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On the ceramah trail

Corrected on 15 Jan 2009 at 1am

PAS ceramah in Kampung Panji, in the Wakaf Mempelam state constituency, surrounded by shrubbery

IN the first half of a cool campaign that has matched the breeze blowing in from the South China Sea, the barrage of issues lobbed between the two major competing parties has mostly avoided personal attacks on the candidates themselves.

In a constituency where analysts have put down the character of candidates as an important factor in swinging votes, the ceramah have kept to party issues, both local and national.

The criticism of the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh’s less personable traits has actually come from Umno leaders like Youth head hopeful Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo and (ex-Umno president) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which has allowed PAS to quote them without further comment.

PAS candidate Abdul Wahid Endut is in many ways like the BN’s Permatang Pauh challenger Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah — amiable, unimpeachably vanilla characters so well-liked by the local grassroots that their rivals have to aim higher.

“PAS, Parti Ajaran Sesat!” says Terengganu Menteri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said, in his speech to the state’s female community leaders at Wisma Darul Iman in the town of Kuala Terengganu. As with many BN activities, the occasion here is staid and officious, attended by the prime minister himself, Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Wira Ali Rustam, Wanita Umno deputy Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, and about 300-odd women all bedecked in colourful flowing tudung.

Held in the rarefied air of a banquet hall, this de facto ceramah conveys the pomp and prestige of power, its message amplified beyond its immediate audience by the blanket coverage by the traditional media. Ahmad Said’s proclamation is almost unseemly.

Aiming “higher” here seems figurative rather than qualitative, but Ahmad Said is just prefacing his arguments about how PAS has deviated from its roots. The menteri besar reckons that PAS has diluted its chief agenda of establishing an Islamic state to a position of compromise within the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, thereby relegating the party’s mission in order to fish for votes, especially among non-Muslims.

PAS ceramah in Kampung Panji. Women in the audience are separated from the men, who are closer to the speakers

Hudud issue

PAS’s chief bugbear in the by-election is the issue of implementing hudud law, and the BN has not wasted the chance to play it up. To the Muslims, PAS’s fraternity with the stridently anti-hudud DAP is portrayed as hypocritical and duplicitous. To the non-Muslims, the imagery of ulamas storming to power, Iranian revolution style, further down the line is hinted at.

Both traditional and new media have questioned Pakatan Rakyat leaders about this issue, to such an extent that their politicians can barely resist rolling their eyes every time it is raised.

In a joint press conference at the PAS by-election headquarters in Kuala Ibai with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Aziz and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang attempted to defuse the issue by insisting that hudud law does not apply to non-Muslims.

Lim then added that within the Pakatan Rakyat agreement, hudud could not be implemented if the DAP disagrees. Karpal Singh’s sustained pursuit of this issue during the campaign period — most recently threatening that the DAP would pull out of the Pakatan Rakyat — has probably not won him many friends in PAS.

Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin speaks in Kampung
Gelugor Raja
Budak nakal

Taking this issue to the kampungs deep in Abdul Wahid Endut’s stronghold of the Wakaf Mempelam state constituency is the “budak nakal” that loaded the ammo for the BN just in time for the by-election.

Off the highway to Kuala Berang, navigating through narrow paths between swamps and padi fields, Rembau Member of Parliament (MP) Khairy Jamaluddin went to Kampung Gelugor Raja 9 Jan to speak before an audience of about a hundred.

This ceramah, also attended by Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, saw Khairy describing PAS in the local patois first conceived by ex-Menteri Besar Idris Jusoh: “Parti Kluk Klek” — an inconsistent, flip-flopping party.

Proudly recounting his debate with PAS vice-president Datuk Husam Musa in December 2008, the Umno Youth deputy chief made much play about how he manoeuvred Husam into admitting that PAS would implement hudud if it came to federal power.

“Tak sampai dua hari, diasak oleh DAP, boleh tunduk kepada DAP, dia (Datuk Husam Musa) kata bahawa kita hanya boleh melaksanakan hukum hudud sekiranya DAP setuju,” Khairy declared. “Itu saya namakan parti kluk klek. Dia sekejap sini, sekejap sana.”

It is a refrain that is repeated later by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Idris in a large BN ceramah at Cabang Tiga on 12 Jan. Ex-PKR Umno converts Lokman Adam and Hamdan Taha also push the matter further at a smaller ceramah of about a hundred onlookers beside Flat Kampung Kolam on 10 Jan. Here the mere invocation of the DAP is deemed sufficient for the BN’s electoral capital. Yet when Lokman Adam asks if the crowd can accept Lim Kit Siang as a deputy prime minister, the predominantly Malay audience is silent. He asks again, and there are murmurs of “tidak”.

