Bread and butter issues (© Bruno Neves / sxc.hu)
“IN Malaysia, we must vote for Barisan Nasional (BN); we have been voting for them for a long time,” says T Muniandy. “We help them by voting for them, and then they help us.” It is 6 Oct 2009, the fourth day of the Bagan Pinang by-election campaign. It is a sunny and sticky late afternoon here in Taman Sungai Ujong at the Sua Betong estate. Residents say there are 20 families living in this residential area — 14 Indian, four Malay and two Chinese Malaysians.
Muniandy is an unemployed former oil palm estate worker in his late 40s. “PAS came and said vote for them, I said okay, okay. But we must still vote for BN,” he says.
Muniandy is not alone in feeling this way. T Poovammah, 48, tells reporters that she is definitely voting for the BN, too. This is despite revealing that she and her husband only make a combined monthly salary of RM600, and that’s during a good month. During the rainy season, they make maybe RM300 to RM400. Why, if their wages are so meagre, would they still want to vote for the BN?
“I’m concerned about my children’s studies. The government gives them study loans, you know,” she says. When asked if she thinks the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), specifically PAS in this constituency, could improve her lot, she is dismissive. “PAS saya tadak letak,” she says, and that is that.
This is a recurring motif in Taman Sungai Ujong. The Indian Malaysian residents who speak are unhappy about their low wages and lack of access to amenities and infrastructures. And yet, many are not about to support the PR. It is not that they despise PAS or its PR partners, but they believe their only political option is the BN. And this sentiment is interesting, given the fact that Indian Malaysians form 20.74% of the electorate here, and could be the deciding factor in who wins the contest.
BN good, MIC bad?
P Youtheyaaroy, a 42 year-old driver, puts this sentiment into perspective. “I think the BN is good, but MIC is a different story,” he says. His father was an MIC member, but Youtheyaaroy himself is now a member of the Indian Progressive Front.
Youtheyaaroy obviously has an axe to grind about MIC’s campaigning style, which according to him smacks of self-importance and snobbery.
“MIC came here and sat under a tent. Have some respect. My house has eight votes. Do you want to look for me or do you want me to look for you?” he says. By contrast, he says the PR and the BN component parties actually went door to door to canvass for votes. So what does he think the MIC needs to do to win back support? “It has to change its entire leadership. Get rid of all the old leaders, and bring in new faces,” he says.
Reporters point out to Youtheyaaroy that MIC is part of the BN. He reiterates his stand — the BN is okay, but MIC is a problem. Political analyst Prof Dr James Chin, from Monash University, Sunway Campus, suspects that this ability to separate sentiments towards the BN and the MIC could be due to a third factor.
“It could be that (Prime Minister and BN chairperson) Datuk Seri Najib Razak has been able to appeal directly to the Indian (Malaysian) community, bypassing the MIC,” he suggests.
Voting with stomachs
But what about national issues, such as the mysterious death of political secretary Teoh Beng Hock, and the death of suspected car thief A Kugan in police custody? None of the residents seem to be overly concerned. Teoh’s death seems irrelevant, and even Kugan’s death is framed from the perspective of crime and security. Even the headline-grabbing cow-head protest in Selangor does not seem to raise passions here.
Chin says it therefore looks as though working class Indian Malaysians will be voting with their stomachs, not based on ideology.
“Working class voters worry more about bread and butter issues. Something like corruption is more of a middle-class concern, because this is a class that already has its basic needs taken care of,” says Chin.
Chin is right. Youtheyaaroy, Muniandy and Poovammah all seem oblivious to allegations of corruption against BN candidate Tan Sri Isa Samad. In fact, Youtheyaaroy even says that corruption is bound to happen among high-level political circles. However, he says he has no hard feelings against former Menteri Besar Isa.
Instead, he brings the discussion back to issues of making a living and caring for his family. “Our wages are low, we need more school buses to send our children to school safely, and we need to be protected from crime,” he says.
How interesting — a by-election so closely watched by the rest of the nation is being fought on such local issues, at least for the Indian Malaysian community. Does this then give the BN an edge, since it is fielding a former menteri besar as its candidate? There are still three days left in the campaign — it is still anybody’s game.
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