Trading barbs in Bkt Gantang ceramah circuit
WET weather has put a damper on the nightly ceramah circuit in Bukit Gantang. In the past week, most Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) gigs drew crowds in the range of 150 to less than 500 by the time the night’s speeches were over.
“Last time, Chinese [Malaysians] were scared when they see the PAS flag but not anymore. This by-election is a fight to uphold justice. In fact, it is not just a by-election, it is a mini-general election. It is a chance for the people to reject Najib and BN,” Liew Chin Tong said.
The exceptions are ceramah-cum-dinners, events which both sides have organised to accommodate up to 1,000 or more people. But as people tuck in while various party leaders campaign on stage, it’s hard to tell whether they’re just there for the food.
One gets the sense that the ceramah speakers are preaching to the converted. Whether it’s a BN or PR ceramah, those who turn up appear to be those who are already supporters.
Battling for votes
The real battle is for the Malay Malaysian vote, as both sides of the divide expect non-Malay Malaysians to be largely in support of the opposition.
PAS by-election operations director Asmuni Awi says the Malay Malaysian vote is split roughly 50-50. Other sources say the ratio is 45: 55 in favour of BN. Midweek during the campaign period, PAS’s research director Dr Zulkefly Ahmad put Malay Malaysian support for PAS at about 47%.
There are only a few fence-sitting Malay Malaysians, says Asmuni who is also Perak PAS deputy commissioner, as the community has always been traditionally split in its political leanings.
Among Chinese Malaysian voters, the declining trend in support for BN is expected to continue, says former Kuala Sepetang assemblyperson See Tean Seng from Gerakan. Kuala Sepetang is one of the three state assembly seats in Bukit Gantang and has the highest percentage of Chinese Malaysian voters.
The seat was won by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in the 2008 general election by more than 500 votes. See expects the “tsunami feelings” of 2008 to carry over into this by-election. “We have an uphill battle with the Chinese [Malaysian] vote,” says the one-term assemblyperson who won the seat in 2004.
The other two state seats in Bukit Gantang are the Malay-dominant seats of Changkat Jering and Trong. Trong is the only seat held by BN, while Changkat Jering was won by PKR before its assemblyperson Mohd Osman Jailu deserted the party to become an independent in the BN’s 5 Feb takeover of the state government.
If PAS can wrest the Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian vote, which are 27.1% and 9.1% respectively, it is home-free, says Zulkefly.
The big picture
To what extent will ceramah issues influence voters’ choice? The issues played are “big picture” in nature, such as the Perak constitutional crisis and the state of the nation under Umno and Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Few speakers touch on the daily lives of voters and there is infrequent mention of the higher cost of living and the higher price of goods, unlike in January’s Kuala Terengganu by-election. A sign perhaps that the politics of development promises no longer have as much currency with voters as it did before?
At a DAP ceramah at Taman Molek on 31 March, Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong stumped for PAS by tapping the well-spring of hope for justice and equality.
“Last time, Chinese [Malaysians] were scared when they see the PAS flag but not anymore. This by-election is a fight to uphold justice. In fact, it is not just a by-election, it is a mini-general election. It is a chance for the people to reject Najib and BN,” Liew said referring to the two other simultaneous by-elections in Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai, and the new prime minister.
Other speakers get on a roll talking about corruption in Umno, accusing the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission of cover-ups, and of course, murdered Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu.
At the PAS Trong headquarters on the night of 1 April, party vice-president Datuk Husam Musa brings up Altantuya’s murder in dramatic fashion.
“Why can’t we talk about her? If what we say is untrue, then bring us to court. If Najib was really not involved, he should be suing all the newspapers from Jakarta to France which reported on the case,” Husam said in reference to a police ban on speaking about the Mongolian woman and other cases which were pending in court.
The ban did not stop Perak assembly speaker V Sivakumar from recounting the chronology of BN’s takeover of the state and PR’s attempts to counter-strike with law suits.
“Everything we did, we did according to the state constitution, the standing orders and the Federal Constitution. BN knows this, but they have nothing to fight back with, so they pick on the word ‘derhaka’,” said Sivakumar at the same ceramah as Husam.
Naturally, these two issues are raised to tie-in with the question of Najib’s suitability to be PM. In this way, the by-election is being cast by the opposition as a referendum on Najib’s leadership.
BN after Nizar’s head
BN has so far argued weakly on this point. Other than denials and insistence that the by-election is merely that, the BN has not been any more creative. It has stuck to the prepared script that Nizar is a traitor for disagreeing with Sultan Azlan Shah over the dissolution of the state assembly and his sacking as menteri besar.
Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin asked a ceramah audience of a few hundred on 1 April to “behead” Nizar, in a manner of speaking, by denying him the votes on polling day. Beheading was the traditional punishment for the Sultan’s traitors.
At other BN ceramahs, the same script is repeated with embellishments that conflate race and religion into the constitutional crisis.
“If we vote for Nizar, we are voting to challenge the sultan and we are voting to be friends with Karpal Singh who has insulted the sultan,” said recently elected Umno Youth executive council member Lokman Adam at a ceramah in Taman Kaya on 29 March.
“Umno has had its problems with the royalty but in the end we always accept their decision. Not like Nizar, who by challenging (BN Menteri Besar Datuk Dr) Zambry (Abdul Kadir) in court is actually challenging the sultan,” said former PKR Youth chief Ezam Mohd Nor, who has rejoined Umno, at the same ceramah.
Impact on voters
Such rhetoric is likely to have the most impact among the older group of voters. Political analyst Ong Kian Ming calculates that voters aged 55 and above form about 31.4% of the total electorate, and of this, 30% are elderly Malay Malaysian voters.
PAS is willing to “let go” this group. “We are prepared to lose Saluran 1 and 2, you can’t change their way of thinking,” said Asmuni, referring to the polling stream for older voters. PAS is instead banking on voters below age 55 and especially the non-Malay Malaysian community.
Ong estimates that even if Malay Malaysian support for PAS at its current leve of 45% and with non-Malay Malaysian support at a conservative estimate of 20%, the opposition would still win. This is because of the seat’s history where BN has largely won on the back of non-Malay Malaysian votes, since the Malay Malaysian vote was consistently split.
He predicts a majority for PAS by as much as 5,000, as of mid-way during the campaign period. Last year’s majority for PAS in the general election was 1,566 votes.
Things are expected to heat up this weekend before polling on 7 April, as both BN and PR shift into high gear for the final sprint towards the finish line. PAS is expected to bring in its revered spiritual adviser Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, and BN the former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Everyone is waiting to see which way the tide will turn.