Posters of BN candidate Arif Shah are only now making an appearance in Permatang Pauh
IN Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah’s mind, the upcoming by-election in Permatang Pauh on 26 Aug 2008 is a match-up that pits a “pelakon” against a “pekerja”.
No prizes for guessing that the “pelakon” in question is meant to be Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who is standing for the seat he held for four terms, while Arif Shah, the Seberang Jaya state assemblyman, is the self-styled “pekerja”.
“I am the kuli kang of the people,” says the 52-year old, who rarely misses an opportunity to dazzle reporters with his fluent Mandarin and Penang Hokkien.
Arriving at the home of a friend of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in Kampung Semambu on 17 Aug, a calm- and cheerful-looking Arif Shah greets the Chinese reporters with “ni hao”.
Though he is painted as an underdog in this by-election, his demeanour belies a degree of confidence missing from other BN leaders campaigning in the area. In his rounds meeting the people and the press, Arif Shah has been very personable and approachable.
Arif Shah: The pekerja of Permatang PauhHis quiet confidence is especially surprising considering his opposition. Permatang Pauh has been a PKR bastion since the 1999 general election, when Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail won her husband’s seat and kept it warm through the 2004 and 2008 elections.
Her resignation on 31 July paved the way for Anwar to make a comeback to Parliament. What’s more, two of the three state seats in the constituency are in opposition hands, with only Arif Shah managing to retain his seat of Seberang Jaya by a slim margin.
His trump card may actually turn out to be his good service track record as state assemblyman, and his personal popularity with the Chinese business community in Permatang Pauh. In fact, the BN is banking on these two factors to help sway Chinese voters, who, along with the Indian and a sizeable percentage of Malay voters, abandoned the alliance during the 8 March general elections.
Challenges and internal conflict
Still, the BN leaders admit it is an uphill task to secure a win here, no thanks to a slew of unpopular moves by the government in recent months that has contributed to the rising inflation rates.
Chief among this is the petrol and diesel price hike announced in June, which Anwar has promised to roll back a little if he comes into power.
An Umno man through and through, Arif Shah is philosophical about having to defend the government’s unpopular policies. He quotes a Chinese proverb, Xian xiao ren, hou jun zhi (“initially a rascal, later a gentleman”), that is, “It’s better you face the hardship and eventually you can be very happy.”
Then, realising that it isn’t apt, he immediately corrects himself, quoting the differently nuanced Xian ku, hou tian, which he explains means “bitter first and then sweet later”.
The price hike may have made the BN very unpopular, Arif Shah says, but as a responsible government, the measure is needed to secure the country’s future. And he insists that the people have started to understand this message.
So confident is Arif Shah that after just 48 hours of campaigning, he claims the BN support has increased to 45%, up by 5%.
To win, Arif Shah will have to marshal all of the BN’s resources and ensure that the Permatang Pauh Umno division backs him completely. Division chief Datuk Abdul Jalil Abdul Majid, who earlier had been jockeying to be named to take on Anwar, has pledged his support to BN.
Umno Permatang Pauh division chief Datuk Abdul Jalil Abdul Majid has pledged to support the BN candidateBut it is no secret that Arif Shah and Abdul Jalil don’t really see eye to eye because of their factional conflicts within the division. In fact, the enmity between the two was the reason it took so long for the BN to decide on a candidate in the first place. The worry for the BN leadership was that internal politicking within the division could hamper their efforts.
Of course, Abdul Jalil dismisses such worries. During the gathering in Kampung Semambu, he says it would be foolhardy to dismiss Umno’s strength in the area. The party has 92 branches in the parliamentary constituency, with 20,832 members in total. Coupled with a swing in Chinese votes, the results could end up surprising everybody.
Another factor that could help or hinder the BN candidate is the sodomy allegations against Anwar. With so much suspicion over the timing and motive for the charges, public opinion seems securely in Anwar’s camp. Bringing up the charges here could backfire against the BN.
So, for the moment at least, Arif Shah is trying to keep from resorting to gutter politics by refraining from mentioning the sodomy charges in his ceramahs. When asked for his comments on the charges, he would only say that “this is a personal issue between Anwar and his ex-staff.”
The personal touch
One thing Arif Shah is delighted about is the entry of Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia (Akim, a splinter group from PAS) candidate Hanafi Hamat in the contest.
“It’s a blessing,” he says, because this way, PAS supporters who do not want to vote for PKR but also refuse to vote for BN can vote for Hanafi, thus reducing PKR’s ability to reach out to the PAS supporters.
While his interpersonal skills are not to be doubted, Arif Shah’s ceramah performance so far has been less than inspiring compared with his opponent’s. This does not seem to trouble him at all, as he prefers the personal touch, going door to door and meeting voters.
He does have one heavyweight on his side doing all the speaking for him: former PKR youth chief Ezam Mohd Noor, who sounds like Anwar, and acts like Anwar, but spends his time tearing his former boss to pieces.
“[Anwar] is the first Malay leader to openly ask to abolish the New Economic Policy,” Ezam tells the crowd at his ceramah in Tanah Liat on the night of 16 Aug, which drew about 500 people.
He makes many allegations about Anwar’s purported cronyism and threatens to “reveal all”. But it appears the locals don’t want to hear it, and the lacklustre attendance at the BN functions is telling.
On the other hand, the PKR’s ceramah at Bukit Jelutong, Permatang Pasir the next day attracted roughly 5,000 people. On the surface at least, it looks like the BN will have to work harder to get their message across, and demonising Anwar may not be the best way to do so.
Battling the personal popularity of Anwar was always going to be a tough task, but Arif Shah is determined to put in a good innings. It will be up to the Permatang Pauh electorate to decide whether they should vote for a man with a good service record, or return Anwar to Parliament, and — if you believe the hype — put him on the road to Putrajaya.