Updated on 22 Aug at 7.40pm
MCA booths, such as this one in Kampung Sungai Semambu, are few and far between in Permatang Pauh
IN the week since the start of the Permatang Pauh by-election campaign on 16 Aug 2008, various Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians have dropped by to endorse candidate Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah in his battle against Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. (There is one more candidate, Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia (Akim)’s Hanafi Hamat, but he is not considered a threat). But conspicuous in their absence have been the MCA top brass.
With the exception of Youth and state MCA chief Liow Tiong Lai, all the main players have kept their distance from the campaign, leading observers to wonder if the MCA is not doing all they can to help Arif win come election day on 26 Aug.
Is the MCA trying to avoid the difficult questions from the ground, such as why the party was not consulted during the recent Umno-PAS secret talks? Or is it that the party has yet to recover from its embarrassing performance in Penang during the 8 March general elections?
There’s a lot of bitterness among the party grassroots in Penang. A former grassroots leader, who only wanted to be known as Phang, told The Nut Graph that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi “promised to give us the Penang Outer Ring Road and Light Rail Transit, but he cancelled it after the March election.”
“We felt cheated and disappointed that Pak Lah did not walk his talk, and MCA leaders are afraid to speak out [about this] after they became ministers,” Phang said while attending a ceramah in Kubang Ulu.
The MCA’s cold endorsement was obvious from day one, with only Liow, vice president Datuk Ong Tee Keat, women’s chief Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen, and secretary-general Datuk Ong Ka Chuan turning up on 16 Aug (watch videos of nomination day).
The top guns haven’t been on the ground since to help garner support from the Chinese community, leading observers to believe that the MCA’s lukewarm relationship with Umno since the 8 March drubbing has deteriorated further. The Umno-PAS secret talks that came to light last month is being offered as proof of the MCA’s insignificance in the BN.
Loss of direction
In contrast to the MCA’s lacklustre efforts, the Anwar campaign has managed to rope in some heavy hitters who have been a major presence in Permatang Pauh. And among his biggest supporters have been former MCA and Gerakan leaders.
Former Wanita MCA deputy chief Datin Paduka Dr Tan Yee Kew has been energetic and vigorous in campaigning for Anwar, who is hoping a big win here will help catapult him into Parliament and aid his march to Putrajaya.
Tan has openly condemned the BN, and especially the racist statements by Umno leaders, in her public speech in Seberang Jaya. She has been a strong presence, walking around the pasar malam in Kampung Tok Elong, canvassing support from the voters, and even appearing at a press conference with Anwar.
“In the last general election, voters rejected the propaganda of racialism, but in this by-election it is still being widely capitalised on, proving that the BN leadership has lost its direction,” Tan told The Nut Graph on the sidelines of the press conference at Sama Gagah on 21 Aug.
Chinese voters are crucial in this by-election. Here some of them watch the launch of the PKR’s slogan campaign, Merdekakan Rakyat,in Seberang JayaShe said many voters have made up their mind on whom to vote for, and so far, the response of Chinese voters to Anwar’s message is positive.
The Chinese anger and disgruntlement with the country’s economic performance is obvious, and from Tan’s observation, the sentiment here is that the federal government is more interested in toppling Anwar rather than managing the economy or making the lives of the people easier.
“The rakyat is furious with the political parties’ internal feuds; they are very depressed and disappointed with the federal government’s performance,” she said.
Tan believes the reason that MCA bigwigs are not pulling their weight in this by-election boils down to the BN component party’s unhappiness at being sidelined by big brother Umno. For the MCA, this is their way of making a subtle protest at the situation they face.
“Most of the time, the MCA cannot do anything. The loss of the BN [in five states and the subsequent reaction] reflected clearly that Umno does not care about the feelings of their component party members,” said Tan.
MCA’s Liow, however, denied that the party is not doing enough in this by-election, and pointed out that party president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting had made a visit to the constituency on 22 Aug. Speaking at a press conference later on the same day, Liow brushed aside comments about Ong not visiting earlier, saying, “It is not late; he has been here since this morning. It is not late for a campaign.”
