THE Kuala Terengganu by-election on 17 Jan is being used by some to measure Malay sentiment towards prime minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
The battle for the parliamentary seat is also expected to be an indicator of which has more currency in the changed scenario after the March general election: Umno’s politics of patronage, or the Pakatan Rakyat’s message of equity and welfare.
But what about the Chinese Malaysian electorate, they who have been described as swing voters? What would influence these voters in Kuala Terengganu who could very well determine the outcome in an area where Malay Malaysian votes for Umno and PAS may be split down the middle?
As much outrage as there has been in the west coast about ketuanan Melayu, both the local MCA and DAP leadership agree that this is not a huge issue in Kuala Terengganu.
Stagnation vs wastage
In the coming by-election, the MCA will likely remind Chinese voters about life under PAS rule from 1999 to 2004, and how little the economy grew in that period.
But if the Barisan Nasional (BN) blames PAS for stagnating Terengganu’s economy when it was in power, expect the opposition to highlight Umno’s excesses in the following term from 2004 to 2008.
Local DAP leader Ng Chai Hin, who heads the Kampung Cina branch in the Bandar state seat, says the locals have been unhappy with the “mega projects” implemented by the BN state government since 2004. He points to the Monsoon Cup yachting tournament and the Crystal Mosque in the Islamic-themed recreational park as examples of projects that “only benefit those closely linked with Umno leaders.”
Lekor (Source: tourism.terengganu.gov.my)“These projects cause money to flow out of the state. Small businesses by the locals, whether Malay or Chinese [Malaysians], don’t benefit. The foreigners who come here for the Monsoon Cup don’t always fancy keropok lekor,” he says, referring to a local delicacy.
Other problems, according to Ng, include floods in residential areas due to hillslope development, and traffic congestion and the lack of parking facilities in Kuala Terengganu town.
“The ruling government is prioritising the wrong development issues. They embark on big projects that don’t benefit the locals while ignoring daily problems,” he alleges.
Race and religion
Localised issues do make for campaign fodder, but the contest is a parliamentary one, and both sides will want to highlight the larger issues at stake.
The DAP plans to tell Chinese voters that voting for the PAS candidate will strengthen the opposition in Parliament while not affecting the BN’s majority. Before the death of the BN Member of Parliament, Datuk Razali Ismail, the ruling coalition had138 out of 222 seats, compared with the Pakatan Rakyat’s 80. Three more seats are held by independents, and one more by Parti Sosialis Malaysia, which is in opposition.
“Even if PAS chooses a conservative candidate, we’ll say it doesn’t matter. We want a stronger opposition in Parliament, and it won’t make a difference to the BN as it is only one seat,” Ng says.
The PAS Supporters’ Club (PSC), set up for non-Muslims who support but cannot join PAS, will also campaign along the same lines, its president Hu Pang Chaw says.
DAP and the PSC will try to draw on the national debates on inter-ethnic issues to convince voters about the need for a stronger opposition in Parliament.
Ng says DAP will highlight Umno’s arrogance towards the non-Muslim community, while the PSC will argue that racial equity is more feasible under an Islamist PAS than an ethnocentric Umno.
However, such messages may not sell with the Chinese Malaysians in Kuala Terengganu, many of whom have lived and worked all their lives alongside Malays. Hu admits it could be a tough pitch.
“Debate over ‘ketuanan Melayu’ is currently more a west-coast phenomenon. The concept doesn’t cause much alarm here because the Chinese and Malay [Malaysians] here are close,” he says.
Recently appointed MCA state chief Toh Chin Yaw says while Chinese Malaysians in Kuala Terengganu are offended by the racial polemics post-March, the party will explain that such views are not held by Umno’s top leadership.
Toh (Source: mca.org.my) “We’ll make the distinction between the top leaders and those in the lower ranks. See how (Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) immediately rejected the abolishing (of) vernacular schools,” Toh says, referring to the proposal by Umno Youth chief aspirant Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir.
Toh is more concerned about the 20% of Chinese Malaysian Kuala Terengganu voters who are based outstation. These are mainly local youths who work in the Klang Valley and are more exposed to the debate on national issues.
“We’ll remind them that despite the Pakatan Rakyat’s inclusive politics, PAS will still insist on its way. The DAP couldn’t stand up to PAS under their rule when PAS tried to pass their Islamic policies here,” he says.
Toh says the PAS years will be remembered for Islamic policies such as the ban on alcohol, karaoke and public performances; gender segregation; and attempts to implement hudud law.
“The Chinese [Malaysians] here still feel that PAS has never abandoned its aims to set up an Islamic state, despite its softer tone in public,” he tells The Nut Graph.
Tipping the votes
The bulk of Chinese voters are concentrated in Bandar, the only state seat that the BN won in the 8 March elections. The three other state seats in Kuala Terengganu — Wakaf Mempelam, Ladang and Batu Buruk — are 98% to 99% Malay and were won by PAS.
Bandar was retained for a second term by Toh, who won by a 1,142 majority over the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate.
At the parliamentary level, the BN’s Razali won 32,562 votes against PAS’s Mohamad Sabu who garnered 31,934 votes, while independent candidate Maimun Yusof obtained 685 votes.
Kuala Terengganu went to the BN by a 628 margin, even though all of its state seats were won by PAS except for Bandar. It shows that the Chinese Malaysian votes could very well be the tipping point for a victory either way.
Hence both Umno and PAS, which will again be fielding rival candidates, will be eager to win their trust.
In the end, what might matter most is the choice of candidates, which has yet to be announced by either side. A PAS conservative might spook the Chinese Malaysians here, especially since they don’t necessarily share the same unhappiness about Umno and the BN that their counterparts elsewhere have.
The Malay electorate, which forms the bulk of votes for Kuala Terengganu, will have its own set of issues. But with the Chinese carrying a small but significant vote, both Umno and PAS cannot afford to overlook their sentiments.
See also: Challenges in Kuala Terengganu