Sunday 19 May 2024
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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 6, 2024 - May 12, 2024

THE prize in the Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB) by-election is just a single Selangor state assembly seat, but the contest here has drawn much attention as the Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led unity government strives to retain its support in the state that was once known as a PH stronghold. Perikatan Nasional (PN) made significant inroads in Selangor during the state polls last August by slashing PH’s seats in the state down to 32 from 51 (including six from Bersatu) in 2018, having secured 22 seats for itself. Barisan Nasional (BN) won two seats, giving the unity government 34 seats in the state — until this by-election.

The voting trend that will emerge on May 11 polling day in this semi-urban seat will serve as an indicator of public opinion on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s administration that has been in power just a little over 16 months since December 2022. It will also test once again the strength of the unity government after some component parties had recently threatened to boycott the by-election.

This multiethnic seat, comprising 47% Malay, 30% Chinese and 18% Indian voters, has historically been held by what are seen as “Chinese-led” parties — with PH’s Democratic Action Party (DAP) holding the seat for three consecutive terms since 2013 under the late Lee Kee Hiong, and before that by BN’s Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).

Top guns from PH and BN, including Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Amirudin Shari (second from left), Ahmad Zahid (third from left) and DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke (fourth of left) in a show of solidarity for the unity government on nomination day (Photo by Zahid Izzani/The Edge)

But after Lee’s thin 4,119 margin in her last bout against Teoh Kien Hong, a candidate from PN’s Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan) in the 2023 state polls, it is clear that KKB will be a close fight.

“As Anwar’s [unity government] administration was not elected to office nationally, a loss in KKB by the strongest electoral performer in the unity government, DAP, will reinforce perceptions that the government does not have popular support even in its own home ground,” says political analyst Dr Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia.

Unlike the previous 2023 contest, this by-election will see a clash between candidates of different ethnicities. PN has fielded Hulu Selangor Bersatu acting division chief Khairul Azhari Saut as its candidate, while the unity government picked DAP’s Pang Sock Tao, the 31-year-old press secretary of Housing and Local Government Minister Nga Kor Ming. Parti Rakyat Malaysia’s Hafizah Zainudin and independent Nyau Ke Xin are joining them to round up a four-cornered fight.

“I think both sides aim to shore up their conventional support bases, with PH nominating a Chinese candidate and PN nominating a Malay candidate,” says Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA).

Oh tells The Edge that it will be tough for either side to eat into their opponent’s conventional voter bases, saying PN will be “lucky” to get any Chinese votes, while DAP will have to depend almost exclusively on Umno to canvass for Malay votes.

With 18% Indian voters, KKB’s voter base is split evenly between Malays and non-Malays, at 47% and 48%, respectively. While Indian voters have largely favoured PH in the recent past, turnout from the group has tended to be low, with barely half coming out to vote in 2023.

PN chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (third from left), former minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu (fourth from left, Bersatu secretary-general Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin (fifth from left) and Azmin (right) lead their candidate on nomination day (Photo by Zahid Izzani/The Edge)

Impact of the ‘socks’ saga

Recent events, in particular the contentious KK Mart “Allah socks” saga, have stirred unease among many PH supporters, which some believe will affect the incumbent’s advantage. The manner in which the government handled the KK Mart case has left both the Malay and non-Malay communities dissatisfied.

A 22-year-old former KK Mart clerk in Indian-dominant Kampung Baharu Rasa, who wished to only be known as John, is upset with the government’s slow response to the issue when it first surfaced.

“Why did the Agong respond faster than the government?” he asks, referring to how the King, Sultan Ibrahim, reacted to the incident and helped to calm the controversy, while showing a video on TikTok of a Chinese man berating a member of the PH machinery in KKB on the unity government’s perceived inadequacies.

“A lot of my friends used to work at KK Mart and other convenience stores, but most of us quit because we were worried that the work would become dangerous,” says John.

The incident, which dominated national headlines recently, revolved around socks bearing the word “Allah” being sold at a KK Mart in Bandar Sunway. The issue came to light after pictures of the socks went viral on social media in March, igniting outrage among the Malay communities, while the King expressed his displeasure about the incident and called for stern action against those responsible.

The controversy was stoked further by Umno youth chief Dr Muhamad Akmal Saleh, who persistently called for a boycott of the convenience store chain. The scandal reached fever pitch when makeshift firebombs were hurled at several KK Marts around the country, even though five people —KK Marts’ founders, and the suppliers of the socks — had been charged with wounding religious feelings in the issue.

The controversy, which drew widespread debate online, also resulted in two people being hunted down by vigilantes and forced to make admissions on video of insulting Islam. The two were later charged and sentenced to jail as well as fined for the offence. No action, however, was taken against the vigilantes and inciters, leading to accusations from civil rights groups of selective law enforcement.

As Anwar and his cabinet ministers tried to calm the situation by calling on the public not to take matters into their own hands, the matter only subsided after the King met with Umno and DAP leaders, including Muhamad Akmal. He advised political leaders in the country not to engage in extreme rhetoric when discussing religious and racial matters.

Cracks in unity government ahead of the polls

In the run-up to the polls, DAP’s long-time-rival-turned-coalition-partner MCA decided to sit out the KKB polls and not take part in the unity government’s campaigning there.

Just last week, MCA youth chief Ling Tian Soon shared an old video of the DAP candidate Pang bashing BN, as he reiterated MCA’s position not to campaign for her.

