by Tony Pua
The Malaysian Insider
2nd June 2014
I spent 17 consecutive days camped in Teluk Intan as the Campaign Director for the recently concluded by-elections where DAP’s candidate, Dyana Sofya lost by a fractional 238 votes.
Understandably, the analysis and criticisms has been published hard and fast, and more will come over the next few days. Many were surprised we lost. Some argued that we have been complacent and arrogant. Of course, some believed that we made strategic mistakes.
There is no question that the campaign execution has plenty of room for improvement, and the team will certainly be carrying out our postmortem over the next few days to ensure that future campaigns can be even better.
However, we certainly never expected an easy campaign. The very fact that it took the party leadership “forever” to decide on the candidate was precisely because we knew that the risk of losing the seat was extremely high.
Regardless of the candidate, the Teluk Intan by-election was never going to be a walk in the park like Bukit Gelugor, where Barisan Nasional did not even have the courage to put up a fight.
Even before the candidate decision, the Party was well briefed by our grassroots that the word on the street was that many in the Chinese community will give their vote to Gerakan President, Mah Siew Keong. The argument was compelling.
“We voted Pakatan for ‘Ubah’ in the 13th General Election (GE). But since this by-election has no impact on ‘Ubah’, we will vote Mah for 3 years’ worth of ministerial benefits, and vote ‘Ubah’ again in the 14th GE.”
What’s more, we were also aware that there was little motivation for the thousands of outstation voters to return to Teluk Intan to vote since there wasn’t a chance of “Ubah” with just one seat at stake.
This was before we took into consideration the amount of goodies that will be dished out during the campaign by the BN machinery to buy votes, as proven by the various police and press reports during the campaign.
Hence internally, some leaders had lamented that either choice of candidate – Malay or Chinese – will lose. Some argued that only a “well-known” Chinese candidate could possibly win. I was of the opinion that a Malay candidate may not necessarily lose while a Chinese candidate may not necessarily win. Regardless of the differences of opinion, the party leaders were all fully cognizant of serious challenges we face in retaining the seat.
Even our most experienced party leader, Lim Kit Siang, announced that we faced the uphill task with only 40% of support at the start of the campaign.
Hence did we make the “strategic misstep” of nominating Dyana Sofya for this by-election because we did not understand the “local sentiments” in Teluk Intan?
If the Party’s objective had been to stick to its traditional Chinese support in Pasir Bedamar to eke out a victory in the by-election, then perhaps fielding Dyana was indeed be a “strategic misstep”.
However, if the Party’s objective is to utilize this opportunity to reach out beyond our hardcore support base, to Middle Malaysia of all races, not just in Teluk Intan but throughout Malaysia, then surely fielding a qualified Dyana, despite the known risks is the progressive step to take.
We do not get a by-election everyday and hence we do not get to pick our choice of constituency to field our choice of candidate. The party after a difficult and lengthy deliberation decided, with our eyes wide open, to seize the rare opportunity which has presented itself before us.
The “Dyana phenomenon” or “Dyanamania”, coined by media hacks, took off like an exploding Rocket, well beyond even the most optimistic expectation of any of our party leaders. A routine by-election in a sleepy township captured the imagination of the country. Her candidature opened up a whole new world of fans and opportunities for the Party.
Despite the euphoria created, particularly over the social media, the campaign team was never under the illusion that we have won the game. As early as the 2nd day of the campaign, Lim Kit Siang announced that if the by-election were held on the social media, the DAP has won handsomely. However, he had the campaign team’s feet held firmly on the ground when he added, “I am worried however as [the by-election] is not decided by Malaysian netizens but by the 60,000 voters of Teluk Intan… a substantial percentage of whom are not netizens”.
The team worked tirelessly over the 12 days campaign to overcome the deficit. Our clarion call for returning voters started early in the campaign with nationwide advertisements published from the 3rd day. Our popular Facebook pages were flooded with pleas to voters to come home to vote. We even made available buses from Klang Valley at the cost of RM10 per person to facilitate the trip given that existing commercial coaches were fully sold out.
So intense was our campaign to bring voters home that the Gerakan President made the astonishing plea for voters to ignore the “orang luar”. He even made the laughable accusation that DAP was buying votes by charging voters to return. He conveniently forgets that while we actually charge voters the cost for the journey, BN routinely pays voters to make the trip.
Throughout the 12 days, our leaders consistently reminded the voters, particularly in our hardcore constituency of Pasir Bedamar, on why it was crucial for Malaysia’s future political landscape for Dyana to win, and why it’s worth sacrificing the “ministerial benefits” and “development” promises. There was no advantage for us to position Dyana to fight Mah on streetlights or drainage.
Unfortunately the steps just weren’t enough. Despite the intense excitement the campaign generated, we could not attract sufficient returning voters when turnout dropped from 80% in 2013 to 67%, particularly among the younger voters.
We didn’t do enough to convince the older generation voters that it was worthwhile sacrificing the “ministerial benefits” for a new political landscape.
Conversely, perhaps if not for the intense campaigning, BN might have won with thousands of votes, and not by the skin of their teeth.
Would a Chinese DAP candidate have won? Maybe, maybe not. If we had fielded a Chinese candidate, the drop in Chinese vote may not be as high. But we could easily lose even more Malay votes, instead of increasing marginally from 25% in 2013 to 28%. The lack of “excitement” in the by-election may have attracted even fewer returning voters. These are all hypothetical conjectures which we can argue until the cows come home.
The question of whether a Chinese candidate would have won is moot. It is moot because the objective of this by-election is to shift the country’s political landscape. The objective is to blunt BN’s racial politics as an electoral weapon used to powerful effect. The Chinese candidate, winning or losing, cannot achieve that outcome but instead only perpetuate the stereotype.
Dyana’s candidature however, winning or losing, gives hope for change. She is an investment in the future.
In golfing analogy, we have reached a performance plateau with our current golf swing. In order to achieve breakthrough results, we have no choice but to change our swing. However, in the current process of changing swing, we may suffer a dip in our performance. But once we get the hang of the new improvised swing, we will be better equipped to beat our opponents.
We had played to win, with many of our top leaders camped in Teluk Intan convinced of the cause which we pursue. Unfortunately and most disappointingly, we lost the battle this round.
In my interview with the Malay Mail Online on 18th May, the day before nomination, I had already stated that fielding Dyana was “a game-changing attempt fraught with risk, but something that must be taken to pursue our ideals of Malaysian Malaysia. If we were to lose the election, it will be a battle lost for a war to be won.”
The battle of Teluk Intan was a battle between the future represented by Dyana Sofya and the past represented by Mah Siew Keong. Oh ye of little faith, the past may have won this round, but the future always win in the end.