Politics and Policy: In Semenyih, boredom may ruin PH’s day

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 18, 2019 - February 24, 2019.
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FRESH from a defeat in the Cameron Highlands by-election in January, Pakatan Harapan needs to avoid a repeat outcome in the upcoming Semenyih polls on March 2. Yet, strong signs of voter fatigue in the semi-rural constituency signal that a potential consecutive loss may be possible.

It was a quiet afternoon in Semenyih last Wednesday, when The Edge visited the constituency — apart from a constant stream of construction lorries passing through the town.

There was nothing to show that the town would be facing a by-election in a fortnight.

An endless round of by-elections since the 14th general election on May 9 last year appears to have left its residents in an apathetic mood.

“Six by-elections in nine months! Fatigue is an understatement,” says Prof Dr Bridget Welsh, who teaches political science at John Cabot University, of the general mood of Malaysians.

With much at stake, PH had to choose its candidate with the utmost care. Its candidate is Muhammad Aiman Zainali, 30, whose political pedigree makes him an obvious choice. He is the son-in-law of the late assemblyman Bakhtiar Mohd Nor, whose sudden death from a heart attack triggered this by-election. PH is betting that his youth, local stature and academic credentials as a PhD student in electrical engineering will prove to be a winning combination.

In the opposite corner is the Barisan Nasional candidate, who has the momentum of his coalition’s Cameron Highlands triumph behind him. Zakaria Hanafi, 58, is an administrative officer at the nearby Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He is an Umno branch chairman and social activist.

BN’s low-profile nominee in this round stands in stark contrast with the coalition’s choice in the Cameron Highlands contest. In that bout, BN scored a coup by choosing a senior police officer from the Orang Asli community as its candidate.

PAS, which fielded a candidate in Semenyih for GE14, has declared that it will stand aside in this round and throw its weight behind its ally Umno instead.

The other notable candidate is from Parti Sosialis Malaysia, which also joined the fray in GE14. PSM has picked businessman Nik Aziz Afiq Abdul, 25.

However, whether all this build-up is making any impression on the folk in Semenyih may be in doubt.

Voters who spoke to The Edge about what has changed for them since the last general election were matter-of-fact in their responses.

“It has been more or less the same — not much different,” says local sundry shop owner, Parvathy, 53, comparing how PH and BN have run their administrations. She says she has not noticed any difference to her business after the Goods and Services Tax was replaced with the Sales and Services Tax.

“Prices are still increasing, though maybe not as much as they used to,” she says.

At the Masjid Raja Muda Musa, Ahmad Sain, 62, a retiree, was chatting with his neighbours after prayers.

“I have not seen that much of a difference ... But I understand that these things take time,” he says.

Sain complains that people from nearby towns like Bangi and Kajang flock to the wet markets in Semenyih because things are cheaper here. These days, he says, massive traffic jams are a daily nuisance, especially on the narrow inner roads of the town.

The lower cost of goods is clearly a big attraction, if the RM8 it costs for nasi campur and a drink is an indication.

“The population here is growing, with migrant workers who are working in the factories here. It is getting really crowded in Semenyih. We need better roads and bridges,” says Sain. “But the good thing is that the big crowds coming here are contributing to the local economy.”

Evidently, livelihood issues are a major preoccupation for the folk in Semenyih. However, these concerns are mostly missing from the discourse of the contesting parties.

“Looking at the political trend, I would not be surprised if religious and racial issues will be played up [by Umno and PAS] leading up to the by-election,” senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs Aira Azhari tells The Edge in a phone interview.

“But they should be cautious of using this strategy as it will alienate other people, considering the racial breakdown of the constituency,” she says. Nevertheless, Aira expects that the issue may not be played up as blatantly as it was during the Cameron Highlands by-election. Although it is mainly a Malay-majority seat with 68% Malays, Semenyih has significant Chinese and Indian communities, at 17% and 14% respectively.

“I think even PSM realises the political realities in Malaysia, by fielding a young Malay candidate to appeal to a larger audience,” Aira says. “I doubt PSM will win, but it would be interesting to see how much support they can get in this by-election.”

Aira observes that PSM has started to gain traction, especially among left-leaning young Malaysians, which she says is a natural knee-jerk reaction to the many issues faced during the previous administration. PSM, known to go down to the ground to tackle issues close to people’s hearts, may pose a threat to the PH and BN duopoly. This, she says, will keep both parties in check.

“Of course, this wider distribution of power is good for democracy, so, it will be interesting to see in the bigger picture how this will pan out.”

Welsh believes this by-election may have a deeper knock-on effect. She says the outcome may not significantly tip the power balance at the state or at the national level in the short term. However, she stresses that the main issue will be how it will shape the political narratives of PH and BN, which will affect the cohesion of both political coalitions, as well as impact the ability of the government to perform in the longer term.

“Given the defeat in Cameron Highlands, there will be attention on whether the Umno-PAS racial chauvinist strategy of ‘Malay unity’ can work and whether the PH government can check this approach. The outcome of the election will shape the momentum of the post-GE14 racialised narrative.

“The outcome will also shape how the coalitions work together. A victory for the opposition will further seal an Umno-PAS alliance and create further strains within PH. A victory for PH can strengthen ties within the coalition and create more space for political reform,” she says.

In terms of governance, Welsh sees a defeat for PH contributing to the negative momentum for the government — eroding the people’s confidence and emboldening the opposition.

Welsh also points to the fact that the Semenyih by-election will serve as a test of Bersatu’s popularity, specifically among the Malays. This comes as the party has been impaired by multiple scandals, along with its embrace of tainted Umno members — affecting perceptions of integrity.

“Selangor is a more reform-minded state and Bersatu has been seen to embody many of the ‘old Malaysia’ practices,” she says.

Universiti Utara Malaysia political science lecturer Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Hosni agrees that Bersatu has a lot more at stake in this by-election than Umno — its relevance as a viable Malay party to replace Umno as well as its relevance in the PH coalition.

“It will be interesting to see how the Malays will react in this by-election as it is a Malay-majority seat. Obviously Umno-Pas will play the Malay rights and Islam issues to lure Malays to vote for them. But being in Selangor, the people of Semenyih may have a tendency to vote for PH,” he says, adding that he believes PH has a better chance of winning.

But he cautions that PH should be worried if the voter turnout is low. That could be a sign that voters are beginning to think that there is not much to choose between the new government and the old.


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