Why PAS lost the battle for Tenang

By Kuek Ser Kuang Keng and Regina Lee | Malaysiakini

ANALYSIS Even before campaigning for the Tenang by-election started, much had been said that the Jan 30 event would serve as an important testing ground for a BN move to call for a snap general election.

It was easy to see why. With the racial breakdown of the semi-rural mixed seat being the archetype of most of the voting constituencies of Peninsular Malaysia, Tenang became a litmus test of sorts.

But is the BN victory with a 3,707-vote majority truly an indication of a return in voter sentiment and support for the ruling coalition? Well, yes and no.

The rather untimely floods and heavy rainfall – which the locals said were worse than the 2006 Great Johor Flood – had severely affected a few polling stations in the Chinese-majority areas.

This threw the spanner in the works for any real measure of the true support for both BN and Pakatan Rakyat, where voter turnouts in some areas were as low as 55 percent, as in the case of Bandar Labis Tengah, which is over 95 percent Chinese.

The rains and floods were also blamed for the poorer turnout rate, which dropped to 66 percent, compared with the 73.52 percent turnout in the 2008 general election. Heavy rain started falling even before the polling centres opened at 8am.

According to DAP national publicity secretary Tony Pua, the turnout among the Chinese and Indian voters had dropped even more significantly – between 23 and 39 percent for Chinese voters and between 18 and a whopping 54 percent among the Indian voters.

However, the turnout for Malay voters saw an increase of two percent, to a high of 81 percent.

Best machinery wins

The battle during the intensive eight-day campaign period quickly culminated into a competition of machinery, logistics and resources, with BN clearly proving it held the upper hand in this.

The BN machinery in Johor – the birthplace of Umno – is already known to be the strongest in the country.

The party strategically mobilised its supporters and the grassroots from around the state, and they descended in droves on their stronghold in the three Felda settlements in the Tenang seat to ferry voters to polling stations.

When the flood waters rose rapidly, it became a show of ‘who has the most four-wheel-drives’.

Pakatan party workers complained that the boats and trucks deployed by the various government agencies to transport voters to the polling stations were not put to use evenly, coupled with “selective and discriminatory assistance for PAS supporters”.

Very few people had expected the floodwaters to be neck-high on the road to SMK Kamarul Ariffin, the polling centre for the district with the highest percentage of Chinese voters (95.7 percent), on polling day.

With hardly any machinery in comparison with BN, Pakatan was caught off-guard and had to rely heavily on the police and army trucks to transport the Chinese voters they saw as their vote bank.

The relevant government aid and rescue agencies were said to have stationed most of their men and equipment in the Malay-majority rural areas and the Felda settlements when reports of flash floods started coming in a few days before voting day.

Under these circumstances, the BN’s declaration, after the results were announced on Sunday night that Tenang again proved the people’s satisfaction with the government and that their support for BN had returned with the increase from the 2,492-vote majority in 2008, was far from convincing.

Chinese voters still with Pakatan

The bigger picture post-March 2008 shows a slight shift among voters for both BN and Pakatan. Pakatan still commands the support of the Chinese while BN retains Malay loyalty.

However, as evident from the past few by-elections, Malay and Indian dissatisfaction with the government has been decreasing, and this resulted in a steady flow of their votes back to the BN.

The Tenang result shows that BN achieved higher votes in all the Malay-majority polling districts, and won back the two Chinese-majority polling districts it lost in 2008 – Bandar Labis Timur (63.4 percent Chinese), and Labis (58.3 percent).

BN, and MCA in particular, rejoiced over their victory in three out of the four Chinese-majority polling districts in Tenang.

However, BN still lost in the near-homogenous polling district of Bandar Labis Tengah, where 95.7 percent of the Chinese voters live.

Here, support for PAS had increased by 3.2 percent from 66.7 percent in 2008 to 69.9 percent, despite a 20 percent reduction in the voter turnout.

The DAP sees the BN wins in the polling districts of Bandar Labis Timur and Labis as the result of overwhelming support from the minority Malay and Indian voters.

Combining the three polling districts of Bandar Labis Timur, Bandar Labis Tengah and Labis – all in Labis town, the 70 percent Chinese support in Bandar Labis Tengah can be extrapolated to the other two polling districts.

