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Reckoning with the electorate


BN streamer in front of a temple in Kampung Cina

IN the March 2008 general election, the 11% Chinese Malaysian voters in Kuala Terengganu were considered the swing voters in this largely Malay Malaysian constituency.

Analysts have predicted that the Chinese Malaysian vote will also decide the results of the upcoming 17 Jan by-election as the Malay Malaysian vote, some 88% of the 80,299 electorate, is said to be split between the Barisan Nasional (BN) that is being represented by Umno, and PAS.

However, the view on the ground just days before polling is more fluid. The real battle is for the Malay Malaysian votes, some say, especially because these seem to be gravitating towards PAS. Additionally, Chinese Malaysian sentiment appears divided between the opposition coalition of the Pakatan Rakyat and the BN, in which case Malay Malaysian voters would be decisive.

Overcoddling can backfire

Some in the Umno campaign feel that the BN-led state government’s public display of coddling Chinese Malaysian voters, who form 3% of the state’s population, may adversely affect Malay Malaysian voter sentiments. Malay Malaysians comprise 88% of the Kuala Terengganu electorate.

The BN has indeed been handing out goodies to the Chinese Malaysian community in Kuala Terengganu. On 5 Jan, Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein disbursed RM2.93 million from the national budget to the state’s 10 Chinese schools.

The BN-led Terengganu government also recently earmarked RM6.1 million for Chinese Malaysian community development, including RM3.3 million to build a community hall, and RM2.8 million for Kuala Terengganu’s biggest Chinese school, SRK Chung Hwa Wei Sin.

Below the media’s radar, churches have also been on the receiving end of state funds, some members tell The Nut Graph confidentially.


Terengganu MB Ahmad Said meets members of the Chinese Malaysian community

Terengganu Menteri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said has been reminding Chinese Malaysian voters that about RM10 million has been spent each year on the community for the last three years. The funds are drawn from the special federal fund for oil royalties.

And with Chinese New Year around the corner, the MCA handed out RM100 ang pows to those aged 70 and above at a 10 Jan dinner in Kampung Tiong. An estimated 500 elderly folk turned up that night.

“The BN must be careful not to overdo its show of courting Chinese voters. Malays also want to feel that they determine this by-election’s outcome,” a local Umno member and entrepreneur says.

Malay Malaysians in Kuala Terengganu are also the most urbanised in the whole state. They track national issues raised by the opposition in elections more than their rural counterparts. This is more so after the 2008 general election, in which people voted across racial lines.

“Kuala Terengganu folk are now exposed to that thinking, even if they returned the state to the BN last year. We should not be so simplistic as to say that Malay votes are still split down the middle,” the Umno member says.

In the March 2008 general election, the BN won the parliamentary seat of Kuala Terengganu but captured only one out of four state seats there, Bandar. The seat is the MCA’s only turf in the state.

The three other state seats in Kuala Terengganu — namely Wakaf Mempelam, Ladang and Batu Burok — were won by PAS. Polling data show that parliamentary voting in these three Malay seats was roughly equally divided between PAS and the BN, hence the analysis that the Chinese Malaysian votes will be decisive since the Malay Malaysians are split between Umno and PAS.


A section of the crowd at an Umno ceramah in Cabang Tiga on 12 Jan

Indeed, it was the outcome in Bandar, home to most of Kuala Terengganu’s 8,000-plus Chinese Malaysian voters, that helped tip the balance in the BN’s favour. This gave Umno parliamentary candidate Datuk Razali Ismail a narrow 628-vote margin of victory.

Razali, who was deputy education minister, passed away on 28 Nov 2008, resulting in the need for a by-election.

Desperate wooing

But nothing is certain at this juncture, not even who exactly will provide the swing votes.

Among the Chinese Malaysians in Kuala Terengganu, national issues are apparently more important than the candidates’ personalities.

Indeed, the Pakatan Rakyat has found traction with the Chinese Malaysians on provocative issues like Internal Security Act arrests, Umno’s racism, and Kuala Terengganu’s higher cost of living despite being an oil-producing state.

“The things they say make sense,” a Chinese newspaper vendor on Jalan Kampung Cina says. When asked if he attended the MCA-sponsored dinner in Kampung Tiong on 13 Jan where Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak spoke, he said he “wasn’t free”. However, he planned to attend the DAP dinner at Ocean Restaurant, featuring PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the following day.

But strong Chinese Malaysian sentiment for the Pakatan Rakyat will not necessarily translate into votes, as the BN has been fiercely, some observers even say “desperately”, wooing the pragmatic Chinese Malaysian voters.

Indeed, BN leaders have not hesitated from making the state’s support for continued community development contingent on the by-election results.

At a 12 Jan dinner for Chinese Malaysian residents in Kampung Tiong, Ahmad Said appealed to the crowd of 400 to “be understanding” if state development funds were diverted elsewhere should Bandar voters reject the BN.


Ahmad Said speaking at the residents’ dinner in Kampung Tiong on 12 Jan

The following night, at another dinner at the same venue, he jested with the 1,000-odd Chinese Malaysians present that he was like a king cobra which could strike if provoked.  

Najib, who also spoke, cited the proverb: “Don’t poison the well that you drink from.” He added, “Kita mesti kenal budi. Kalau orang baik pada kita, kita balas. This is part of Chinese culture, too.”

Survival factor

In the midst of such rhetoric, state MCA chief and Bandar assemblyperson Toh Chin Yaw stresses that the Chinese Malaysians in his constituency were not responsible for handing half the parliamentary votes to PAS in the 2008 general election.

While 49.9% of the parliamentary vote in Bandar went to PAS, Toh says these were largely from Malay Malaysian voters. In the Kampung Cina polling station, where Chinese Malaysians comprise 85% of the voters, 60% voted for the BN parliamentary candidate.

In short, votes for PAS at the parliamentary level in Bandar came from Malay Malaysians. “Traditionally, the Chinese have consistently backed BN in this area. I don’t see them as swing voters because if sentiment towards the BN is low, their tendency is to stay home and avoid voting rather than to vote for the opposition,” Toh says.

With only a choice of Malay Malaysian candidates this time round, Chinese Malaysian voters are more likely to look at what the candidates’ parties stand for.


BN candidate Wan Farid greets an elderly member of the
community 
The main battle in this three-corner fight will be between PAS’s candidate Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut and the BN’s Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh from Umno. Independent candidate Azharudin Mamat @ Adam is not seen as a serious contender, though he is expected to be a spoiler for PAS.

Voters are also likely to consider what they stand to gain or lose with their vote. Because this is a by-election that doesn’t change the government at federal or state level, it would not be surprising if some Chinese Malaysians cast their ballots based on what they might be denied if they voted for PAS.

Whether they think in terms of survival or whether they take up the Pakatan Rakyat’s call to “teach Umno a lesson” is left to be seen. And with such uncertainty over the Chinese Malaysian vote, it may just be that both Umno and PAS will need to secure the support of the Malay Malaysian electorate.

See also:
Assessing Chinese Malaysian support
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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