Manikumar speaking to journalists after the announcement of his victory on 7 April
BY the end of campaigning in the Bukit Selambau by-election, even novice reporters sensed that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) had an edge over the Barisan Nasional (BN).
It is not that the PR has not had its own set of problems. For one thing, the internal backlash within Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) towards the fielding of now-victorious S Manikumar was vicious and often aired publicly.
But it was obvious to reporters that no matter what problems beset the PR, their machinery cranked into high gear, with the help of political heavyweights, in the last four days before polling on 7 April 2009.
The BN machinery, however, remained sluggish and distracted with no new tricks in the bag.
For example, on 3 April, Bukit Selambau seemed bereft of big BN names. Leaders such as newly minted Umno Wanita chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and party vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein rushed back to the capital to witness Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s swearing-in as prime minister. Granted, they eventually returned to Bukit Selambau. But even 24 hours is a long time in an election campaign.
Losing the youths
Kedah Gerakan Youth chief Tan Keng Liang disagrees that such distractions caused the BN’s loss in Bukit Selambau.
Tan Keng Liang“Even if the big BN names had stayed the whole while in Bukit Selambau, I don’t think the election result would have changed much,” he tells The Nut Graph in a post-polls phone interview.
In Tan’s opinion, it is not that voters were genuinely enthusiastic about voting for the PR. Rather, the results show the extent to which the public still dislikes the BN’s policies.
“If you look at the patterns in the voting streams, you will see that it is the young voters who voted against the BN,” Tan explains. “This means that something has happened in the lives of the present 20- and 30-somethings with regard to their relationship with the BN.”
For example, Tan says, has the BN done enough to ensure their welfare, education, and employment opportunities?
“Take the case of young Indian [Malaysians] now. There are many who actually qualify to go to university but are not awarded scholarships or even places to further their studies locally,” he says.
Tan says this has bred deep-seated resentment in some non-Malay Malaysians, and even Malay Malaysians who have not benefited from certain policies. This, he says, is something Najib has to look at seriously fixing.
He says the BN will now have to be very careful because in the next general election, students currently in secondary schools and universities will be the ones registered to vote. His caution to the BN is simple: if young Malaysians continue to be disenfranchised by the BN, the coalition will probably lose the federal government in the next general election.
Losing Chinese Malaysians
Newly elected Umno Wanita exco member Suraya Yaacob, who is also Sungai Tiang state assemblyperson, has a different perspective.
Suraya “It is clear that Chinese [Malaysian] voters do not trust MCA or Gerakan to uphold their rights compared to the DAP,” she tells The Nut Graph in a post-polls phone interview.
“This is unrelated to Umno — there are some unaired grievances within the Chinese Malaysian community and they are deserting the BN because of this,” she says.
Some might say that Suraya and Tan are missing the forest for the trees — that the weaknesses of MCA, Gerakan, and even MIC are but symptoms of the real problem of Umno’s intransigence.
“But it would be petty to blame Umno leaders for everything, since the BN really is a coalition of different parties,” Suraya says.
Nevertheless, Umno still has a lot to answer for, if the Bukit Selambau campaign was anything to go by. In its numerous slogans, press conferences and ceramah, Umno tried to paint itself as being simultaneously more Islamic-fundamentalist — to Malay Malaysians — and more liberal — to non-Malay Malaysians — than PAS.
Umno also seems to think that all will be well now that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has returned to the party. The 4,000-strong crowd that cheered Mahathir at Institut Kemahiran Mara in Sungai Petani on 6 April seemed to validate this belief. What is jarring is that the 4,000 who showed up for Mahathir were mostly Malay Malaysians who were die-hard Umno supporters or members. The thousands who had showed up at PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s ceramah in Bukit Selambau were consistently multiracial, lay citizens.
A strange twist was when BN Youth, led by Umno Youth, tried to rouse the spirits of some 200 mat rempit on 6 April, less than 12 hours before polling officially opened. In trying to co-opt mat rempit, the BN youth leaders attempted to paint themselves as more “hip” than their allegedly stodgy PAS peers. However, it is almost a truism that when all other rhetoric fails, Umno will resort to one surefire crowd-pleaser — calling Anwar a faggot.
Thus, homophobic and conservative fires were fanned among the young, Malay Malaysian mat rempits. And yet, their edgy counter-culture was simultaneously defended by their uber-homophobic BN benefactors.
Crowds braving the rainy weather to listen to Anwar’s ceramah on 6 April
What’s the strategy?
To some extent, Umno’s strategy of firing up the Malay Malaysian masses is painfully logical. PKR supreme council member Saifuddin Nasution tells reporters that PKR actually lost the Malay Malaysian vote in Bukit Selambau, which Umno’s Suraya confirms. PKR’s victory was on the back of Indian Malaysian votes, which it retained, and Chinese Malaysian votes, which it gained.
But is this a calculation that is going to pay off for BN? As evidenced in Bukit Selambau, and in Bukit Gantang, the coalition cannot survive on Malay Malaysian votes alone.
Does the BN, and more importantly Umno, realise this? Is it a lack of imagination that is stopping the BN from truly reforming its rhetoric and policies, or is it a more calculated, last-ditch attempt at staying in power by playing racial politics?
Some of the younger BN leaders such as Tan and Suraya do inspire hope for a more principled, conscious BN. But these potential young leaders notwithstanding, is the BN complacent, unschooled in political competition, and unable to up its ante even when the stakes have been raised by the PR?
The election results in Bukit Selambau and Bukit Gantang therefore beg the question for the umpteenth time since March 2008 — can the BN change?