umno placate the more racist elements within its ranks.

“[Chinese Malaysians] did not send a strong signal to the BN to change. Yet, Umno has only itself to blame for losing in this by-election. So, it will want to reposition itself to win back Malay [Malaysians],” says Mohammad Agus.

But if Umno now attempts to win back Malay Malaysians by trying to become more Islamic than PAS, it risks alienating other BN component parties. Furthermore, that does nothing to restore public confidence before the next general election.

The best thing for Umno to do is to start cleaning house and not respond to external threats. It should start with the party annual general meeting and elections in March to get rid of money politics and regain its credibility among the grassroots.

Lesson for the BN: Cleaning up Umno and reforming itself is something for incoming party president and prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to demonstrate to all Malaysians. Najib was correct in saying that the Kuala Terengganu by-election was not a referendum on his leadership. It is about the BN and Umno’s role in reviving it.

See also:

PAS celebrates BN setback
BN has lost the plot
Polling in KT ends
Sunny start to polling day in KT
Fence-sitters hold the key
Positive and negative campaigning
Assessing Chinese Malaysian support
KT’s decorative touch
Getting the message across in KT
Politicising Islam in KT
Contrasting campaign styles in KT

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9 Responses to “Lessons from Kuala Terengganu”

  1. justice pao says:

    Just to add a few words. Without YB Tian Chua and the other Pakatan Rakyat MPs here, the Chinese voters would have voted for the BN even more.

    I am one of the voters who was convinced by the Pakatan Rakyat YBs to support PAS. I just want to say that without the Pakatan’s YBs here, I think PAS would only get 1,000 Chinese votes or maybe less. Just imagine how BN worked here. How much money they spent here. You just can’t compare with the previous election, ok?

  2. Ibrahim says:

    PKR wasn’t destined to campaign in Chinese areas alone. Anwar Ibrahim visited China Town once. He concentrated on the Malay heartland. So the idea that PKR and DAP were ejected is inaccurate.

    Remember, a PKR Malay candidate lost to MCA’s candidate in Bandar by 1,000 votes. These Malays in Bandar, which supported the PKR candidate, were the ones who carried the PAS candidate to victory. That’s why the Malay vote for PAS in Bandar was the highest in the four DUNs.

    DAP was to concentrate on the Chinese and they were not rejected. DAP being a party that has no presence in KT was also evaluating the situation in the east coast and anyway, the Chinese there can be ignored as PAS and PKR can deliver their seats on their own. If DAP has 10,000 members in KT, add that to the 6,000 members of PKR vs Umno’s 15,000 and then you will know why PAS won.

    What amazes me is when certain journalists say “clean up Umno.” Why did Umno reject Ku Li and chose Najib instead? Umno is beyond salvation.

  3. Ahm says:

    Let us look forward to more analyses in the days to come. As of now, it appears that both the Chinese and Malays in KT made a 5% to 7% shift in voting. Phantom votes are estimated at 3-5,000!

  4. Francis says:

    A PKR leader told The Nut Graph during the campaign that the Pakatan Rakyat strategy was to leave Malay Malaysian areas to PAS, while the DAP and PKR focused almost entirely on the Chinese Malaysians. Ironically, PAS won the by-election, but its two partners were rejected.

    Now that’s news. By the way, who is that leader?

    Secondly, who said PKR was to concentrate on non-Malay areas? Even the PAS deputy president said PKR would be responsible for urban Malays (

    And who said PKR is a non-Malay party? In fact, it is more Malay than anything else. It is multi-racial but it is controlled by Malays. Who are the president and deputy president? Two out of five vice-presdients are Malays and these two Malays set the agenda unlike the non-Malays.

    And do you see any non-Malay state liason chief? And have you come across any state youth chief who is a non-Malay? And have you read about any state Wanita chief who is not a Malay? And have you seen a secretary-general, Youth chief, Wanita chief, or chief strategist who is non-Malay?

    So, the simple question that arises naturally is: why would such a Malay-based party ignore Malay votes and seek non-Malay votes in Kampung China? 67% of PKR MPs are Malays, for your information. Try again!

  5. jo says:

    Well, DAP and PKR should just leave the Chinese in Terengganu alone…no racism or other issue here. Indeed, we mix well with the Malays…outsiders will never understand this and we don’t need anyone to teach us what to do and who to vote for!

  6. Wave33 says:

    Good write up, a balanced view on both sides.

    In all areas, the Chinese have been a bunch of “funny” voters. They neglect national issues. Money is God to them, speaks louder than anything else. Any entrepreneur would do anything for the sake of profits.

    It would take another generation to make changes in Malaysia. When the old die and the younger voters replace them. It could be as soon as the 13th general election.

  7. FSLAM says:

    Why the slight increase in Chinese Malaysian votes for BN ?

    Remember the millions pumped in for Chinese schools and the allocation for a community hall and the clan associations? This the the mentality of the older section of the Chinese Malaysian community in the east coast states of Peninsular Malaysia. These segments of Chinese Malaysian society still cling on the the thinking that the “balas budi ” will have to be repaid as they benefitted from the millions poured in.

    They did not consider the longer term political benefits and overlooked the bigger national issues of corruption, arrogance of power by the Umno leaders, threats, etc.

    Well, it will take time for this mentality to change for the better with the younger Chinese Malaysians who are more educated and critical than their father’s generation.

    The other significant contributor to this marginal increase is the role of clan associations. Chua Soi Lek came and appealed to the Teochew community leaders; Ong TK , Chew MF and Wong FM indoctrinated the Hainanese group whilst others had closed door meetings with the Hokkien and Chinese Malaysian business groups. All these groups had last minute monetary allocations, which is tantamount to bribery in modern societies.

    The only headway which the PR can make will be to make their presence felt and constantly keep in touch with ground level politics and sway the thinking of the older Chinese Malaysians to look at politics differently.

    After all, this group of voters had been fed with the establishment’s information for years.

    In the smaller east cost towns, clan associations play a great role in the moulding of the thinking of the average Chinese Malaysian.

  8. Gerald Heng/Greater Boston,MA,USA says:

    It’s all very well to say that the BN loss to PAS in the Kuala Terengganu by-election is not a referendum on Najib Razak’s leadership. His personal problems as pointed out by Raja Petra, are too troublesome and are sure to impede his ability to govern effectively.

    The people’s perception of a potential criminal defendant as their premier is too much of a millstone around Najib’s neck!

    Although he may not be taken to task over the allegations concerning dealings with Altantuya, such matters must be fully investigated. Only a complete acquittal by the courts will clear the air to allow him to govern properly in the event Pak Lah retires or resigns.

    The Malaysian people shouldn’t be taken as fools too gullible to believe anything that Umno or Najib has to say!

    GCW Heng

  9. jl says:

    You should read RPK’s analysis.

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