Sunday May 6, 2012
Battle with extra bile and bite
By JOCELINE TAN
A highly polarised electoral outcome is expected in Perak where the Malay heartland will face off the Chinese-dominated Kinta Valley.
PERAK’S political hotspot the last few years has been the rather innocuous commercial area near the grand State Legislative Assembly building in Ipoh.
The area, known as Taman Istana, is where Wisma DAP Perak, the nerve-point of the State DAP, is located and not far away are the Perak headquarters of PKR and PAS. The famous “democracy tree” is also nearby.
Just a few doors from the DAP office is Ethan & Elton, the tailoring shop that became part of the political news in Perak recently. And above Ethan & Elton is of course the legal firm of Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham, the Perak DAP chairman who, with his younger cousin Nga Kor Ming, are famous as the “powerful cousins” of Perak.
Everything is within walking distance and people did not bat an eyelid when they read about how Ethan & Elton won a contract to supply the official suits for the Ipoh municipal councillors when Pakatan Rakyat was in power, not even when it was revealed that Ethan & Elton’s tender bid was the most expensive.
But there were raised eyebrows when Nga’s wife was named as one of the shareholders of Ethan & Elton. That was a few months ago and Nga has since been cleared by his party’s disciplinary committee of any wrongdoing. Anyway, no one had expected his party to censure him. Nga, who is Taiping MP and Pantai Remis assemblyman, is simply too powerful.
Perak fell to Pakatan not long after DAP moved to Taman Istana and people in Ipoh said it was the good feng shui. But when Perak reverted to Barisan Nasional control, the Ipoh folk said it was bad feng shui.
Good or bad feng shui, Pakatan is gearing up to give Barisan the fight of its life in Perak. The battle for Perak will have extra bile and bite mainly because of the hostile take-over in 2009. For Pakatan, it will be about revenge and taking back what they think is rightfully theirs. Barisan, on the other hand, believes it will be about who is better at serving the people.
According to Ngeh, a Pakatan survey done eight months ago showed that the coalition would win the State back with a two-thirds majority. Despite this, Ngeh cautioned that “it can go either way.” Some think Ngeh, who is Bruas MP and Sitiawan assemblyman, is playing the underdog to win sympathy votes. Others say he can read the writing on the wall.
Perak is dominated by Malay seats – 37 of the 59 seats are Malay-majority and given the Malay vote swing back to Umno, it means the political landscape in Perak today is quite different from that in 2008.
The battleground, said a Perak political insider, will revolve around 16 key seats, mainly Malay-majority seats, won by majorities of less than 1,000 votes. These seats will determine who will form the next Government.
“The Barisan leaders feel quite confident because this time around, the Malays know how critical it is to go to the ballot box,” said the insider.
Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir is also a significant factor in the new landscape. He had to work harder than anyone to justify his Government, he had to face a fierce Opposition and, most of all, he had to fight public perception that he came in through the backdoor.
He bore the brunt of Pakatan’s frustration at being ousted and had to put up with racist name-calling like “hitam metallic haram jada”. The remark came from Nga who could not deny it because it was recorded on video. According to Dr Zambry, Nga has yet to apologise to him.
Perak’s Legislative Assembly is the most combative in the country. The first sitting after Dr Zambry took over resembled a war zone. The most recent one saw a disgruntled Chan Ming Kai, the Simpang Pulai assemblyman, charge up the flight of steps leading to the Speaker’s perch to protest why his questions were not allowed.
Dr Zambry has been working the ground from day one, often spending as much time in the kampung as in his office, so much so that his style has been likened to that of his Johor counterpart Datuk Ghani Othman.
He is not naturally charismatic but he is hardworking, sincere, down-to-earth and has a likeable “Colgate smile”.
He has stepped up the pace and has begun carrying out cycling-cum-inspection tours around the town while his MB’s team has football matches with other teams almost every week.
He introduced the Klinik Dr Zambry which takes place in different constituencies each week. It is very popular but it has also drawn some quirky people: one thought it was a medical clinic and asked for MCs, and a divorcee came in to seek help to find a new husband.
The business community has warmed up to him. Political leaders from both sides attended this year’s Chinese New Year dinner hosted by the Perak Chinese Chamber of Commerce during which the Chamber president congratulated Dr Zambry on his economic management of the State.
Barisan is sure of its place in the Malay heartland. Its problem is Kinta Valley, the area encompassing the parliamentary seats of Ipoh Timur, Ipoh Barat, Tambun, Batu Gajah, Kampar and Gopeng.
