Thursday, January 15, 2009

‘Do or die’ over dinner

KUALA TERENGGANU, Jan 14 –Two nights ago, a simple beach restaurant overflowed with more than 1,000 Chinese town folk turning up to hear Malaysia’s opposition firebrands speak. They paid RM10 each for dinner, and collectively dropped another RM3,000 into the donation box.

This was the third dinner organised by the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) as it woos voters for opposition candidate Abdul Wahid Endut from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). He is up against Umno’s Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh and an independent in the by-election to be held on Saturday. It was called after Umno MP Razali Ismail died.

It is not just the DAP that is holding dinners. The other opposition partner, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), held one last week, and will be holding another in the next few days. Its leader Anwar Ibrahim is the star attraction. The Barisan Nasional (BN) is doing the same, with dinners for several hundred people at a time hosted by VIPs like Deputy Premier Najib Razak. Dinners have become a nightly staple of the campaign as the battle narrows to a fight for the Chinese vote. The Chinese, who comprise 11 per cent of the 80,229 voters, prefer dinners to rallies in open fields.

Anecdotal evidence and an independent survey suggest that the Chinese vote has swung. Their enthusiastic turnouts at opposition events and donation boxes that fill up fast are the telltale signs. Independent pollster Merdeka Centre’s survey over the last few days shows that the Malay vote is split, with just about 8 per cent undecided. The Chinese, however, are tilting slightly towards the opposition. Just 10 months ago, in the March general election, 65 per cent of the Chinese in Kuala Terengganu voted for BN.

Political analyst Ong Kian Ming’s analysis shows that even a 5 per cent drop in Chinese support, along with an expected lower turnout, will erase the BN’s tight 628-vote majority from that election. Three out of four Chinese said a vote against the BN would send a signal that it has to be fairer to the minorities. More Chinese felt that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, the coalition formed by PAS, DAP and PKR, could take care of their interests better than the BN.

As for the Malays, about 60 per cent thought the BN would serve them better, but they disagreed with the Umno line that Malay power is threatened by the non-Malays. Almost three-quarters said the threat comes from corrupt Malay leaders, according to the survey. These findings, and the fact that the opposition is still able to capitalise on old grouses, suggest that the BN has not progressed since March last year. Indeed, it may have even slipped further.

“Nothing has changed. This is a continuation of the sentiments before the general election,’ said a Malay businessman with close ties to the Umno elite, who had been in Kuala Terengganu for almost a week.

Racial issues and corruption were the two biggest issues in Kuala Terengganu. A few days ago, leaflets were handed out in the Chinese market to remind voters of controversies like the arrest of a Chinese press reporter for reporting an Umno leader’s statement that the Chinese were immigrants. An opposition banner claimed that Umno had become more extreme. The opposition is also harping on the oil royalties that were withheld from the state when PAS won in 1999. BN wrested Terengganu back in 2004, but reinstated the royalties only recently. Umno was also accused of using the billions for lavish projects like the Crystal Mosque and Monsoon Cup yacht race. The government is left on the defensive.

Datuk Seri Najib told Indian voters on Monday that Umno had never supported extremist policies. He said: “Please do not allow two or three incidents that have been blown out of proportion to undo all the years of close cooperation that have existed between us.”

Umno is beginning to fight back, with a banner and leaflets screaming “Pas Kluk Klek” – “flip-flop” in a local dialect. Umno points out that Pas is teaming up with its one-time enemy DAP, putting hudud, or the Islamic penal code, on the back-burner, and relaxing its ban against women in politics. But, the “Kluk Klek” campaign may have come too late to turn the tide.

Observers note that the sentiment is unlikely to change significantly, but much depends on the ability of both sides to get their supporters out to vote. Minister of International Trade and Industry Muhyiddin Yassin said: “Sentiments are important but it’s the numbers that count.” – The Straits Times

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