AYER HITAM (Nov 11): The Ayer Hitam Parliamentary seat has been one of the most coveted seats for Pakatan Harapan (PH) since the rise of the coalition (then known as Pakatan Rakyat) in 2008, which resulted in the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) losing its customary 2/3 majority in Dewan Rakyat for the first time in history.
PH came close to unseating BN in Ayer Hitam during the 14th General Election (GE14) with the fielding of Liew Chin Tong, formerly the Member of Parliament (MP) for Kluang.
The Ayer Hitam Parliamentary seat has been held by a representative from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) ever since the constituency was created in 1974. And the current incumbent Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong has been holding the seat since 2004.
Liew’s fight in Ayer Hitam in GE14 was seen as Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) strategy to “finish off” MCA.
However, Wee managed to cling on to the seat with a majority of 303, after receiving a total 17,076 votes over Liew’s 16,773. Wee’s majority fell from 19.32% in the 13th General Election in 2013, to just 0.77% in GE14. Another candidate from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) received 4,975 votes.
For the upcoming 15th General Election (GE15), DAP is fielding a Malay candidate in Ayer Hitam. Sheikh Omar Ali — formerly the State Assemblyman for Paloh before being voted out in the 2022 Johor State election — is PH’s candidate for Ayer Hitam this time round.
Is it a strategy by PH to field a Malay candidate there?
“If it is a strategy, and they (BN) are talking about it, then it should be a good strategy,” said Sheikh Omar when met by The Edge at the DAP service centre in Yong Peng on Nov 9.
On the same day, at a Program Ramah Mesra Barisan Nasional with the people of Ayer Hitam which was attended by Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the caretaker Prime Minister told the crowd — made up of largely BN 'machinery' workers and supporters — not to be “duped” by DAP for having a Malay candidate.
Talking about the reception of the Malays to him in Ayer Hitam, Sheikh Omar noted that the reception has been positive so far, with some voters saying that they finally have a “choice” — between a Malay candidate and a Chinese candidate.
The irony is not lost on Sheikh Omar since he is the vice president of DAP in Johor, a multiracial party that has been fighting for equality of opportunities among the races, and promoting government assistance based on the criteria of needs, rather than race.
Regardless, it would not be a walk in the park for Sheikh Omar, as the Malay community, especially in the rural areas of Johor, is still largely averse to DAP. Plus, the result of the Johor State election — in which PH lost in the Chinese majority seat of Yong Peng to BN — makes the situation even more precarious for the coalition.
In GE14, PH’s Chew Peck Choo won the Yong Peng seat with a majority of 5,089. Yong Peng then had 60% Chinese voters compared with 34% Malay voters. Since the Johor State government is not dissolved for GE15, there is no official data of voters’ demography in Yong Peng for the upcoming general election.
However, in the Johor State election, BN regained the seat with a majority of 2,741 votes, with its candidate Ling Tian Soon receiving 51.9% of the total votes cast.
The other State seat in Ayer Hitam — Semarang — has never been won by any other coalition, with the incumbent Samsolbari Jamali holding the seat since it was created in 2004. In the Johor State election, he received 63.21% of the total votes cast.
Judging from the Johor State election, it looks like an uphill battle for Sheikh Omar and PH to wrestle the seat from Wee and BN. However, for Sheikh Omar, and for many in PH, the State election does not tell the whole picture of the voters’ mood.
Their justification is that voter turnouts in the Johor State election was low — around 55% — compared with the average voter turnout of 82.3% nationwide in GE14.
The issue involving the unity of PH — Parti Keadilan Rakyat used its own logo during the election — was also brought up to justify the dismal performance of the coalition in the State election. The performance of the former Yong Peng Assemblyman Chew was also a factor, as he was not doing well, health-wise.
Therefore, Sheikh Omar is confident of the support from the voters in Ayer Hitam — from both the Malay and Chinese communities — this time round. However, he realises that for him to win the Ayer Hitam seat, he has to do better than Liew, who came so close to unseating BN in 2018.
“Following the Johor State election, BN’s election director Tok Mat Hasan (Datuk Seri Mohamad Hassan) said support from the younger voters for BN has been declining. This was despite them winning big,” said Sheikh Omar.
There are almost 15,000 new voters in Ayer Hitam for GE15, bringing the total to 61,041 voters — an increase of 32.25% compared with the total registered voters in GE14. This 32.3% new voters will be the ones who will determine the outcome of the election.
Ayer Hitam is a mixed seat with a Malay majority (57.7%), followed by Chinese (38%) and Indian (4%).
“DAP has always looked at Ayer Hitam as a marginal seat that can be won. Although almost 58% of the voters in Ayer Hitam are Malays, we don’t just put any candidate to face Wee. I am the third top DAP leader in Johor.
“The party put someone that can deliver Ayer Hitam to PH,” said Sheikh Omar.
Will his race be a factor in Ayer Hitam?
If it is, and when more Malays give their support to the PH and its candidate Sheikh Omar in GE15 due to his race, it would be an irony that the DAP could win because of the rural Malay voters’ preference to vote for a candidate from their own race.