Voters go to polls today

Malay vote appears split, minorities seem to support opposition

By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief (The Straits Times)

KUALA TERENGGANU – WHEN Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim turned up in Kuala Terengganu (KT) for the final push to seal the votes of the 80,229 voters ahead of today's by-election, some 1,000 listeners who turned up to hear him speak cheered him on.  

They simply loved his brand of cheeky oratory as he slammed the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition for corruption and racial politics.

Usually laidback, KT is clogged with thousands of policemen. Flags are thick on the ground. The town is noisy with cars hooting their support at flag-waving party workers.

The by-election was called after Umno MP Razali Ismail died.

Umno's Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh is facing Parti Islam SeMalaysia's (PAS') Abdul Wahid Endut and an independent. The contest is closely-fought as both sides seek to prove that they have made the most progress in winning support since the March general election last year.

KT is the capital of the Malay heartland state of Terengganu. Its voters are 88 per cent Malay, 11 per cent Chinese, 0.7 per cent Indian, and the rest other communities.

This by-election reflects a nationwide trend – a Malay community split between BN and Pakatan Rakyat, and the minorities are with the opposition.

Both sides thus faced the tough test of balancing the messages for the majority and minority communities in the campaign.

KT is conservative. Its piety is reflected in some of the most beautiful mosques in Malaysia, its White Mosque and Floating Mosque.

The state's weekend is Friday and Saturday, to allow Muslim men to attend Friday prayers. Most shops are shuttered at lunchtime on Fridays, and churches hold their mass on this day as well.

A popular supermarket, Sabasun, refuses to sell American products.

Just beyond the town are hundreds of villages which subsist on farming or fishing. Nearly all these villages have been claimed for PAS or Umno, making it hard for either side to make inroads.

The Malay fence-sitters are the civil service. There are about 5,000 state civil servants, and 2,000 teachers. The BN has focused strongly on them.

The Chinese mostly run small businesses. There is a thriving Chinatown or Kampung Cina by the waterfront, with a 200-year-old temple.

Analysts had suggested that the Chinese could hold the key if the Malays are split. This scenario had forced both sides to court the Chinese while assuring the Malays that their interests were also paramount.

The opposition seems to have a more effective strategy in balancing the messages by making a concerted effort to be together while campaigning, giving an image of multiracialism. It became common to see Chinese boys and girls waving PAS flags on the streets. The opposition cast their battle as a class issue – the masses versus the elite.

This resonated with many voters, especially the minorities, although some Malays were still uneasy over the heavy focus on Chinese voters.

'Previously, many Chinese don't want to vote for PAS but now, I think this is no more. There are too many problems, corruption,' said Mr K.C. Lee, 29, a salesman.

After listening to Mr Anwar at a Chinese rally, a Malay contractor said he did not mind it. 'He talks about all the races. I support. It is okay to help everyone who is poor,' said Mr Rosli Abdul Rahman, 46.

To fisherman Yusuf Ali, 'PAS helps the poor'. He earns RM600 (S$250) a month, and said it was 'just enough to eat'.

The opposition capitalised on disgruntlement over government spending on luxury projects in a state that is among the poorest in Malaysia.

The Monsoon Cup yacht race and the magnificent Crystal Mosque have become symbols of wastage of the billions that Terengganu receives in oil royalties from the federal government.

How far will this adroit campaign translate to votes? The feeling is that PAS has an edge.

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