AT 1am on Wednesday, 19 Aug 2009, Rohaizat Othman finally appears for this interview after a day of campaigning. The Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate for the Permatang Pasir by-election looks terribly exhausted as he walks into the sparse media room at the BN by-election headquarters in Permatang Pasir.
The BN command centre is a hastily set up outfit of white air-conditioned tents in a muddy plot of land surrounded by padi fields. One wonders too, if Rohaizat’s selection as candidate to stand in this opposition stronghold was just as hasty. Only a week ago, on 10 Aug, the Election Commission announced that nomination of candidates would be on 17 Aug and polling on 25 Aug.
Only two days into the campaign and Rohaizat, 38, was already under siege over his disbarment as a lawyer. Never mind the fact that this poses no legal hindrance to being a candidate. The damage to BN’s credibility has already been done.
Introducing himself to voters at a Chinese economy rice stall in Sama Gagah
Rohaizat says he will take no questions on his disbarment for this interview. He had earlier on the Tuesday of 18 Aug fielded questions from reporters while on the campaign trail visiting voters in the Sama Gagah polling district. He put it down to “character assassination by PAS”. He did the same on Tuesday night, in an emergency press conference with other Umno leaders to defend his innocence.
The gist of the defence was that Rohaizat’s legal firm partner was the one who left the firm with money owed to clients, leaving Rohaizat as the one implicated in the scandal. The Penang Rubber Tappers Cooperative, which lodged a complaint with the Bar Council, withdrew it after reaching a settlement with the law firm. A committee member from the cooperative was also present at the press conference to confirm Rohaizat’s innocence.
Whether this adequately clears the issue for voters remains to be seen. “It’s a credibility issue which is too late to reverse and it’s up to the voters to decide. So long as his standing as a candidate is not illegal, he should just go on campaigning as hard as he can,” says political observer Assoc Prof Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff of Rohaizat’s situation.
But what does the BN candidate have to offer?
Sizing up Rohaizat
“Kelebihan saya yang tidak ada pada calon PAS ialah, saya mewakili Barisan Nasional yang juga memerintah kerajaan pusat sekarang,” he offers.
Right. That much is pretty obvious.
“Dengan itu, saya ada akses atau hubungan direct kepada kerajaan pusat. Saya boleh berhubung dengan menteri-menteri dan ini amat memudahkan dari apa-apa segi; dari segi mendapat biasiswa untuk pelajar-pelajar atau bantuan masuk universiti untuk anak-anak pengundi.”
He reiterates Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin‘s promise to make Permatang Pasir the “anak emas” who will get everything he or she desires.
If elected, Rohaizat says he will implement the “one village, one industry” concept here, boost agro-tourism and village homestay programmes, and expand business networks for local entrepreneurs with the help of federal assistance.
Secondly, Rohaizat believes his youth is an advantage given that 40% of voters here are between the ages of 21 and 40. “I am able to understand their aspirations,” he says. Local observers say Umno is testing to see if Permatang Pasir will confirm the swing in youth votes back to the BN just as what happened in the Manik Urai by-election.
Thirdly, Rohaizat’s vision for Permatang Pasir. “My vision is based on the prime minister’s ‘1Malaysia‘ concept of ‘People first, performance now’. Everybody will be taken care of,” he says.
What does he think Permatang Pasir voters want?
“From my campaign rounds so far, I have met elderly folk who say that they did not receive anything under the previous assemblyperson. In terms of infrastructure development, Permatang Pasir is quite complete, but I think the people want an assemblyperson they can approach easily and who can provide them the human touch.”
With members of the Chinese Malaysian community in Sama Gagah
We then talk about the “political tsunami” of the March 2008 general election. Given the shift in public political awareness, why should people vote for the BN?
“Because we have had a leadership transition and now we have 1Malaysia to unite the people. Manik Urai has also indicated to us that the rakyat are returning to the BN,” he answers.
Wearily, he shifts in his seat and is momentarily distracted by campaign team members who hover nearby waiting for the interview to end so they can plan the following day’s programme. It is 1.30am.
Tough pleasing everyone
BN continues to face criticisms for selecting Rohaizat as candidate, whether openly from PAS or from the public through blogs and Twitter.
It highlights certain issues in Umno’s selection process that are difficult to undo for as long as the party’s patronage culture remains in place.
Rohaizat (left) perusing details on the next day’s campaign programme while campaign team members discuss strategies.
On the right is Abdul Razak Baba.
Factionalism and expectations of being rewarded with an assemblyperson’s post are some of the pitfalls Umno has to learn to deal with, says party insider Datuk Capt (Rtd) Abdul Razak Baba.
“Umno must look at selecting the right candidate for the constituency, and not limit the choice to the division chief or committee members. The culture and mindset has been that the division chief or someone with rank must be the assemblyperson because he has the most support.
“But the person who may have the best support from within [the division] may not always be the best candidate for the constituency. And yet, the political reality is that you don’t want to upset the person’s supporters at the risk of jeopardising the election campaign,” Abdul Razak says.
Abdul Razak is a committee member of the Bukit Gantang Umno division. He had offered to stand but was not selected as the BN candidate in the constituency’s by-election in April 2009. In Permatang Pasir, he is part of Rohaizat’s campaign team.
In Rohaizat’s case, the Permatang Pauh Umno division secretary was picked from a shortlist of five names. In the end, age was on his side as BN wants to recapture the youth vote, notes political analyst Ong Kian Ming.
Candidate or party problem?
Yet, Agus wonders how Rohaizat’s past scandal, even if it does not disqualify him as a candidate, could have slipped through the vetting process.
Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh
If, as Umno’s top leaders say, they knew about it and decided that it was a mere legal technicality, it speaks worse of the party’s understanding about moral principles.
In January’s Kuala Terengganu parliamentary by-election, Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh may have been the most apt choice as far as the local Umno division was concerned, but he too suffered from perception problems. His were due to his links with then outgoing prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and allegations that Abdullah’s cronies were given contracts for mega projects in Terengganu.
Agus observes that in the spate of by-elections since the 2008 polls, Umno appears to have difficulty finding the right candidate who can satisfy public perception as well as internal party demands.
Candidates aside, it could also be that the BN hasn’t successfully convinced the public that it has truly changed. If that is the bigger problem, then Rohaizat’s embarrassment is but a temporary challenge for the BN. That too, is likely what BN wants to find out from the Permatang Pasir polls after its near win in Manik Urai.
The Permatang Pasir question
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