RUN-UP TO GE14: Ayer Hitam — Suicide mission for Liew, or rout for MCA?

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on March 27, 2018.

Dr Mahathir (first from right), PPBM president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (first from left), DAP national chairman Tan Kok Wai (second from left), and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng (third from left) showing their support during Pakatan’s announcement of Liew’s candidacy to contest the Ayer Hitam parliamentary seat in the upcoming GE14 in Ayer Hitam on March 18. Photo by Kamarul Azhar

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KUALA LUMPUR: The small town of Ayer Hitam, located about halfway between Johor Baru and Melaka, is like many other small towns in Peninsular Malaysia: the people are laid back, the environment serene, with only one trunk road connecting it with the bigger towns of Kluang and Batu Pahat.

While it is located right next to the North-South Expressway, people generally do not pay much attention to Ayer Hitam. Weary travellers would sometime make a quick stop to check out the ceramic pottery and porcelain crafts the town is famous for.

That feeling of serenity has now left the town.

On March 18, some 2,000 people turned up at a rally there, as the Pakatan Harapan coalition announced the candidacy of DAP political education director Liew Chin Tong to face the incumbent Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong, who is MCA deputy president.

Judging from the turnout, which was made up of mostly middle-aged Chinese, MCA is in for a tough fight against DAP. What’s more, the candidate from the opposition pact is one who is dubbed “the giant slayer”.

In the 12th general election (GE12) held in March 2008, Liew, then a political newbie, stood in Bukit Bendera, Penang, against Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye, the then Gerakan secretary-general and current vice president, and won with a thumping majority of 16,112 votes.

Then in GE13 held in May 2013, he moved to Kluang, Johor, to contest against the incumbent Datuk Dr Hou Kok Chung, who is MCA vice president, and won with a majority of 7,359 votes.

Now Liew is eyeing the Ayer Hitam constituency, which Wee has held for three terms. Can he beat Wee, who is well liked by the people of Ayer Hitam, and will his performance reflect the prospects for Pakatan to win GE14?

Or is it a suicide mission for the two-term parliamentarian?

“I think we have seen massive swings in the elections. When I went to contest in Bukit Bendera in 2008, everyone said it was a suicide mission. I went on to contest in a seat where Lim Kit Siang lost in 1999, and in 2004 DAP lost by a majority of 10,000.

“But eventually I won with a majority of 16,000. You wouldn’t know. In an election, anything can happen. It is not a suicide mission in the sense that I think we are just providing a platform for people who want change,” said Liew in an interview with The Edge Financial Daily.


Wee is getting himself prepared

For Wee, this election will be a do-or-die battle for MCA. After GE13, MCA is left with only seven parliamentary seats, and Ayer Hitam is considered one of the strongholds of the party.

Wee first contested for the Ayer Hitam seat in GE11 in 2004, and won with a majority of 15,763 votes against a candidate from PAS. He went on to win the next two elections as well, but with smaller majorities of 13,909 and 7,310 votes respectively.

Political analysts observe that the declining majority for Wee in Ayer Hitam was due to the shift in Chinese votes, which make up about 38.4% of the voters in the constituency. Some 57.6% of voters in Ayer Hitam are Malays, mostly in the Semarang state seat.

Despite the declining majority over the past two elections, Wee is unperturbed.

“To me, the most important thing is I will face it; whether it is Chin Tong or whoever, to me there is no difference. I never dream of winning this seat without a contest. The next GE will definitely be the toughest contest for the whole party because they (DAP) want to eliminate MCA.

“When people [come] with all these knives and weapons and want to eliminate you, you cannot just say no problem and you go. You have to get yourself prepared as well,” Wee said to The Edge Financial Daily.

From Wee’s point of view, morale has returned to the party, now that the top leadership is seen as more united than it was during GE13. Wee and party president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai are seen as a dynamic duo who have regenerated MCA and saved it from political obscurity.

However, Wee is a lone representative from MCA in Ayer Hitam. The loss of the Yong Peng state seat to DAP in 2013 showed the majority of Chinese voters in Ayer Hitam abandoned the party in the last election. Yong Peng was previously won by MCA in 2008.

The other state seat in Ayer Hitam is Semarang, which was won by the incumbent Datuk Samsolbari Jamali of Umno with a majority of 8,075 votes, which was higher than the majority he won in 2008.

Wee believes that generally, the Chinese voters have started to come back to MCA. However, he does not want to specifically say that this is so for Ayer Hitam, and would rather remind himself that the upcoming election would be his toughest battle.

“I think in terms of acceptance as compared with GE13, the general support has increased. A lot of people tend to forget that GE13 was probably the lowest point — those who wanted to object to BN had already said it back then. At that time that was the peak for the opposition.

“But I’m not saying that is the case in Ayer Hitam. I’m saying in general, especially as [PPBM chairman Tun Dr] Mahathir [Mohamad] has created the emotion among urban voters. He hopes that the urban voters would influence their parents in the kampung,” said Wee about the former prime minister, who is now leading the opposition charge.


Liew sees a do-or-die battle

For Liew, and the rest of the Pakatan leadership, Ayer Hitam would be the litmus test of the people’s support for the opposition in two areas — Malay-majority mixed seats and semi-urban seats.

In GE13, the opposition pact then consisting of DAP, PKR and PAS won 89 out of the 222 seats in Dewan Rakyat. All of the state capitals except Kangar and Johor Baru remained or fell to the opposition parties.

In the Klang Valley, the opposition pact won all of the parliamentary seats except Setiawangsa, Titiwangsa and Putrajaya, while in Penang, the opposition won all but Kepala Batas, Tasek Gelugor and Balik Pulau.

“Pakatan is strong in urban areas, while Umno is very strong in rural areas, but it is the semi-urban areas that are going to be the battleground, and in this battleground, Ayer Hitam features as one focal point,” said Liew.

“If we can win Ayer Hitam, we can win all these Malay-majority mixed seats, and semi-urban seats. And if we can achieve these two, we will win an additional 30 to 40 parliamentary seats in Peninsular Malaysia, thus achieving our 100-seat goal in Peninsular Malaysia,” he said.

However, many observers say that it will be an uphill task for Liew and DAP to convince the Malay voters in Ayer Hitam to back an opposition candidate in the upcoming election. This is because for three terms, Wee has been doing a good job as their representative.

This is something that Liew acknowledges. When asked how he plans to win over the Malay voters, Liew kept his cards close to his chest. He said, to win Ayer Hitam, all of the opposition parties have to work together for the same goal.

“This seat is so difficult that I won’t win by myself. So everyone comes in to help. If you think you want to defeat BN, then you do your part. It is a battle; I’m there just to provide an opportunity for everyone to come in to help.

“I do it by taking this risk, by preparing to lose. We want to win, but I am prepared. If we lose, I don’t mind. I don’t mind because to me this election is a do-or-die battle,” he said.

For the Claytan ceramics and pottery shops, and the Putu Bambu seller by the side of the trunk road in Ayer Hitam, business should be brisk over the next one month or so with throngs of party volunteers and campaigners making the small town their base.