(May 6): For over the last five decades since 1965, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) has been demonized by the Umno-led Barisan Nasional as a Chinese chauvinist party who is out to topple a democratically-elected Malay government.
The propaganda against the DAP was so strong and effective that many Malays associate the party with nasty things including communism, and anti-monarchy and anti-Malay sentiments. Hence, it is very hard for one to find a Malay who would say they support DAP’s struggle.
So when Sheikh Omar Ali, 32, a former Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) youth member announced that he joined DAP in 2015, a lot of observers took notice. Not only is he a Malay, but one whose political background was steeped in Islamism.
So what prompted Sheikh Omar to make such a drastic change in his political outlook?
“The polemics between the conservative faction and the professionals within PAS at that point in time made me rethink my political outlook. I wanted to explore new ideas and I saw that DAP is a party which gives room for youths to develop,” said Sheikh Omar at Pakatan Harapan’s command centre in Paloh.
Sheikh Omar started his political career during his days as a student at the University of Malaya. He was involved with Gerakan Mahasiswa Islam Se-Malaysia (GAMIS), a PAS-leaning student society, and Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia.
After graduating in 2008, he went on to become a special assistant to Batu MP Tian Chua for about six months before accepting a contract position at the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based industry for two years.
After his contract as a diplomatic attache at the Ministry was not renewed in 2010, Sheikh Omar joined the then Pakatan Rakyat central secretariat as a PAS Youth member. There, he built close relationships with Opposition personalities such as Liew Chin Tong, Teresa Kok, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad and Saifuddin Nasution.
Among the Opposition personalities that he got to work with was Liew who made the most lasting impression on him, said Sheikh Omar. When DAP placed Liew in Kluang in the 13th General Election, Sheikh Umar, who hailed from the town, joined in to help him campaign there.
After Liew won the Kluang Parliamentary seat, Sheikh Omar continued to be his special officer there. And when the Pakatan Rakyat crisis erupted in 2013 with PAS leaving the coalition, he decided to join DAP.
“I got to know more about DAP through Liew, and what I saw was that DAP is a party that gives room for youths to develop and they talk about good policies and ideas, far from the kind of talk in certain parties which only touch on religious and racial issues.
“And it was proven that the people support the kind of politics that DAP has been championing, when out of the 14 state seats that it contested in 2013, they won 13, and almost all of those seats were won by young candidates,” he said.
For him, joining the DAP was not about becoming a candidate, but it was because the party allows youths to get actively involved in discussions on policies and ideas, and not on the narrow topics of religion and race.
The upcoming 14th General Election (GE14) will see the DAP fielding the highest number of Malay candidates since the party’s inception in 1966.
Besides Sheikh Omar, Young Syefura Othman will be contesting in the State seat of Ketari in Pahang alongside Jamaliah Jamaluddin (Bandar Utama Parliament seat), Abdul Aziz Bari (Tebing Tinggi State seat) and Edry Faizal Yusof (Dusun Tua State seat).
Mentakab incumbent Tengku Zulpuri Shah Raja Puji will be contesting in Raub, a Parliament seat which was won by Ariff Sabri Abdul Aziz in 2013; the latter was dropped due to ill health. Zairil Khir Johari will be contesting in Tanjung Bungah State seat, while Syerleena Abdul Rashid is fielded in the Seri Delima State seat.
Abu Bakar Lebai Sudin, a DAP veteran, will be contesting in Pulau Manis, one of the State seats in Pekan, a Parliament seat which has been held by caretaker Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak since 1978.
Melaka DAP deputy chairman Norhizam Hassan Baktee will contest in the Pengkalan Batu State seat.
“With Liew contesting in Ayer Hitam and I in Paloh, we can see that DAP is slowly but surely contesting in areas where Chinese voters do not form a majority, and shows that it is truly a party for all races,” said Sheikh Omar.
Paloh turns Malay majority; can Sheikh Omar make a different?
In GE13, the Paloh State constituency had a Chinese majority, with 44% of the total voters, while Malay voters made up 37%. Indian voters made up a sizable 17% of the 18,222 voters in the constituency back then.
However, following the redelineation exercise recently, Paloh has turned into a Malay-majority seat, with voters from the community making up 47% of the electoral roll of 21,399 individuals. Chinese voters were diluted to 37% while Indians made up 15%.
The electoral demography was changed after Felda Kahang Barat, which was under the Kahang State seat of the Sembrong Parliament seat, was moved into Paloh. This has complicated DAP’s campaign strategy in Paloh, said Sheikh Omar.
“Even when we went there and conducted ceramahs and we talked about our vision for Paloh, the voters there felt disconnected, because they did not share the same sentiments with the rest of the people in Paloh, and were more related to those in Kahang,” said Sheikh Omar.
“Now when we go there for campaigning, it has to be with a totally different approach, with totally different messages comapared with the rest of Paloh,” he added.
In GE13, with Chinese voters making up 44% of the total voters in Paloh, BN candidate Teoh Yap Kun won the seat with a razor-thin majority of just 103 votes, defeating Shanker Rengganathan from DAP.
Thus, it shows that this time round, with the Malays making up the majority of the electoral roll in Paloh, the ground was not paved smoothly for Sheikh Omar to walk on. He has to work much harder than the former candidate from DAP to win Paloh.
“When I introduced myself as the potential candidate for PH in Paloh, before the unveiling of the common logo, many of the Malays were receptive when they saw a fellow Malay contesting against BN here.
“However, when they saw that my handbills came with DAP rocket symbols, they said that I was in the wrong party,” said Sheikh Omar. However, now that the Opposition coalition has decided to use Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s symbol, the reception among the Malays is better, he said.
Malay voters are known for their reserved attitude and holding their cards close to their chest. They will only make their choice known during polling day, and their decision could also be swayed at the last minute, said political observers.
That is the case for Malay voters in Paloh as well, said Sheikh Omar. Whenever PH organized campaign ceramahs and programmes in Malay-majority areas in Paloh, if 50 seats were provided, only 20 seats were filled, he said.
“Most of them will be standing outside the ceramah site, sitting on their motorcycles, or standing in the shade under trees. They do not want to be seen at an opposition programme, because they live in a small, close-knit society.
“They do not want to be labelled as pro-Opposition by their neighbors and relatives. They live in small settlements, they will be seeing the same faces everyday, unlike in big towns and cities, where people do not necessarily bump into familiar faces every day,” said Sheikh Omar.
However, he said he is not overly worried about that, because the same was observed when Chinese voters decided to make a change in 2008. The number of people who did not want to reveal who they were going to vote for was a high 30% to 40% among the Chinese then.
It was only after the major cities and urban areas fell into the Opposition’s hands after election day, denying BN its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time in history, that Chinese voters started to show their political support openly, said Sheikh Umar.
PH is hoping for the silent grouses against BN among Malay voters to be converted into votes for the Opposition on May 9 at the polling boxes. Will a ‘Malay tsunami’ happen this time round and sweep the remaining 'blue seats' away from the Dewan Rakyat?