THE by-election in Cameron Highlands on Jan 26 will be the fifth after the 14th general election, and the first in a seat that was won by Barisan Nasional then.
Thus, the assumption is that BN stands a better chance. But considering that its margin of victory was a mere 597 votes, it is hardly surprising that most analysts predict a tough fight between BN and Pakatan Harapan, the current ruling coalition.
This is unlike the last four by-elections, which were comfortably retained by PH, in seats it had won with a big majority in GE14.
What makes it harder for PH is the fact that the BN has fielded a strong candidate in the form of Ramli Mohd Nor — a former top police officer and the first Orang Asli parliamentary candidate in BN history.
Some analysts, noting that the majority of the Malay and Orang Asli voters in the constituency had voted for BN in GE14, said Ramli’s selection would help to retain or consolidate support for the coalition from the two communities, who make up 56% of the electorate.
“Our stance is to choose a candidate who understands our plight, and can speak in the same lingo,” says Zamani, 54, a Tok Batin or Orang Asli leader from the same Semai tribe as Ramli.
“We will not give support to candidates who have been parachuted from another constituency just for the sake of filling an empty seat,” Zamani, who only goes by one name, told The Edge, referring to PH candidate M Manogaran, member of parliament for Teluk Intan from 2008 to 2013 before contesting unsuccessfully in Cameron Highlands in GE14.
He says the Orang Asli will throw their support behind Ramli as they are proud of the London-educated former assistant commissioner of the federal commercial crime department.
“We want to elevate our own people to parliament and our voices to be heard.”
“Even though the Orang Asli are not as loud in making demands, our land rights are something we have always been fighting for. We do not see the past Indian candidates helping us out on this issue. Our lands are being taken and it is only rightful that it must be resolved by an Orang Asli candidate,” he says.
Support for Ramli among the Malays is less certain, but Felda settlers in Sungai Koyan, Jelai, who were approached by The Edge, indicated they would support him. They said as a Muslim, he will also fight for the rights of the settlers.
“My vote will go to a candidate who is God-fearing and will fight for Malay rights,” says Kak Ana, 74, a local sundries trader who has voted for BN candidates “since forever”.
Other voters, however, say they are prepared to support anyone willing to look into their problems, including illegal foreign workers, land rights, worsening traffic conditions and agricultural issues.
“This is an opportunity for us to select candidates who will pay attention to local problems,” says Tan Mei Lin, 66, a sundry store owner in Tanah Rata.
“Agricultural issues aside, the worsening traffic situation in Tanah Rata is another problem the locals want the YB to tackle. The one-lane road is too narrow and the condition of the road is not up to par,” she complains.
The road to the highlands from Tapah, Perak, is narrow, with many potholes and uneven surfaces. It is a tough journey for outsiders, as well as the locals.
“My job as a driver is not as easy as people may think. I have escaped death many times and it seems our MP and state assemblyman are not paying attention to it. The locals must make a lot of noise and complain to the Public Works Department to get it repaired,” says Razak Mat Jali, 46, from Ringlet, about 20km from Tanah Rata.
Manogaran tells The Edge that he will look at tackling local issues that have been overlooked by the BN, which rules the state.
He says if PH wins, “our immediate action will be to prepare a memorandum for Orang Asli to claim their rights to customary land”.
“My manifesto is simple. The agricultural and temporary occupation licence (TOL) issues among the farmers are long outstanding and must be quickly resolved to ensure the prosperity of the local people.”
Ramli, however, questions PH’s ability to help the Orang Asli. “What does PH knows about the Orang Asli issues?” He says his background makes him closer to them.
Many farmers have complained about the slow processing of TOL applications in the constituency. From thousands of new applications, only about 10 are processed every month.
The pace is ridiculous, one farmer fumes. “We are going to see how this can be improved so that no farmers are left at a disadvantage.”
Residents have also spoken out against illegal farming, which has plagued the constituency for many years.
“I am sceptical this will change as the local government has been slow to resolve the TOL licence issues,” says Wong, 59, a farmer in Tanah Rata.
While the Malay and Orang Asli voters are perceived to be backing Ramli, many question whether BN is playing its “game of thrones” right by parachuting in a former top cop.
“Umno is making the right choice by fielding Ramli,” says Institut Darul Ehsan deputy chairman Professor Datuk Dr Mohammad Redzuan Othman.
“If you look at Sungai Kandis and Seri Setia (two previous by-elections), our data shows that Umno was able to get at least 80% of its members to come out as opposed to the other parties” on polling day, he notes.
Redzuan says the Orang Asli could be the swing factor. As BN was in power previously, its troops and machinery have been making inroads into Orang Asli settlements way ahead of the election date, he explains.
“Orang Asli have always known BN as their saviour and it is not easy for PH to penetrate their villages.”
Another key factor will be the voter turnout. The Election Commission is expecting a turnout of 70%, slightly lower than the 78.49% recorded in GE14 and 81.31% in 2013.
Redzuan, however, thinks that the 70% projection is unrealistic. A by-election is not going to change the government and the estimated turnout must be realistic, he opines. “As Chinese New Year is close to the polling date, voter turnout is expected to be much less,” he says, adding that if the turnout is at least 50%, it is good enough.
Data compiled by DAP lawmaker Dr Ong Kian Ming shows that the turnout of Malay and Orang Asli voters has been consistent, ranging from 79.9% to 84.1%.
“The Chinese voters will likely fall by a greater degree since more of them are outstation,” Ong says in a statement. “Hence, they are less likely to come back and vote in the by-election.”
Even Tan’s two children, who are registered voters in Tanah Rata, won’t be coming back for the by-election as they will be celebrating the lunar new year overseas with their in-laws.
They have also overlooked the possibility of postal voting. “I am hearing the same thing from my relatives,” she says. “Only I and my husband will come out to vote.”
As for the Malay voters, fewer of them will be affected as many work in Cameron Highlands itself.
Housewife Manisah Tahir, 55, says, “I have never missed voting and I have been telling my family and relatives to come out and vote at this election.”
PH, well aware of this, has been strongly wooing the Malay and Orang Asli voters.
“I agree that BN has a strong presence here. Our strategy is to attract voters in the Jelai area as we are confident the Tanah Rata electorate is with us,” Manogaran says.
Former deputy minister Tan Sri M Kayveas agrees that the key to victory for PH is to ensure maximum voter turnout among its core supporters.
He says a 70% turnout is possible. Support seems to be leaning towards PH although BN is working hard to retain its confidence in a state that has always been its fortress, he says.
Kayveas, who was not selected as a BN candidate in GE14, had initially announced he would stand in the by-election but has since decided to stay out and support PH.