Sunday April 8, 2012
Set for a mighty battle
By Joceline Tan
Election talk is everywhere these days. In Negri Sembilan, the Barisan Nasional is gearing up to regain the two-thirds majority it lost in 2008 whereas Pakatan Rakyat thinks the State is about to swing all the way to its side.
DATUK Ishak Ismail and the Prime Minister were contemporaries in Umno Youth years ago. Yet everyone thinks he is much older although, at 60, he is only two years senior to Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
But Ishak still packs a punch when he speaks. The Seremban Umno warlord is a popular figure on the ceramah circuit because his tongue is like the sword of Zorro – it cuts. The locals know him as “Datuk Sahak”, the local pronunciation of Ishak, but his Indian fans, who love the tough-guy image, call him “Mat Chicago” after an infamous Indian character.
When Najib visited Seremban last month, he indulged in what the Malays call perli or teasing. He said that in Negri Sembilan, he feared only two people – especially when they opened their mouths – one is former Mentri Besar Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad and the other is, of course, Ishak.
“Just now, when Datuk Ishak was speaking, I was holding on to my heart in fear,” he joked.
The Prime Minister should have also held on to his ears because Ishak’s speech was delivered in typical ear-splitting fashion. But his audience rarely complain because most of his speeches are what they call syiok dengar (thrilling stuff). Friendship aside, Najib recognises that Ishak has a real presence in Seremban because even some old ladies at the event were shouting “Hidup Datuk Sahak”.
Ishak has die-hard supporters who respect him because he embodies that original spirit of Umno. He was a three-term assemblyman for Lenggeng but was dropped in 2008 despite being a winnable face. His supporters were so disheartened that it affected the campaign machinery in Seremban.
On March 8 that year, he went to bed at 10pm after learning that the Barisan Nasional had lost its two-thirds majority in Negri Sembilan. Seremban, a Parliamentary area with six State seats, had fallen and five of the six State seats in the area had gone to the opposition.
A lot of water has since passed under the bridge and the talk is that Ishak is about to make a comeback. Najib wants to win the State with a two-thirds majority: he knows there is a clear Malay vote swing back to Umno and Ishak, it is said, can make a difference in some of the crucial seats.
At the same time, the opposition has never been this strong in Negri Sembilan – it won 15 of the 31 State seats and three of the eight Parliamentary seats. DAP’s State chief Anthony Loke has described Negri Sembilan as a “swing State”, meaning it can swing either way in the next election.
“It’s one of the States to capture, we have a fighting chance,” said Loke who is also Rasah MP and Lobak assemblyman.
DAP was the big winner, sweeping 10 of the 11 seats contested. Loke won Lobak with the biggest majority among all the State seats but he is planning to let a new face contest there while he tackles Chennah, the only seat the party failed to win in 2008.
Pakatan Rakyat recently launched its State manifesto in Gemas where the NFCorp farm is located. The coalition is trying to ride on public opinion about the controversial project. They are hoping Negri Sembilan will follow the way of Selangor and are assuring their Malay audience that the State Constitution will be upheld and their Mentri Besar candidate will be a Muslim and a Malay.
Loke had declared Gemas as “the epicentre of the next tsunami”. But while DAP is a strong Chinese brand, there are doubts whether PKR and PAS can defend what they have now, let alone win new seats.
PAS is still trying to find its footing whereas PKR State chief and Teluk Kemang MP Kamarul Baharin Abbas does not seem to have what is needed to take the party to another level in the State.
DAP’s high-profile Malay recruit Aspan Alias raised eyebrows but there was no wow-effect because it was not the first time he was hopping to another party. He left Umno for Semangat 46, then returned to Umno and then he was out of Umno again. The Umno folk were not angry with him at all and the most unkind remark heard was that “he treats Umno like a revolving door”.
The Chinese mood in Negri Sembilan is not very different from that in the Klang Valley except that it is not as irreversible.
One of the mitigating factors is actually Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, a former corporate man who has often come across as too technocratic and not Umno enough. The plus part to this is that he is not a typically Umno face at a time when non-Malays are critical of Umno. The downside is that he has had to struggle to connect with the Umno warlords.
Mohamad is still a bit of an enigma after eight years in the post. In person, he is intelligent, handsome and sophisticated, and also rather charming. He has a rational mind – some say too rational for politics – and an objective way of looking at problems and issues.
He is said to be a competent administrator but the Mentri Besar is also the State Umno chief and is expected to manage the party machinery and grassroots. He has been less than successful on that count and his political antenna for the intricacies of Umno politics is just not there.