Strong Chinese support for PKR
The ongoing resentment of the Chinese community with the Umno-led BN government has prompted PKR to believe that the majority of Chinese voters are solidly behind them (Chinese voters make up about 24% of the electorate in the Permatang Pauh constituency).
Low Chee Chong, campaign director for PKR Permatang Pauh Chinese voters, told The Nut Graph that the community’s support for Anwar is close to the levels of the March 2008 general election.
Low believes they can garner more than 50% of Chinese votes. However, as they found out from their ground survey in Sungai Lembu, many young voters are working outstation and may not be able to get back to cast their votes on polling day. “We are worried about the potentially low turnout, as this will seriously affect the winning majority,” he said.
On the other hand, Hu Pang Chaw, chairman of the PAS National Supporters Club, told The Nut Graph that Anwar would not be able to garner as many votes as his wife Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail did, given that polling day falls on a weekday (Wan Azizah won by 13,388 majority against BN’s Datuk Pirdaus Ismail in the March 2008 elections).
Hu said there is also a “whisper campaign” telling locals that there is no need for them to cast their votes for Anwar as he is expected to win big.
“The margin will be less than the last general election,” he predicted.
Meanwhile, the endorsement of Anwar by Dr Toh Kin Woon, a well-respected former Gerakan senior leader, has provided a moral boost to PKR’s campaign here.
Tan Yee Kew, Toh Kin Woon and Anwar outside the PKR bilik gerakan in Sama Gagah before their morning press conference on 20 Aug 2008Toh has always been considered as the “conscience of Gerakan” for his outright and open criticism of BN policies. His bold and straightforward approach was offered as an example of the BN’s flexible, practical and tolerant approach towards criticism within the system.
However, the situation has changed markedly. Toh shocked everyone by resigning from Gerakan, opting instead to support the changes being championed by Anwar. This says a lot about the growing intolerance of prominent non-Malay leaders against Umno’s perceived arrogance in ignoring the sentiments of their communities.
At his Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (Seri) office in Penang on 21 Aug, Toh told The Nut Graph that there are growing calls for the Gerakan leadership to consider withdrawing from the BN.
For him, the grievances levelled against the BN in the past election were in protest of Umno’s arrogance and institutionalisation of racism. That’s why, he said, there was a call to review Gerakan’s position, or even withdraw from the BN.
Gerakan never wanted to be a race-based political party, and the BN is not a suitable structure for the multiracial belief espoused by the party, he said.
Toh added that the Permatang Pauh campaign has, again, shown the extreme racism lurking within Umno, but this could also be a chance for the BN’s coalition partners like Gerakan to express their dissatisfaction with the way the campaign has been progressing.
“[We can tell them], please don’t go that far, we cannot campaign for you. When we go to non-Malay areas, we get scolded. You ask us to vote for you but advocate this kind of mind.”
Toh said the Pakatan Rakyat’s ideological orientation is not clear or finalised yet, and they have nothing very specific to offer voters. The coalition needs to fine-tune and develop their ideological beliefs based on the differences among themselves, he said.
“However, there are some people also saying that political sentiment is not so stable these past few months, and that we have to go back to the old way,” said Toh, who is not planning on joining any political party at the moment”.
The BN has chosen Seberang Jaya state assemblyman Arif, who is fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien and popular with the Chinese, as its candidate, believing that this could help them reach out to the constituency’s non-Malay voters.
But on the ground his presence is thin, and there is no way of knowing for sure whether he has managed to garner strong support from the Chinese community outside of Seberang Jaya. No prominent Chinese leader has come out openly to endorse him. And though Beijing Olympics silver medalist Lee Chong Wei made an appearance to show his support, he can hardly be considered representative of the voice of the Chinese community.
The Pakatan Rakyat won their trust in March, and the sentiment of the ground seems to show that they enjoy popular support among non-Malays. However, will the election results reflect this sentiment?