In response, DAP national publicity secretary Teo Nie Ching slammed MCA leaders for bringing up the video that was taken in 2022, before the 15th general election that resulted in PH’s tie-up with BN.

There were rumours that MIC would boycott the by-election, although that was later quelled when Anwar said MIC would extend its support to the DAP candidate, adding that this was confirmed by MIC president Tan Sri SA Vigneswaran. In the midst of this, former DAP stalwart Dr P Ramasamy has called on Indian voters to not vote for PH, citing dissatisfaction with the unity government’s treatment of the Indian community.

PH, meanwhile, insists that collaboration within the unity government remains firm. “PH respects MCA’s decision to abstain from participating in this KKB by-election campaign,” PH’s election director and Selangor DAP secretary Ng Sze Han tells The Edge, adding that the unity block remains committed to collaborating with parties in BN such as Umno and MIC to ensure a united strategy for the KKB by-election. In the meantime, Deputy Prime Minister and BN chairman Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has said he retains hope for MCA’s help to canvass votes for the chosen candidate.

Ng says the unity block remains committed to collaborating with parties in BN such as Umno and MIC

PN says KKB polls a chance for voters to send their message to Putrajaya

Selangor PN chief Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali says the KKB by-election is a “referendum” of sorts on the performance of the unity government.

“Of course, even if we win in KKB, we can’t change the state government, what more the federal government. But, because of the sentiment on the ground, the many issues — not just in politics but also in terms of the economy, the inflation and cost of living — it is a referendum on the government,” he tells The Edge at PN’s central operations room in Bandar Utama Batang Kali — a Malay-dominant polling district in KKB.

“It (the by-election) is a platform where every single voter can exercise their right to send a message to the top leadership, not only in Putrajaya, but also in Selangor.”

Azmin says the bulk of voters in KKB are under the B40 category and require policies that will help them recover from the pandemic, as many are still struggling. These people, he claims, are dissatisfied with the government because “they are not seeing any positive policies that can support them”.

Shah, a 40-year-old coconut vendor in Bandar Utama Batang Kali, says the Hulu Selangor Municipal Council has for years attempted to drive stalls off the roadsides of the small town. “We have applied for permits but they have never been approved,” he says, alleging that the late state assembly member for KKB had not helped small business owners to resolve this long-standing issue.

Azmin says dissatisfaction over the unity government’s “broken promises” is palpable on the ground in KKB, and sees voters — even those from the Chinese and Indian communities — potentially shifting support to PN. “There are many issues on the ground that are unresolved, but the real challenge is to get people to come out to vote. Of course, the sentiment is there and the dissatisfaction is real, but whether that will convert into votes … that is something we are working hard on,” he says.

PH’s Ng says the coalition is dedicated to addressing the needs and concerns of every community, with a comprehensive focus on not just urban areas but also rural areas where development and attention are critically required. “We endeavour to engage with diverse segments of society, ensuring that our policies and initiatives are comprehensive and yield benefits across the board. This inclusive approach is designed to foster equitable growth and enhance communal well-being throughout the region.”

Indian votes the deciding factor?

With the share of Malay and non-Malay voters split equally here, turnout is key in deciding who will emerge victorious, analysts say.

Voter turnout in last year’s state polls was already low at 68.3%, with a drop in the turnout of Malay and Indian voters, and more so in poorer areas, according to University of Nottingham’s Welsh.

Indians had the lowest estimated turnout of only 53% in last year’s polls, which Welsh says indicated their dissatisfaction with Anwar administration’s treatment of the community. “Malay turnout dropped as well, by an estimated 9%, as there was dissatisfaction with the options [candidates],” she says.

This time around, PN has opted for a Malay candidate to canvass support from Malay voters. In the Malay-dominant polling districts of Ampang Pechah, Bandar Utama Batang Kali, Kampung Air Jernih and Kerling, voter turnouts ranged from 60% to 69% in 2023, suggesting more room for Malay votes to potentially sway the result in PN’s favour if turnout increases.

Assuming that PH manages to retain its Chinese support while PN garners more votes from Malay voters, the group to watch will be Indian voters. “As PH and PN are likely to corner most if not all of the Chinese and Malay votes respectively, Indian votes, amounting to nearly 20% of the total, could decide the outcome of this election,” says Oh.

Prof Dr Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmood of Taylor’s University, however, says an increased turnout of Malay and Chinese voters would diminish the significance of this notion, while Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) says a split in Indian votes may be possible, but equates it to “small murukku votes, not big banana leaf meals”.

To Welsh, there’s no one ethnic community that is more important than others in shaping the outcome of the by-election.

For PN to win, Welsh says it will need either a huge support among Malays — which she thinks will be difficult as she thinks that has likely reached its peak in the 2023 state elections — or shifts in the voting pattern of other ethnic communities away from PH.

But political fatigue may keep non-Malay voters away from this by-election, says Taylor’s Nik Ahmad. “They may also abstain on the assumption that other non-Malay voters will still support PH. This is a concern that PH needs to address,” he says.

It may also be difficult for PH to make inroads among Malay voters, says UKM’s Shamsul, who opines that grassroots support for Umno may not be strong enough to convince enough Malays to vote for a DAP/PH candidate although with several more days to go before polling on May 11 there is still time to gain ground.


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