Many blame him for the losses in the Umno seats because he replaced popular incumbents with people aligned to him.
In the Paroi State seat for instance, incumbent Puan Sri Bibi Shariza Khalid was replaced and the seat fell to PAS. This was a big blow to Mohamad because Paroi comes under Rembau where Mohamad is the Umno division chief.
Many believed that Bibi, a divorcee, was replaced because she was then romantically involved with Mohamad’s rival and predecessor Isa. Isa, who was widowed in 2005, married Bibi two years ago and is now riding high as Felda chairman.
The defeat of MIC minister Datuk S. Sothinathan in Teluk Kemang was said to be connected to Isa being dropped as a candidate; Teluk Kemang is Isa’s stronghold.
Mohamad tried to sideline the warlord Ishak by replacing him in Lenggeng. But the Lenggeng assemblyman, Mustapha Salim, is now fighting corruption charges in court and has been distracted from his constituency duties.
Mohamad came in with a very corporate style and for a while it worked because he had a powerful patron in then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He is among a handful of Umno politicians who have been able to stay in the good books of the “warring Tuns”, namely Tun Abdullah and Tun Mahathir Mohamad.
He is struggling now that Abdullah is out of the picture. Negri Sembilan has only eight Umno divisions but several of them are headed by very powerful warlords. Apart from Ishak in Seremban and Isa in Teluk Kemang, there is Information, Communications, Culture and Arts Minister Tan Sri Rais Yatim in Jelebu and Works Minister Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor in Tampin.
They are big personalities with big egos and they were not impressed at how Mohamad parachuted into the Mentri Besar’s office in 2004. Furthermore, he did not want to play ball with them and even tried to snatch the ball from some of them.
Mohamad also complicated things at the start by involving his two brothers in the State’s politics. He appointed his elder brother Datuk Azman as the State Umno secretary at a time when people were already unhappy about Pak Lah and his son-in-law. But Mohamad said that chapter has closed and his brothers have been out of the picture since 2009.
This time around, Najib wants to respect the division warlords’ choice of candidates. He came up from the ranks and he knows that a candidate who does not have the support of the division will not have a smooth campaign or the votes.
According to Mohamad, the division chiefs have submitted their lists of candidates directly to the Umno headquarters.
Despite the political tango, Umno is quite confident of regaining the three seats that it lost in Sikamat, Ampangan and Paroi by narrow margins of between 165 and 1,100 votes.
Barisan’s concern is actually MCA which is struggling with factional politics. No one is sure if that can be sorted out but there are now individuals in the MCA wings, relatively new faces who are not exactly tied to one camp or the other and who are focused on sorting out everyday problems faced by people.
One of them is Julia Wong, an energetic and attractive executive who is a councillor with the Seremban Municipal Council.
“We took a lot of things for granted before 2008 and we lost the way. The important thing is to pick up the pieces and work for the future. I can’t deny there are camps in the party but I just want to go on with the service work.
“If you go on the ground in Rahang, not many people know who the YB is but I think they know who Julia Wong is. When they have problems they still turn to MCA and hopefully this can translate into votes,” said Wong who looks after the Rahang State seat.
Not all of the Pakatan wakil rakyat have performed. There have been endless complaints about Seremban MP John Fernandez. A Seremban journalist recalled getting a call from a woman after he wrote an article about Fernandez. The woman told him not to waste time writing about Fernandez. The journalist was stunned when the woman eventually admitted she was a close relative of the MP.
A question often asked about Negri Sembilan is whether Mohamad will survive as Mentri Besar. But Mohamad is not giving up that easily. At a recent function with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, he spoke of what had been achieved under his stewardship and concluded that he deserved to continue as the Mentri Besar.
Mohamad is quite confident his coalition will retain the State with a two-thirds majority in the general election. He said surveys showed that Barisan has up to 80% support among Malays, more than 55% among the Indians but only about 23% among the Chinese.
The Seremban folk, despite their opposition sentiment, gave Najib a high 63% satisfaction rate for his leadership of the nation. Brand Najib seems to cut across party lines.
Nothing can be taken for granted in the new political landscape but few really believe that another tsunami will happen in Negri Sembilan, including those predicting it.
In fact, the worst case scenario for both sides is that, given the race-based sentiments on the ground, the State may end up with a mainly Malay government and a largely Chinese opposition. And that would not be good for race relations in Negri Sembilan.