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Voices from the heartland

Voices from the heartland
A girl hurries away with a goodie-bag filled with toiletries from the Umno bilik gerakan in Kampung Penanti

EVERY morning I wake up at six in Mengkuang Titi, Permatang Pauh, travel the 2-3km to the coffeeshops near the Kubang Semang police station by seven to count the increasing number of police officers dozing off in the back of their trucks, and do what the Special Branch are said (by the locals) to be doing: eavesdrop.

The talk is about Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, the Mat Rempits flooding the streets, the “surge” in police presence, shouting skirmishes, and the latest propaganda flyer, poster or news bulletin.

They recount sightings of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who is contesting for the parliamentary seat against Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah on 26 Aug 2008, and repeat his salty asides in ceramahs. There is no debate about Anwar, and there’s no urgency for one.

This is Pekan Penanti, in the Penanti state constituency where PKR defeated the current Permatang Pauh Umno division chief Datuk Abdul Jalil Abdul Majid by 2,219 votes in the last general election; and it borders the Permatang Pasir state constituency where PAS romped to a 5,433 majority win.

PKR’s by-election campaign headquarters is just round the corner at Yayasan Aman. I turn around to ask where the nearest Umno “kubu” is, and they can’t think of one.

I do, however, find an Umno kenduri in nearby Kampung Penanti, behind Sekolah Kebangsaan Sri Penanti. Organised by Umno Kelantan and presided over by state liaison chief Datuk Seri Annuar Musa, the generous spread of ayam percik, satay, nasi goreng and air batu campur is feted to all. Even the makcik from the house emblazoned with PKR banners comes out to eat among the hundred or so present, though roughly half of them are functionaries of the event.

A couple of hours earlier, children were seen leaving the Umno bilik gerakan there with pink goodie-bags filled with toiletries. Later, Annuar will present senior and disabled citizens with gifts.

Voices from the heartland
Locals and guests being feted at the Umno kenduri held in Kampung Penanti on 20 Aug 2008
This standard Umno fare is tried and tested turun-temurun. Umno gets down to the ground, they feed, they provide, so don’t forget, the implication goes. Where PKR’s Merdeka-themed campaign attempts to pry open the BN and Umno’s grasp on the struggle for independence, Umno’s response is to reassert their narrative. The dikir barat troupe at the kenduri sings songs on how “pemimpin Umno banyak berjasa untuk memerdekakan negara.”

While Umno deputy youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin made his battle cry to bury Anwar’s political career in BN’s strongest state constituency, Seberang Jaya (which Arif won by 533 votes in the 8 March general election), Annuar Musa has a subtler, softer message for the Kampung Penanti folk, close to the heart of Anwar’s “kubu”.

“Ini adalah pertandingan di kalangan sahabat. Saya dan Datuk Seri Anwar bersahabat lama… Saya adalah juga peminat dia. Saya adalah juga pengikut dia,” Annuar tells the kampung audience, half of whom are still eating.

“Rasa sayang masih ada… tetapi bila sampai perhitungan politik kita harus memikirkan daripada sudut yang lebih besar.”

Annuar completely sidesteps Anwar’s sodomy cases in 1998 and 2008, and hardly mentions the BN candidate. His appeal is for the Malays to circle their wagons in this time of crisis for Umno, for the sake of Malay unity.

Fifty-four-year-old security guard Amiruddin of Kampung Penanti, who has come out to support the party he’s been a member of all his life, maintains the deciding factor for his vote is “[ke]setiaan kepada BN, kepada Umno masih kekal.”

Low-key campaign

Leaving the scene, I chance upon the Kubang Semang Umno bilik gerakan, introduce myself to a middle-aged woman shuffling papers, and ask for the next day’s programme. She scowls bitterly and says, after a lengthy pause: “Press tak payah tahu.” Why? She just repeats: “Press tak payah tahu.”

The Umno campaign has been noted for its low-key, grassroots outreach approach, with BN by-election campaign director Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak regularly making house calls. Their little kampung ceramahs draw nowhere near the numbers of PKR’s ceramahs. 

This, however, disregards the impact of the many programmes and budgetary allocations that the government is “coincidentally” conducting in Permatang Pauh at the same time as the by-election.

Another consideration is the reach of the mainstream media: Utusan Malaysia is distributed free at various Umno bilik gerakan. PKR’s campaign HQ, on the other hand, provides free copies of Aliran.

What is strange is the inability — or reluctance — of the Umno machinery to provide advance notice of much of its programmes. Arif has often been unable to provide details of his programme, sometimes within the same day. Conversely, PKR’s schedule is provided the night before, without fail.

The story that the bloggers have gone to town with — which the other media have gingerly negotiated, since the protagonists have maintained a front of solidarity — is Permatang Pauh Umno’s internal politicking.

There are lingering questions of whether the parties involved are going all-out to campaign for Arif. The Umno branch-level elections have just finished (in the week after nomination day on 16 Aug), so many contesting branch leaders are coming in mid-way through the campaign period.

Puteri Umno’s anak angkat programme, which deploys their girls into kampung homes to be the eyes and ears of the Umno machinery, only began on Friday (22 Aug), four days before polling.

The perception that the non-Malay votes are a lost cause for BN will not have diminished with the appearance of former MCA central committee member Datin Paduka Dr Tan Yee Kew and former Gerakan leader Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon in support of Anwar.

This is why Machang MP and PKR by-election campaign strategist Saifuddin Nasution Ismail believes that “the winning formula for BN is to win as many Malay votes as possible, because they’ve given up on Chinese and Indian votes.”