The audience at a BN ceramah besides Flat Kampung
Kolam in the Bandar state constituency
Coupled with tackling PAS at their own religious platform, the BN plies its customary election season trade of development, federal allocations and projects. At a goodie-giving “majlis amal” with Chinese Malaysian senior citizens on 7 Jan, Wan Ahmad Farid and Ahmad Said promised more buses to run in Kampung Cina and more hotels to be built. Ahmad Said described how the BN has constantly been giving, comparing this with the likes of the DAP, who have come to Kampung Cina asking for donations.

Carrot replaced by stick

Having done all they can dangling carrots to the Chinese Malaysian community, the stick is brandished midway through the campaign. In at least three ceramah, Ahmad Said reminds the crowds that what the BN giveth, they can taketh away.

“If the BN loses the polling stations of Pulau Kambing, Bandaran, Kampung Cina … I will know that you have rejected us,” says Ahmad Said. “So I think it is natural if the state government diverts funds to Kemaman [for example].” The altered tenor of the message, even if delivered with Ahmad Said’s usual big baby-faced grin, more than hints at the BN’s assessment of where the Chinese Malaysian vote will swing.

If there is to be overt visual evidence of a Chinese Malaysian swing, it would be the reception that has greeted Raja Petra Kamarudin. Treated like a hero, with constant requests for photo opportunities with the locals, the Malaysia Today blogger has actively campaigned for the Pakatan Rakyat.

He has reminded Chinese Malaysian voters about the antics of Ahmad Ismail and Datuk Wira Ali Rustam’s assertion that Umno doesn’t need the non-Malay Malaysian vote. In a campaign where attacks on Najib and mentions of Altantuya have been absent, Raja Petra cannot restrain himself. On 11 Jan, at a Chinese restaurant in Tanjung packed to the brim with about 600 people, Raja Petra began his speech: “Rosmah Mansor, Timbalan Perdana Menteri Malaysia….”

Raja Petra Kamarudin having his picture taken with supporters at a Pakatan Rakyat
ceramah in Kampung Cina in the Bandar state constituency

Loss of power

To Malay audiences, the BN’s stick approach is modified not so much as a loss of funds, but as a loss of power. “Kalau Datuk Wan Farid tak menang, tak ada lagi dah timbalan menteri di sini, tak ada lagi dah peluang untuk kita dapat macam-macam pembangunan daripada pusat,” says Khairy in Kampung Gelugor Raja.

“Kita kena pilih calon yang mana ada backing, yang ada sokongan, bantuan daripiada kerajaan negeri dan kerajaan pusat. Sudah tentu kalau wakil rakyat itu datang dari BN, sudah tentunya banyak lagi perhatian kita nak bagi pada dia.”

The PAS response has been to virtually say “good riddance”. The likes of Dr Zulkefly Ahmad, Datuk Wan Muthalib Omar and Datuk Hassan Ali took to the mike on a rainy night on 12 Jan in a remote location in Kampung Panji surrounded by swamps. In front of the speakers was an audience of 50-odd Malay men under a tent, while the women were about 50m away, sitting in a pondok, listening to the ceramah blaring out on the loudspeakers.

To this crowd, the “BN = corruption” equation is almost a given, and politicians quote million- and billion-ringgit figures with such hurried zeal that they sometimes lose track of how many zeroes there are. The oil royalty issue has not been killed off by the government announcing the reverting of the funds to the state. Extravagant projects like the Monsoon Cup yacht race, the multimillion ringgit Taman Tamadun Islam, and the Crystal Mosque hardly endear the BN to the kampung folk.

Pakatan’s Go West

Where the BN has ridiculed the Pakatan Rakyat’s Sept 16 deadline to take over government, the continued promise of a Pakatan Rakyat takeover in a now indefinite future has some traction, at least at the ceramah. (Corrected) Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar’s appeal to the Chinese Malaysians in Kampung Cina on 10 Jan to vote for change has been complemented by a Pakatan Rakyat truck circling the area with the DAP’s rendition of The Village People’s Go West with “Ber-u-baaaaaah untuk Malaysia” replacing the chorus.

Nurul Izzah Anwar speaks from the back of a lorry in Kampung Cina

The Kampung Panji crowd seems unenthusiastic when Zulkefly talks about adding yet another MP to the opposition bench in Parliament, sustaining the momentum for “change”, but Malay Malaysian kampung audiences are usually a stoic lot. What really gets them going is when the likes of Datuk Hassan Ali links the immoral activities of teenagers fumbling in the dark in parks and beaches around Terengganu, committing “perbuatan yang keji”, with the culture that Umno has bred. “Umno itu racun!” he shouts, to a rare roar of approval.

Descending into simplistic rhetoric on the stump is not uncommon in any election. Where personal issues took the political discourse in the last by-elections into the gutter, Kuala Terengganu has seen the return of more typical campaign issues of religion and development with only little more erudition. More than anything, the ceramah show what the speakers think of their audience. How it pans out for the parties will only be known on polling day on 17 Jan.

Danny Lim is a freelance journalist and photographer.

See also:
KT’s decorative touch
Surviving perception
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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