Chinese vote may decide KT poll winner

Flags flutter in the breeze along Jalan Sultan Mahmud in Kuala Terengganu as voters are wooed by the contesting parties in the by-election. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Every time opposition MP Teresa Kok campaigns in the Chinese waterfront village in Kuala Terengganu, she is halted every few steps for a photograph.

The DAP MP became a celebrity after being arrested under the Internal Security Act over claims that she had complained about noise from the azan (call to prayer) from a mosque. She denied the allegations.

Voters have obviously not forgotten the controversial arrests of Kok, a Chinese press reporter and blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, who is also a major hit as he hits the campaign trail here.

The September arrest had particularly angered the Chinese. But in a twist of fate, they are now being assiduously courted in the Kuala Terengganu by-election to be held on Jan 17 after the MP from the ruling Umno died in November.

“The Chinese could be the kingmakers,” Kok told The Straits Times.

That is why she and other prominent Chinese opposition leaders have made a beeline for this small seaside town to secure the Chinese vote for Pas candidate Abdul Wahid Endut.

He is standing against Umno's Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh and an independent.

The Chinese comprise only 11 per cent of the 80,229 voters, but analysts suggest they hold the key to victory. The 88 per cent Malay voters are believed to be split, with Pas having a slight edge over Umno.

Political analyst Ong Kian Ming's study of the March general election showed that the non-Malay support for Barisan Nasional,  the ruling coalition, was 64 per cent, compared to 47 per cent for the Malays.

Most of the Chinese are clustered in the touristy Kampong Cina by the sea. It is a picturesque area with restored pre-war shophouses, narrow lanes and an old Chinese temple at its heart.

“We just want our safety and to be able to do business,” said Tan Choon Bee, 53, who runs a Nonya restaurant. Like many Chinese, she is tight-lipped about politics.

But there are hints.

One was a well-attended dinner on Tuesday evening with DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, Raja Petra, Kok and other opposition leaders. Five hundred people turned up, paying RM30 each for the event.

A few hundred others stood outside the hall to listen to the speeches.

“The dinner was organised in just two days,” said DAP MP Liew Chin Tong.

When Kok hosted a lunch for 100 Chinese voters, the donations were almost enough to cover the cost.

The outpouring of donations during the March general election was one of the signs of the political tsunami that swept BN from its iron-grip dominance.

BN is working as hard. Its Chinese leaders are going from door to door, and some Umno leaders are also venturing into Kampong Cina.

Two days ago, Wan Farid accompanied Terengganu Menteri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said to give away hampers to elderly Chinese.

The Chinese in Kuala Terengganu have always been pro-BN, largely because of their wariness of Pas. This sentiment, however, may sway now with the onslaught of high-profile Chinese opposition campaigners.

“Without 'interference', we are safe. But with the influence of the opposition members who twist facts, people might be affected emotionally,” Terengganu's only Chinese assemblyman, Toh Chin Yaw, told The Straits Times.

This is even though more than half of the 8,787 Chinese voters in Kuala Terengganu are members of the MCA, a senior partner of BN.

Still, the low Chinese turnout at 66 per cent in the March general election suggested that while they were unhappy with BN, they did not want to vote for Pas. They simply refused to vote.

It is possible that the Chinese turnout will be low again, as the by-election will be held just a week before Chinese New Year.

More than 10 per cent of the Chinese voters live out of state, and a large number live in other towns in Kuala Terengganu.

They may not want to travel twice in one week.

Ong's study showed that a drop in Chinese turnout, coupled with a drop in support, could deal BN a death blow.

The Chinese voter turnout and support need only to fall by 5 per cent each, to erase about 600 votes. BN holds the seat by just 628 votes.

The MCA is spending hours poring over lists to gauge the support of every voter, and making personal phone calls to them.

Its message is that a vote for Pas will weaken not just BN but also the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

“When Pas is strong, it will control everything,” said Toh.

The DAP refutes this by saying that the opposition cannot implement Islamic policies without its agreement. It has tried to turn the campaign into a national one, focusing on the Pakatan goal to take power.

“We are telling them that it's a referendum on the government,” said Liew.

Three days into the campaign, the safe Chinese bastion for the MCA seems less safe now. – The Straits Times