Monday, January 19, 2009

The six takeaways from Kuala Terengganu


Monday, 19 January 2009 11:34

Just so nobody comes away from Kuala Trengganu, here are some takeaways (or bungkus or ta-pou, if you prefer).

1) UNITY

Sabotage. Infighting. Politicking. Call it anything you want but as the outcome in Kuala Terengganu amply shows, money is no match for unity. Pas named their candidate for the contest 10 days after Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh was introduced as Umno’s man for the parliamentary seat.

The reason: Pas leaders could not reach a consensus on either Dr Syed Azman Syed Nawawi or Datuk Mustafa Ali. They opted for a compromise candidate, Abdul Wahid Endut.

At the same time, there was speculation that the cool ties between Pas president Abdul Hadi Awang and PKR boss Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would hurt Pakatan Rakyat’s campaign.

Guess what? It did not. Pas and its allies worked very well on the ground. Some Pas officials believed that Mohamed Sabu or Mustafa Ali would have made better candidates but they held their tongues for the common cause.

In contrast, reporters who flooded KT two weeks ago have been inundated with stories of how supporters of the late Datuk Razali Ismail were against Wan Ahmad Farid for presumably blocking the late MP’s rise in divisional politics.

Sandwiched in between were anecdotes of how supporters of former Terengganu Mentri Besar Idris Jusoh would abstain from voting to send a signal to Datuk Ahmad Said, the man who replaced him under acrimonious circumstances.

Umno/BN was hoping for a voter turnout of at least 85 per cent. They only managed under 80 per cent, lower than the 83 per cent who turned out in March 2008.

Pas officials believe that infighting in Umno helped deliver some Malay votes to their candidate. Or, at least, it persuaded some of them to stay at home on polling day.

2) A BELLWETHER

True, the loss of one Parliamentary seat does not alter the power balance in Malaysia. Barisan Nasional still holds a comfortable majority in Parliament. But don’t be duped by the move to downplay the significance of the KT defeat. BN wanted to win, and they wanted a win very badly.

Several weeks ago, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak met the editors of several newspapers and he made it clear that if BN lost the KT seat, it could be a harbinger of worse to come.

He speculated that the momentum could swing to Pakatan Rakyat and have an impact on the state elections in Sarawak. And if Pakatan Rakyat performed beyond expectations in Sarawak, it could energise the opposition alliance even more and put the Barisan Nasional on the back foot going into the next general elections, which has to be held by 2013.

Najib appreciated that a loss in KT could set off a domino effect for the rest of the country. Of course, this scenario depends on a bunch of assumptions, most notably that Pakatan Rakyat has a game plan to convince voters that it is not only a valuable Opposition but a better option to entrust the governing of Malaysia to.

3) WANTED: LEADERS WHO INSPIRE

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi won the 2004 election with an overwhelming mandate because he offered Malaysians hope. He promised to tackle corruption, revive the country’s institutions, put a stronger accent on democratic rights, improve the public delivery system, allow Parliament to have a bigger say and wipe out the excesses of the Mahathir era.

He stole the Opposition’s platform. He would have been soundly punished if he had kept to the policies of his predecessor or tried to adopt the style of Dr Mahathir.

The public, especially the younger voters, had had enough of the old regime. They would not accept the same old policies or ideas being repackaged.

Abdullah knew that but he could not deliver on his promises. When he sought another mandate in 2008, he sounded old, tired and like Dr Mahathir in 1999.

He was forced to trot out BN’s record in bringing development to the country. He could not possibly talk about change again because he had performed miserably on that score in his first term.

In the eyes of many of the voters, especially the first-time voters, he had ceased to inspire or offer hope. He was just another BN leader struggling to connect with the aspirations of a better educated generation of Malaysians.

If there were leaders who were speaking the language of change and reform, it was Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his ilk. The Pakatan Rakyat wrested control of the change platform which they surrendered to Abdullah in 2004.

The by-election campaign just past showed that the BN are still trapped in a bubble.
Najib sounded old when he promised to bring development to the KT constituency.

Abdullah sounded old when he assured the voters of KT that the BN would not forsake them even though they rejected Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh.

The voters of Malaysia want to be inspired. They want to believe in their leaders. They want to be led by men and women of ideas, integrity and those who inspire hope. Same old, same old will not cut it. That was the message in 1999, 2004 and 2008.

4) A REFERENDUM?

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is spot on. The KT by-election was more than just a referendum on Najib or other leaders in Umno/BN. It was just another indication that perhaps the old power-sharing model of the BN is not the powerful marketing tool it once was.

Reporters who covered the by-election could not help but notice the stark contrast in campaigning approaches. Pakatan Rakyat politicians went around together, as one team. In contrast, BN political parties seemed to operate in silos. In predominantly Chinese areas, MCA officials were in charge. In Malay areas, the Umno officials preferred to be left alone. To woo the 800 Indian voters, MIC officials were brought in.

It is ironic and sad that the coalition that coined the phrase Bangsa Malaysia and always offers it credentials as the champions of multiculturalism in the country, still persists in pigeonholing Malaysia and Malaysians.

How could it be that a loose coalition of diverse political partners – cobbled together a year ago – seemed keener to look beyond race than the coalition who watched Malaysia grow all these years.

The BN structure and philosophy needs a major shake-up and next month’s convention could be a good starting point.

5) NAJIB RAZAK

He is unshakeable in Umno, truly the master of the party’s universe. But the son of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister has some way to go before earning the respect and affection of those outside the party.

The Deputy Prime Minister had it relatively easy in KT, he was not hounded by allegations of the Altantuya case or defence contracts the way he was in Ijok and Permatang Pauh.

The main reason: Pas officials are generally less keen on making character assassination the main plank of an election campaign, preferring instead to paint Umno/BN as cruel and corrupt.

Sure, there were shouts of Altantuya at some political rallies but it was not like the situation in Permatang Pauh where the guns of attack were trained on him. Even in this more charitable environment, Najib had difficulty connecting with the voters.

The defeat in KT will have no impact on his position in Umno but party members only form less than a third of all voters in Malaysia.

6) HUDUD

Did the Chinese stay with BN because they were spooked by all this talk about hudud? This question will be answered in the days ahead. Did more Malays vote for Pas because they were comforted by Pas’s continued loyalty to Islamic criminal laws? Hard to say.

But what is clear is that Pakatan Rakyat cannot continue with its band-aid approach. It must have a common platform and stand on major issues in the country. Only then will the voters across Malaysia view it as a truly viable alternative, many months down the road when the political temperature will drop.

For now, the coalition is still running on the adrenaline of March 8. The KT victory will keep the oxygen levels high but as sure as there is day and night, Malaysians will tire of the public spat between Pas and DAP over hudud, Constitutional issues and the Malaysian Economic Agenda.

The KT victory has bought Pakatan Rakyat some more time. Nothing more. ---The Malaysian Insider

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