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Unglamourous in Manik Urai

Mohd Fauzi Abdullah, a.k.a. Abe Uji, brick laying

JUST before lunchtime on 8 July 2009, the candidate for PAS, Mohd Fauzi Abdullah, was in Kampung Budi, pushing some cement between bricks. PAS parliamentarians had sponsored a replacement for the village cemetery’s shack, currently in construction, and Mohd Fauzi was providing a photo-op for the media.

He looked uncomfortable, especially when the cameras were rolling; not exactly the most charismatic of figures.

Mohd Fauzi, known to locals and on campaign material as Abe Uji, almost always talks to the media with a handler. When The Nut Graph sits down with him after lunch for a short interview, the soft-spoken party man has to ask his party superiors whether it is okay for journalists to record his answers.

Earlier that morning, the party arranged for him to meet with a group of friendly political bloggers, with Kuala Krai parliamentarian Dr Mohd Hatta Ramli present as a more articulate go-between. Manik Urai is one of four state seats in the Kuala Krai parliamentary constituency.

Engaging new media is, perhaps, a way to make Mohd Fauzi, a 50-year-old fish wholesaler, more attractive to an estimated 45% of Manik Urai’s voters who are below 40.

Unglamourous but accessible

PAS is unapologetic in trying to control perceptions of their candidate. The Barisan Nasional (BN) campaign has been zeroing in on Abe Uji, attacking his unglamourous profession and lack of formal education. At a ceramah later that night, Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would tell listeners that the BN candidate Tuan Aziz Tuan Mat is more qualified.

“I am not saying that less-educated people cannot be leaders, but between a higher-educated leader and a less-educated leader, who should you choose?” Muhyiddin would ask.

At the very least, the BN candidate does appear to possess a little more gusto.

According to Abe Uji himself, however, charisma or a university degree does not matter to Manik Urai constituents as much as access. A willing ear trumps personality, in this regard.

“Voters here are unique,” Abe Uji says. “They look at who is more easy for them to meet with, and air grouses to. They will choose according to how accessible the candidate is. They want someone who can stand alongside them.”

His campaign has been largely house-to-house. “We’ve been here for a long time, so when I meet the villagers I usually know them already,” Abe Uji says.

It does seem, from tailing Abe Uji on his walkabout, that the candidate is familiar with residents, and does not require the usual candour politicians deploy to establish rapport with voters.

Visiting a voter in Kampung Budi
The PAS candidate’s model is the late Manik Urai state assemblyperson Ismail Yaacob, better known as Paksu Wil. It is the stature of this predecessor that lends Abe Uji’s campaign its grassroots edge.

“Paksu Wil was always close to the people. Any problem, from the smallest to the biggest, they could bring to him. I will try to emulate as best I can this working style.

“If elected, I will follow in his footsteps, because the people of Manik Urai liked his methods,” Abe Uji tells The Nut Graph. “That’s why he could win five terms.”

Local issues

Abe Uji says that the communities of the rural constituency are rarely beset by large problems. “It is usually small issues like damaged roads. These things can be overcome [by me],” he says.

However, it is true that national forces occasionally affect Manik Urai — and that these may be beyond a mere state assemblyperson’s reach.

“A few years ago, the price of rubber used to be an issue. It was too low,” Abe Uji says. This was of concern to Manik Urai residents, as a majority of its 12,293 voters make a living through rubber tapping.

“We would get our MPs to pressure Parliament so that rubber prices go up,” Abe Uji points out as a solution.

And, while Kelantan’s uneasy relationship with Putrajaya would continue to be an issue, Abe Uji is confident that BN’s purveying of its federal influence would have little traction.

“Through the state government, we are actually capable of solving some of the problems here. That’s why the people have given their support to (Kelantan Menteri Besar) Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat for almost 20 years. It is not a problem,” Abe Uji says.

Politics first

Abe Uji got his start in politics in the late 1970s, joining up with the Islamist party because of his faith.

“I was moved by PAS’s policy of ‘Membangun bersama Islam’. So it was suitable for me to join PAS, and to struggle with them to uphold Islam in Malaysia,” he explains.

The candidate seems aware of his role as a local enabler, and is reluctant to answer queries about national issues, such as what he thinks of PAS working together with allies in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). The BN, in its ceramah, have attacked PAS for bowing to Karpal Singh and Lim Kit Siang, a reference to the perception that the Islamist party had backed down from its Islamic state agenda to assuage the tempers of coalition partner DAP.

“I don’t want to comment about anything outside of Kelantan,” Abe Uji says.

Delivering a ceramah on 7 July

He is more willing to comment on PAS’s ability to work with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). According to Abe Uji, he was slated to stand in the neighbouring state constituency of Guchil for the 2008 general election.

“But because the party leadership decided that PKR would contest in Guchil, we co-operated fully, gave way, and helped them,” Abe Uji says. PKR won the Guchil seat with nearly a 1,000-vote majority.

Abe Uji, whose trade as a fish wholesaler in Pasar Besar Kuala Krai has attracted some unkind snickering, is taking a break from business for the duration of the election. “It’s difficult to concentrate on two things at once,” he says. “For the time being, a friend is running my business.”

If he wins, he will look for someone trustworthy to manage the business. “I will have to concentrate more on the people of Manik Urai.”

After our interview, the PAS candidate continues his door-to-door in Kampung Budi, which is part of the Manjor polling district. It is the only district PAS failed to capture in 2008; a community in which a PAS-aligned surau and the local Umno chapterhouse sit side by side.

The next few days will tell which side has the upper hand.

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