(The Straits Times) TAIPING, April 9 — When campaigning for the Bukit Gantang by-election was in full swing in a rural Chinese fishing village, one enthusiastic PAS supporter was a Chinese man wearing a kopiah, a white skullcap worn by Malays. He was urging passers-by to vote for PAS. That scene perhaps says it all. The Chinese may not adore PAS, which wants Islamic laws to be implemented, but they like Umno even less.
When the Chinese vote for PAS surged at Tuesday's by-election, it signalled an increasing acceptance among the community for the party they once feared because of its religious rhetoric.
“They used to be afraid of PAS, they thought we would maim their limbs, cut their organs, but now they know... PAS is more open than Umno,” said Perak PAS deputy chief Asmuni Awi.
About 75 per cent of Chinese voters in the Malay-majority seat of Bukit Gantang voted for PAS, rejecting Premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak's Umno party. It was a significant increase from the 65 per cent who did the same at the general election last year.
Over at the fishing village of Kuala Sepetang, the only district within Bukit Gantang that is 97 per cent Chinese, some 80 per cent of voters backed PAS's Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin, up from 64 per cent last year. For a long time, Chinese residents in Perak have been wary of PAS's dream of an Islamic state. Fears of the implementation of strict syariah laws were enough to keep them voting for the Umno-led Barisan Nasional. But now, the Chinese view of PAS is clearly changing. “They can identify with the more moderate personalities like Nizar,” said PAS strategist Dzulkefly Ahmad.
Apart from peppering his speeches with Chinese phrases, Nizar — the former mentri besar who was ousted by BN — has also been credited with resolving problems faced by the Chinese, such as those involving land titles. PAS has also appeared to have changed its image of one comprising only clerics and non-professionals.
“PAS used to be seen as purely theological, as a 'parti kampung' or village party. But now, they see it is full of professionals, lawyers, engineers. We have become a threat to BN,” said Asmuni.
Chinese voters, however, still appear to be wary of PAS leaders whom they see as more hardline, such as party president Datuk Hadi Awang and cleric Datuk Harun Taib, who belong to the party's more conservative faction. In an earlier by-election in Kuala Terengganu in January, PAS clinched only 68.4 per cent of the Chinese vote.
What it all means is that non-Malays have become the kingmakers. Strong backing from Chinese and Indian voters helped Nizar trounce his Umno rival Ismail Saffian in Tuesday's by-election.
“The perception is that the non-Malays are not being treated as equals under BN. That's how the opposition benefited,” said Universiti Sains Malaysia's school of social sciences' deputy dean, Dr P. Sivamurugan.