Zaid meeting estate workers at Ladang Sungai Air Jernih in Kerling in Hulu Selangor
WHICH would you prefer: a candidate who lies to cover up his past, or one who admits it? That could be the question Hulu Selangor voters, particularly Malay-Muslim Malaysians, are grappling with.
The by-election has started on a personal and predictable note. Given Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Datuk Zaid Ibrahim‘s reformist credentials, there is perhaps little else Umno could use against him. And so, Zaid’s “liberal” worldview, which includes drinking alcohol, has understandably become easy target.
The character assassination began on several blogs, which Umno leaders have denied sponsoring. Yet, Umno leaders and ceramah speakers have not hesitated to launch exactly the same attack as these blogs. Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam did it on 17 April 2010, the first night of campaigning. Umno Youth orators followed suit at a ceramah on the second night.
Meanwhile, the Umno-linked Mingguan Malaysia newspaper splashed, on its 18 April front page, a dare by PKR vice-president Azmin Ali for Umno to prove Zaid’s drinking, which has now been turned into “alcoholism”.
Zaid has pointed out Umno’s hypocrisy and says he is willing to be judged by voters. “If I don’t admit my wrong, maybe [the by-election outcome] might be better for me, but that would be lying. I prefer to be transparent, and if I lose because of that, that’s my fate,” he told reporters on the campaign trail on 18 April.
Zaid admits he drank, but in his younger days. That was the past, and he is now a changed man after joining PKR. PKR leaders have come to his defence, calling the BN “bankrupt for ideas”.
The Malay Malaysian vote will be a challenge for Zaid. An average of 45% of this community’s vote went to PKR in the 2008 election, according to PKR elections director Fuziah Salleh. Malay Malaysians comprise 53% of the electorate here, and PKR is hoping that Zaid’s appeal among other ethnic groups will secure them the seat.
Flags lining the road leading to the rubber estate in Kerling
In an interview with The Nut Graph in Kuala Lumpur on 14 April after news of his candidacy was reported, Zaid shares his views on more substantive issues.
TNG: You’re being cast as an “urbanite” who is unable to connect with rural people. How will you appeal to voters [in Hulu Selangor]?
Zaid Ibrahim: This is Umno propaganda. Some may believe it, but I think most people know my background. I am like many Malay [Malaysians] from the kampung. I treasure and cherish my roots. But I believe in justice and fairness for all. What’s wrong with that?
[Umno] can’t stand me because I believe their leaders have betrayed the trust of the Malay [Malaysians] and of other communities. So they use labels to discredit me.
How do you see your role as MP in Hulu Selangor?
Hulu Selangor has many issues that need to be addressed. The issue of Felda settlers not getting their titles. They work their guts out and still owe Felda so much every month. Another is land titles. People apply for land, but after all the years of BN rule, they still get nothing. So I’m trying, with [Selangor Menteri Besar] Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s agreement, to expedite approval. This will be my first priority, to get something for these people, to improve their economic life.
In the long run, we need more investment and industries in Hulu Selangor, and that will take time. I will try, with the state government, to focus more on these areas. Then there is also the Orang Asli, whose land is being whittled down by development. The state government will have to allocate them reserve land and I think the state has agreed to this.
If I am elected, I can have more influence with the state government because I have more friends in there. So that’s important. The Chinese [Malaysian] community also has issues like the general lack of new development. There are abandoned houses in Bukit Beruntung. Again, this takes time to resolve.
Are there other immediate solutions you can offer Hulu Selangor? Major development has escaped northern Selangor and gone south of the Klang Valley where the airport is. So what can be done quickly to revive the Hulu Selangor area?
Development and investment will take time; some may be faster than others. Setting up an institution of higher learning is something we can look at immediately. Land has been set aside by the state, but it’s a question of talking to certain institutions to see if they are willing to set up a campus.
We could have many small projects or a big one, although we don’t need another airport. You don’t have to have a major project. You just have to have balanced development. Eco-tourism is a good way of taking development there.
(Orang Asli pic by Adzla @ Flickr)
What else do you think people in Hulu Selangor need?
