BY far the most widely covered issue in the main Malay dailies between 16 and 22 Aug 2008 was the Permatang Pauh by-election campaigns.
In a Sinar Harian report titled Permatang Pauh: Tsunami Kedua Umno on 18 Aug, Ishak Hamzah observed that the timing of the by-election could not have been worse for the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Umno. He wondered: “Will things get better for BN/Umno, or will a second tsunami overcome the party?
“This is the first time that the BN/Umno will truly be in a ‘defensive’ position in a by-election. The BN/Umno is fighting on different grounds altogether from what it is used to, and cannot rely on strategies employed in previous elections.
“Will the sodomy case (against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) have a positive impact on the BN campaign in Permatang Pauh? Legally, this case is in court, so it cannot be made an issue,” he wrote.
Ishak noted that the issue has in fact worsened the BN/Umno’s image, and many believe it is part of a clichéd script with a political agenda.
“Ever since Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail vacated her Permatang Pauh seat, the BN/Umno made the wrong move by saying Anwar had picked a ‘safe seat’.”
He said the move could be seen as morally right because Anwar would be “returning home” to his former constituency. Furthermore, “the move shows the sacrifice of a wife and party president who does not wish for three members of the same family to be in Parliament.” (Anwar’s and Wan Azizah’s daughter Nurul Izzah is the Member of Parliament or MP for Lembah Pantai.)
“What will Umno’s direction after Permatang Pauh be? The result of the Permatang Pauh by-elections will not only change the national political scenario but will assess Umno’s relevance.”
Ishak concluded that further democratisation in Malaysia has a bright future. “National prosperity should not only be built by the presence of a strong government, but also by the presence of a strong opposition. A two-party system provides for further checks and balances… BN/Umno has learnt enough as government, and must learn to be a good opposition so that it can be a good government again after that.”
By and large, however, the mainstream Malay dailies carried reports to sway public perception of Anwar.
Utusan Malaysia, in a 16 Aug report, Ujian Pertama Orang Melayu Ajar Pembangkang, quoted Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as asking Permatang Pauh voters to use the by-election to “teach an opposition that clearly opposes the interests of the Malays.”
In another Utusan Malaysia report on 21 Aug titled Anwar Gadai Maruah Negara, Muhyiddin was quoted as saying he is disappointed that Anwar has sought sympathies from abroad to the point that there is negative perception of Malaysia.
“The Barisan Nasional does not allow external powers to interfere in matters of state at all,” Muhyiddin said.
On the same date, Utusan Malaysia, in a news analysis titled Orang Semenanjung, Kami Tidak Sejahat Itu, raised doubts about Anwar’s clarion call that 13 MPs from Sabah would defect to Pakatan Rakyat once he won the by-election.
The article quoted Sabah BN Backbencher’s Club chairman Datuk Anifah Aman as saying: “If what [PKR vice-president Datuk Dr] Jeffrey Kitingan has said about the 13 Sabahan MPs is true, that means I am ‘involved’, too, as I am an Umno MP.
“Our voices in Parliament are loud only because we want to raise issues faced by Sabahans for them to be resolved. It does not mean we want to jump parties.”
Shackled and oppressed?
In a 20 Aug Berita Harian analysis, Kempen Merdeka Gimik Pakatan Rakyat, the writer argued that Pakatan Rakyat’s campaign theme — Merdeka — Memerdekakan Negara Dari Kezaliman dan Penindasan — is but a gimmick.
“How can a country that has celebrated 50 years of independence… still be shackled and oppressed? It becomes more confusing when one asks, who in this country still remains shackled and oppressed?”
The other issue covered by the Malay dailies was Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan’s swearing on the Quran that he had been sodomised by Anwar.
Utusan Malaysia, in an 18 Aug news analysis titled Menanti Lafaz Sumpah Anwar, dramatised a scenario of a family in the PKR stronghold of Guar Perahu in Permatang Pauh, sitting in front of a TV set watching Saiful’s swearing.
Says the son: “That is Saiful’s father. Logically, how can a father sit next to his son in a mosque to witness such a swearing. No father would see his son fool around with such a swearing. And on top of that, it’s being done in a house of God, holding a Quran… you could be struck down by lightning.
“Anyway, dad, if he was alone while swearing, it might be questionable, but he was accompanied by his father. If one is not careful, one could be cursed for seven generations…”
The article then asked why Anwar would not want to swear on the Quran, too. The analysis concluded that this issue will remain on voters’ minds in Permatang Pauh.
Sinar Harian reported on 21 Aug that the Syarie Lawyers Association of Malaysia wanted the National Fatwa Council to issue a fatwa regarding swearing on the Quran to clarify confusion on the matter.
Association secretary-general Musa Awang was quoted as saying: “As a result of Saiful’s swearing, various perspectives have been raised by theologians, politicians, and individuals.
“What is worse is that some parties have used the polemic surrounding the swearing as political campaign material… this has confused the Muslim community regarding what is allowed by the religion. If this continues, it will cast a negative perception of us among the non-Muslims.”