Islamic state no longer a draw

Though the DAP and MCA dispute the trend among Chinese voters, of key significance to both parties is that MCA’s Islamic state bogey is no longer effective in drawing away the Chinese vote base.

In fact, it may not even affect cooperation between PAS and DAP in Pakatan – the main factor that caused the collapse of the Barisan Alternatif in 2001.

Instead, the MCA attack appears to have forged closer cooperation and trust between DAP and PAS, with the two parties quickly rushing to each other’s defence.

During the campaign, DAP went all out mobilising its machinery from its headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and in Johor, as if it was the party’s own candidate who was contesting. Leaders of both DAP and PAS also took turns speaking at each other’s ceramah.

While Chinese voters polled by Malaysiakini on the Islamic state issue said they did not care much for this, it remains to be seen whether the issue will continue to be MCA’s driving point in the future.

On the other hand, the messages of gratitude and promises of development from Umno and BN sit very comfortably with the rural Malay voters.

With a strong affinity for former Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein, the father of Premier Najib Abdul Razak, the Felda settlers – making up more than half of the Malay voters in Tenang – remain an impenetrable Umno bulwark, no matter what the opposition issues are.

Despite the promising progress of Anak, a PAS-linked NGO specifically for Felda settlers sending messages of the government oppressing the settlers, BN still managed to garner 85.5 to 87.9 percent support in the three settlements in Tenang.

Much is also due to the failure to break through the information barrier in the rural Malay areas, where Umno-dominated dailies Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and Harian Metro are still the main sources of news.

The much-hyped issue of the controversial novel ‘Interlok’ also hardly made a ripple among the Indian community, with half of them ignorant about it and the other half indifferent.

And unlike Sibu or Hulu Selangor, where there were distinctive local problems, there appeared to be none in the quiet and idyllic constituency of Tenang, where the rising prices of palm oil and rubber have afforded a good life for the bulk of the voters.

Save for the freak of nature that came in the form of the massive floods on voting day, there is no persistent problem in the constituency – which also explained the absence of the ‘feel good projects’ that have become standard pledges from state and federal governments in elections.

Empty messages

This by-election is not a groundbreaking one to change the course of the nation’s political history.

Both BN and Pakatan are still sticking to their tried and tested methods, not exploring new options after the 2008 general election.

While DAP found its appeal among the urban and middle-class voters, PAS was not seen to be breaking away from its image of fuddy-duddy religious conservatism in the rural Malay heartland.

The third component member of Pakatan, PKR, was largely absent from the campaign on the ground, reflecting its weak grassroots and machinery in Johor.

And while DAP’s launch of some election gimmick every other day has been catchy with the Chinese voters, a number of whom even stuck the party’s campaign sticker with the word huan (change) on their shirts and helmets, it was not exactly unchartered territory for anyone.

At the same time, BN’s reliance on the 3M – money, machinery and media – continues to persist after all these decades.

Both sides had also worked hard to drive their point home: BN with 1Malaysia and Pakatan with its “Orange Book”, the pledge on good governance within 100 days of it being elected.

But to many of the voters in Tenang (and possibly elsewhere too), these are merely elusive messages. The only time ‘1Malaysia’ made an impact in Tenang was when scores of ‘volunteers’ went around giving out goodies during the daytime.

After sundown, the logo was plastered at the mega dinners hosted by the BN, coupled with splashy entertainment and lucky draw prizes.

Pakatan can also be faulted for playing the populist card, with many of its ceramah speakers drawing attention to the Pakatan-controlled state governments’ policies, such as free water and ‘welfare money’ for senior citizens.

While Pakatan had attempted a display of unity, often inviting DAP leaders for ceramah in Felda settlements, and PAS leaders in the Chinese town areas, BN fared poorer, with many of its ceramah being an event for just one party.

Having said that, holding ceramah was never BN’s campaign strategy, for the coalition has a preference for house-to-house visits and ‘welfare’ programmes, such as free motorcycle servicing and religious classes.

Moral victory for Cikgu Mala

Though former assistant district officer Mohd Azahar Ibrahim has been crowned the new Tenang assemblyperson, the moral victory goes to PAS candidate Normala Sudirman.