Voices from the heartland
Saiful Bukhari interview being shown on a big screen outside the Permatang Pauh Umno headquarters on the night of 21 Aug 2008
The issues that matter to Malay voters — such as the Saiful Bukhari case and Anwar’s standing in the local and larger Malay community, which have eclipsed even national issues such as fuel prices — reflect the sidelining of the personable Arif as a visible influence on this by-election, even as he is affectionately called YB Pek Moh (white hair) by locals.

Azman, a 39-year-old lawyer from Tanah Liat, describes how Umno’s voter canvassers are portraying a vote for Anwar as “dosa besar” because he is involved in the Saiful case. But Anwar is “our kampung boy”, says Azman. He is their “anak jati”, and Azman doesn’t believe in Saiful’s accusations, and nor will the younger voters, he says. Younger voters are apparently more amused than perturbed by the sodomy case.

Meanwhile, the debate rages on in the head of an elderly taxi driver (that standby quote dispenser for the car-less journalist) by the name of Ramli. Saiful swearing on the Quran, notwithstanding the joint PKR-PAS counter to dismiss the authority of the act on Islamic grounds, is a big deal to Ramli. Yet Ramli wonders, how can Anwar, a much older man, have done it to Saiful? “Mungkin dia makan ubat…” he reflects, the matter still unsettled in his mind.

This is precisely why Umno has harped on Saiful first (his video interviews are shown every night on a big screen outside the Permatang Pauh Umno headquarters), with the issues of Malay unity coming a close second.

Mobilising for Anwar

In the PAS stronghold of Permatang Pasir, I follow the party’s Muslimahs mobilised to canvass for Malay votes house-to-house in Kampung Pelet. Permatang Pasir state assemblyman Mohd Hamdan Abdul Rahman has told The Nut Graph he is confident of getting an even bigger majority than his own March victory, at least for his area.

The groups of women, escorted by one male security detail, present an organised cascading chorus of propaganda. Their MO includes gauging the initial salam greetings. One sheepish-looking woman’s reluctance to greet the Muslimahs betrays her allegiances. If the question remains open, the group leader asks point blank, and any hesitation or “no comment” response is noted for follow-up action.

The data from the daily house-to-house visits will be collated and tabulated on the night of 24 Aug. Follow-ups to court fence-sitting voters will be conducted on Monday, the day before polling day. Their reports on the location of Chinese voters in the area will be shared with the DAP for it to handle. The count for that day’s survey in Kampung Pelet is an overwhelming majority in favour of Anwar.

Voices from the heartland
The PAS Muslimah group going on their house-to-house surveys in Kampung Pelet on 21 Aug 2008, here meeting 55-year-old Khalijah Yaakob
Their strategy is to push Anwar as not only a leader for Permatang Pauh, but for Malaysia and even the world, echoing PKR’s Dari Permatang Pauh ke Putrajaya slogan. The Muslimahs are told to clearly deal with the Saiful issue by stressing that swearing on the Quran is not strictly in accordance with Islamic laws, and that even the imam who witnessed Saiful’s confession is merely a bilal and an Umno member. Then they are to address the fuel price hike issue.

These ladies don’t wear PAS symbols, only PKR badges. Voters who are already on their side are warned to only look for the PKR symbol. Salmah Jaafar, the PAS Muslimah coordinating this house-to-house lobbying on the morning of 21 Aug, claims that they have information on the symbol for the third candidate, Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia (Akim)’s Hanafi Hamat, on the polling papers: it will be a moon with two horizontal lines above and below. She believes this may be a trick to confuse voters, especially staunch elderly PAS supporters. “Because if they see bulan, they will pangkah only bulan,” says Salmah.

The Umno equivalent would be someone like 73-year-old Siti Aishah Abdul in Kampung Kubang Semang. She has voted for BN “dari dulu hingga sekarang”, and will continue to do so. She is not very cognizant of the latest issues, but believes that the election has been, and will be, conducted freely and fairly.

Permatang Pauh’s demographic is tipped towards younger voters, which is partly why pundits and bookies alike have predicted a big win for Anwar, with an even bigger majority.

The reading on the ground is a little more muddled than that. At the Ijok by-elections in 2007, PKR’s ceramah crowds always vastly outnumbered BN’s, but that didn’t give an indication of the eventual result. Umno’s steady groundwork, more quietly than ever now in Permatang Pauh, coupled with the government apparatus and media reach, remains formidable, internal party factionalism or no.

Near the Umno kenduri in Kampung Penanti, Cik Ton, a 37-year-old housewife, sits idly outside her house. She wears a BN campaign t-shirt with Arif’s face on it. “Rakyat suka kalau [calon] suka ambil tahu masalahnya, cepat sikit tindakannya,” she says. She ranks economic issues at the top of her priorities, followed by ethnic unity.

I assume she’s a BN supporter, but she corrects me: “Kita boleh pakai baju Adil, pakai baju Umno, tapi kita mengundi, orang tak tahu. Jangan kira kulit. Undi adalah rahsia. Saya punya husband pun tak tahu saya undi siapa.” End of Article

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One Response to “Voices from the heartland”

  1. Dr Tee says:

    Congrats, you have a nice site here, which I stumbled upon recently.

    Graphics and texts are good to read and view, and the arrangement of the site is also very comfortable to browse through.

    Back to the Permatang Pauh by-election, I am all with the majority. Though not able to cast my vote for him, I will fully support change and wish him luck for his journey to Putrajaya.

    People should be awake by now to what the ruling coalition has achieved till today in a span of 51 hard, long years for Malaysians. It’s not only disappointing but disgusting as well.

    All the best to HIM…….!

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