The Chinese sentiment in Kinta Valley is further compounded by a sense of resentment over the way the Pakatan Government was booted out. The Chinese, as they say in these parts, enjoy the 1Malaysia dinners, they shout “Satu Malaysia”, and then they vote for Pakatan.
DAP’s sweep in Kinta Valley was also due to infighting in MCA and the political style of former MCA big man in Perak, Datuk Ong Ka Chuan. Ka Chuan and his elder brother Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting were once as powerful as the DAP cousins now are.
MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek does not deny that the party is quite segmented in Perak and he has had to be strategic in trying to consolidate the situation ahead of the general election.
He knows that the Barisan holds the minority share of the Chinese votes in many of the Kinta Valley seats and if the coalition is to have a fighting chance, he has to consolidate the Malay and Indian votes in these seats. He is not taking a single vote for granted. The Indian vote has become quite crucial given that half of the total Indian votes in Perak are located in the Chinese seats.
As a result, the MCA has sponsored a string of programmes for Hindu temples, Indian NGOs and residents, while pamphlets in Tamil have been produced and distributed to the community. Recently, Dr Chua, who is also the party’s Perak chairman, secured funding for a RM700,000 community hall in Buntong where there is a sizeable Indian kampung.
But Dr Chua’s mountain to climb now is identifying candidates who are accepted by the segments in the party as well as by the voters.
He is quite aware of how people joke about Kinta Valley being “Death Valley” for the Barisan but he is still hopeful that the pragmatic and strategic Chinese will appreciate the government of the day.
But if it is any consolation, the infighting in DAP will be even more intense. The cousins are looking to strengthen their hand and there is a lot of talk that they will persist on contesting Parliament and State seats despite the one man-one seat ruling in the party. Kinta Valley is buzzing about how they are trying to sideline the popular Batu Gajah MP Fong Po Kuan or what some describe as “bury her alive”. But Fong has told people she is going to fight them and that she intends to stay put in Batu Gajah.
Another target of theirs is Ipoh Barat MP M. Kulasegaran whom they are still trying to undermine. Recently, a well-known millionaire in Perak agreed to donate RM20,000 to Kulasegaran’s constituency at a fund-raising dinner. On the night of the dinner, the cheque presented was for RM100,000 but to Kulasegaran’s dismay, it was made out to the State DAP. The donation had apparently been “hijacked”.
Malay politicians are also going all out for the Chinese vote. Pasir Salak MP Datuk Tajuddin Rahman has spent time and resources accommodating the requests of the large number of Chinese padi farmers in the area for infrastructure and better prices for their harvests. He attends functions at Chinese temples and sponsors events for Chinese schools.
Some of his Malay constituents have complained that he is bending over backwards for the Chinese but he tells them the Malays have benefited a lot and he has to give his attention to the others.
Pakatan politicians have also intensified their political activities in the past few months. During the last Chap Goh Meh, Pakatan leaders eschewed red for black outfits in memory of what they call the Black Perak incident. Former Speaker V. Sivakumar said cheekily that they were keeping their red outfits for next year when they return to power. He also joked that if he becomes Speaker again, he will bolt down his chair and wear a seat belt, inferring to the way he was removed as the Speaker.
But despite the hype about “Death Valley,” Chinese voters in Perak can tell between the good and the bad in Barisan.
They know what they want and how to go about it. For instance, they voted MCA’s Datuk Kong Cho Ha as Lumut MP but gave the three State seats of Sitiawan to Ngeh, Pangkor to Dr Zambry and Pasir Panjang to Datuk Nizar Jamaluddin of PAS. All four men went on to hold important positions after they won.
Dr Zambry got more than 60% of the Chinese vote in his Pangkor constituency, Defence Minister Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is popular among the Chinese in Bagan Datok and Finance Minister II Datuk Seri Husni Hanadzlah held on comfortably to Tambun.
Husni, for instance, does not believe in playing the racial card and is liked by the pomelo farmers in his area where he has sorted out land title issues and cultivated ties with the Chinese associations.
At gatherings with local groups, he often tells them the world is facing an economic crisis and that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is a safe pair of hands in these troubling times. He talks about the intervening years from now till 2020 as the “Eight Golden Years” and asks them to give Najib’s leadership a chance to take them on this journey.
The Umno side is confident of winning but the concern of people like Husni is that the results of the next general election will find the Malays on one side and Chinese on the other side.
The campaign in Perak will be more intense than anywhere else because it is not only about a fight for power but also about settling old scores.