Popularly known as ‘Cikgu Mala’, fielding her in the by-election could possibly work wonders for PAS in the long-term in its bid to portray a progressive and open image.

In contrast to the unsmiling and constantly panting Mohd Azahar, Normala was articulate, demure and poised.

If PAS plays its cards right, Normala could well be the next Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the former Perak MB from PAS who has since found fans among Chinese voters for his multi-cultural approach.

This, certainly, will not be the last we see of the affable Cikgu Mala.

  1. #1 by raven77 on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 11:42 am

    Never put a lady with a white glove on in a secular society…..

    No amount of PKR and DAP is going to neutralise that sought of damage…

    PAS has a lot to learn….

    • #2 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 11:01 pm

      True. Who likes to be dirty ? Again I say it is the niat that matters. All the religious books in the world say that God looks at the heart. Why is it that the more modern Malaysia is, kononnya, the more religiously ritualistic she is ? Can we stop evaluating by the appearance alone ?

  2. #3 by liveleas on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 12:19 pm

    KS and the rest of DAP team, is that what we want now? only chinese votes? whatever happens to multiracial appeal? See what we have been reduced to? MCA archrival? come on… DAP should never consider itself as a ‘pengganti’ for MCA. It’s the surest way to hell.

    Remember Malaysian Malaysia?

    • #4 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 11:03 pm

      If you can’t beat them, join them. The more, the merrier, the crazier.

  3. #5 by pulau_sibu on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 6:45 pm

    What are we trying to do? To make the racist politics a branch of science? If not, there is no need to look at those few percentages of error.

  4. #6 by lcclck on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 8:28 pm

    The greatest achievement will be that the names of LKS, KS, LGE, TKW, TP….are also well accepted by the Malay communities, and with power of several states now under PR, DAP leaders should now show they can be a better leaders for All Malaysians, and NOT just for the Chinese/Indians, but also for the Malays too….

    • #7 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 11:07 pm

      But what is the general impression ?

  5. #8 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 10:16 pm

    PAS lost the battle for Tenang because PAS and DAP had been putting too much hope on the Chinese votes. As a result, they failed to strategies to lure Felda Malays to PR.

    Winning Felda Malays to PR is a long term strategy. One cannot hope to lure them over to PR within the space of 60 days. PR should start to strategies now when there is no elections.

    PR should take note that Chinese form only 24% of the country’s population. Even if they fully support PR, it is still not good enough to effect a change of government. On the contrary, the goal of capturing Putrajaya will be made easier if PR could reach out to all the races.

    • #9 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 11:08 pm

      How can you win them over since FELDA is making profits ?

  6. #10 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 1 February 2011 - 10:53 pm


    “strategies” should read “strategise”.

  7. #11 by Not spoon fed on Wednesday, 2 February 2011 - 12:53 am

    DAP and PAS should do more publicity ASAP and to interview Chinese and Indian voters in Kelantan about islamic laws are for muslim only. Many non muslim (especially the middle aged and old folks) in others states have much phobia about PAS’s isliamic laws. Saying “Kong Hee Fat Choi” is not enough for PAS. It should be real expression from non muslim voters.

  8. #12 by Not spoon fed on Wednesday, 2 February 2011 - 12:59 am

    Yes, shouldn’t put woman (like the DAP lady in Perak who ran away and resigned from DAP) in a constituition. Also, lady could be absent during pregnancy and birth. This is not discriminating but more of a real role and life of a woman. PAS’s greeting abotu Kong Hee Fat Chai is not enough. Pls get non muslim voters in Kelantan to express about Islamic laws are for muslim ONLY. Please get this message across all aged ASAP.

  9. #13 by Not spoon fed on Wednesday, 2 February 2011 - 1:03 am

    It is not about profit made by FELDA. It should be more messages about how national wealth to be distributed across the nation. If after coming new general election the Pakatan had entereed into Putrajaya, this new government could also distribute national wealth better than Barisan Nasional. More publicity should be sent to Sabah and Sarawak too about they would get a more sharing of national wealth and abolish the boarder control of Sabah and Sarawak and make the entry like just enter into a normal state from Penang to Kedah.

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