There are local issues, but as for the national issues, I think the people of Hulu Selangor are just like other citizens of this country. They want a more responsible government, they want a government that takes care of their interest, they want a government that is not racist. They will decide whether they want a leader who talks about the interest of all communities, or do they want someone who is the Umno-Barisan-MIC type.
What is your assessment of the Malay Malaysian electorate in this constituency?
I’m quite confident the Malay [Malaysians] in this constituency will support me because they have issues with economic opportunity and with getting land. They want a more equitable stake in the country.
We have to see whether the label sticks or not on 25 April (polling day). They can use all the labels they want, but it doesn’t bother me. The people will judge me for what I am. They have to be objective and assess for themselves.
In view of all this, do you have a special message for Malay Malaysian voters?
No, I just want them to look at the facts. Look at my background, look what I have stood for, what I have championed. Then they can judge for themselves, whether this is a man for the rakyat or a man who has vested interests. At the end of the day, the electorate has their own mind. And today is not like before; there are many ways to get information. I am confident [the electorate] will come to a fair conclusion.
If the BN campaign draws on your past, particularly the episode where the Umno disciplinary board found you guilty of money politics and suspended you, how will you answer this?
It’s not an issue at all. Because, if I was really guilty of money politics in 2004, why was I later made a minister? Obviously they knew it was a setup, a conspiracy to suspend me.
And you must also remember, they suspended me because I refused to apologise. I refused to apologise because it was a conspiracy. I could have escaped punishment. People must remember that I was suspended because I refused to say sorry, not because I was guilty.
And people don’t remember that when I became a minister, one of my first statements was to ask the then Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) to investigate me for money politics. I said to the ACA, “Clear my name, I don’t want to be a minister tainted with corruption.” You go and ask ACA what happened to the case. So I have no problem. I think people are not stupid. They know better.
To you, what is this by-election about? Is it a sort of referendum on the prime minister and his policies?
It’s not just about (Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak). It’s about (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin (Yassin), it’s about (Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad), it’s about Perkasa. It’s about injustice to (Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim). It’s about local issues and national issues. There are mixed considerations and many things at stake in this election. I do not want to put things in one basket.
But, definitely, Pakatan has to win because after all the defections, we need a good story. We need a happy ending. This is one way to start.
Pakatan is now also dishing out goodies, just like the BN does during by-elections. Pakatan as the state government is now in the position to do so, but ethically, this makes it no different than the BN, does it?
That’s for people to assess. But the point is this: if giving goodies determined the outcome of elections, Barisan would rule forever. It doesn’t mean that if you give out goodies, people will select you.
On democratic issues
The Nut Graph has a project that asks all MPs questions on democracy, and since you’re running for election, I’d like to ask you your stand on these issues. Firstly, would you support the abolition or review of the Internal Security Act?
I’ve always been clear on wanting a repeal of the law.
Should Malaysia be a secular or Islamic state?
That is a loaded question. It’s a conceptual question. If you ask lawyers, some will say we are secular, some will say we are hybrid.
We are not truly secular because the state has massive influence over religion. We are secular in the constitutional sense, in that the Supreme Court, which is the highest court, has ruled that this is a secular state.
But in the sense that the state involves itself in and funds religious programmes, then it is not secular. That is the best I can answer. It is difficult to describe Malaysia, because as I said, in the constitutional sense it is secular, [but when we look at] the functions of government, it functions as a sort of hybrid situation.
Would you support a Freedom of information Act?
Yes, 100%. That’s the only way to fight corruption.
If there was one thing you could do to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Malaysia, what would it be?
Change the ruling government.
Do you believe in the separation of powers?
That’s what the constitution says. That’s the original intent of our constitution, until Mahathir dismantled it. A Pakatan government will restore the original 1957 framework, which protects the judiciary’s independence, and in which Parliament is also independent and the Speaker is not someone who takes instructions from the party. And the executive must not have too much influence on the other institutions. In other words, the prime minister cannot tell the chief justice what to do.
See also: Hulu Selangor’s four-corner fight