(Aug 2): It was raining heavily on Tuesday night in Sungai Kandis, the township that is at the heart of a by-election this Saturday, the first polls contest since the Pakatan Harapan coalition achieved the near-impossible feat of ending the six-decade-old rule of the mighty Barisan Nasional.
Residents of Jalan Kebun, Shah Alam braved the bad weather to pack the opposing candidates’ election ceramah half a mile apart.
After the devastating loss of power on May 9, Umno, the lynchpin of the BN coalition, has grown increasingly vocal about the defence of Malay rights and the position of Islam. So, this contest for the State Assembly seat presents a precious chance for reviving its tattered image among its support base.
“As a Malay nationalist party, Umno cannot leave out the issue of race and religion. Other than dissolving the party, there is no way to avoid the subject,” said Universiti Utara Malaysia political science lecturer Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Hosni.
Umno’s attack appears to have put Pakatan on the defensive.
At one ceramah on that night, Pakatan de-facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim admitted that the new Government had sometimes been “careless and vulgar”, and expressed surprise at statements by his colleagues.
“But Pakatan will uplift Islam as the federal religion, Bahasa Melayu as the national language as enshrined in the Constitution. There is no compromise...the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the government does not stray [from the Constitution],” he said, appearing at the event with his arm still in a cast after a recent operation.
Such messages are meant to resonate with the electorate in Sg Kandis, 71% of whom are Malays.
Pakatan’s choice of candidate also reflects the coalition’s attempt to neutralise the torrent of criticism on the purported erosion of Malay rights.
A religious school headmaster and an imam at a local mosque, Ustaz Zawawi Ahmad Mughni, 48, of PKR is a graduate from the renowned Al-Azhar University in Egypt.
Come Saturday, Zawawi will have the upper hand, being from the party of the deceased incumbent.
Further, his presence is also well-known among the non-Malays in the community.
Asked how well he knew the PKR candidate, a man of Indian descent in his late 20s, gestured to knee height and said: “I’ve known Ustaz since I was this small.”
The soft-spoken Zawawi has kept his campaign to pledges about continuing the work of his predecessor — the late PKR State Assemblyman Mat Suhaimi Shafiei — addressing local matters such as poor waste management and infrastructure conditions.
“What has hindered progress previously was the overlap between Federal and State roles. I am confident these issues can now be resolved quickly because the Federal government is also under PH,” he told Edge Markets in an interview.
Over at the Umno ceramah, the BN candidate Datuk Lokman Noor Adam and other speakers like Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohammad Hassan went ballistic on issues like the recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) — administered by the independent Chinese schools — and the impact of a proposed revamp of MARA to the Bumiputera agenda.
The voters would know Lokman — an Umno supreme council member — as the president of the pro-Umno NGO Pemantau Malaysia Baru. He is also a staunch supporter of former Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
In a short interview with The Edge Markets, the outspoken Lokman said his message is in line with Umno’s return to its roots to champion the Malay-Muslim struggle “while finding a balance with the call for moderation”.
“No one will believe that Umno will become more liberal than Pakatan Harapan, because they are willing to recognise Shiites [Islamic sect] and LGBT,” argued Lokman. “I don’t think Umno will accept things that go against Islam.”
Narrowing the gap?
Sungai Kandis is part of Kota Raja Parliament constituency — a PKR stronghold since the landmark 2008 general election. With a large middle class electorate, the voters here are comfortable with the party’s Reformasi battle cry.
Economic activities in the area, located between Shah Alam and Klang, range from manufacturing to freight services and some agricultural businesses. Many residents here find employment in nearby towns in the Klang Valley.
PKR has held the seat (previously Seri Andalas) for three consecutive terms. In the latest contest, its majority was whittled down in a four-cornered fight against BN, PAS and PRM.
On Aug 4, The contest will be three-cornered, between Lokman, Zawawi and independent candidate K Murthy. PAS has abstained from contesting in Sungai Kandis.
With its hardline approach on race and religion, Umno will hope to at least chip away Pakatan’s 12,480-vote majority in the 14th General Election.
However, The strategy may backfire because of timing, said UUM’s Mohd Azizuddin.
“I think BN’s Lokman will be at a disadvantage by pushing for the issues he is using right now. Maybe it could have more impact if they were advocated a year from now.
“It is too early to highlight national issues in a State election this early after the recent GE14,” he told The Edge Markets.
“People still want to give a chance to the new government. They are still a bit flexible. The educated middle class who knows what is going on will vote based on State-related issues,” he said.
But to some extent, BN supporters here who turned their backs against the coalition on May 9 are drawn to the race sentiment.
“I will vote for BN this time. Do you want MARA to be shut down? Do you approve of gay marriage?” said a woman in her 40s, who admitted voting for Pakatan previously to protest against the culture of corruption that has tainted the previous administration.
Umno is also banking on sharing the religion platform with PAS to capture their grassroots support.
PAS supporters represented about 14.9% or 7,573 of some 50,800 voters in the constituency in GE14.
However not all PAS supporters are happy with the warming ties between the party and Umno.
On Wednesday, PAS Kota Raja youth wing openly questioned the party leadership’s stance, reacting to a statement by PAS headquarters reminding the grassroots that its “attitude towards Pakatan remains unchanged from before GE14”.
“PAS support will be divided,” said UUM’s Azizuddin. “Some will abstain from voting, some will heed the leadership’s call and those who know [PKR candidate] Zawawi will vote for Pakatan.”
More than another by-election
In Azizuddin’s view, Pakatan has the upper hand in the by-election as it enters its third term as the Selangor State government. The governance of Selangor has been quite good, he said, and it adds to the campaign points for Zawawi.
Furthermore, social media users are exercising their new-found freedom of speech to remind one another about the extent of corruption in the BN administration.
In Sungai Kandis, Malay-Muslim Pakatan voters who spoke to The Edge Markets were less concerned about matters of race and religion brought up by BN. Even hawkers who were doing business at the BN campaign venues are PH supporters.
But there are other issues looming. Some hardcore Pakatan supporters are unhappy that the new government has not written-off outstanding PTPTN loans, which continue to accrue interest during the period of deferred payment.
They are also questioning the delay in fulfilling the promise to reduce tolls and fuel prices.
With 50 of 56 Selangor State seats secured by PH presently, the result of the by-election will not change the status quo.
Overall, having a good run in office as it approaches the 100-day mark, Pakatan can expect a positive endorsement from the voters in Sg Kandis.
However, if Pakatan’s majority is reduced for whatever reason, it may hold valuable lessons for the new Government on how to balance its drive for reforms with the handling of touchy issues.