Lessons from Kuala Terengganu

Both BN and Pakatan Rakyat need rethinking 

Some locals have said that Terengganu-born Chinese Malaysians tend to feel more "loyal" to the BN because of their small numbers and their dependence on the state for services.

By Deborah Loh, The Nut Graph

ULTIMATELY, the heart of the battle for Kuala Terengganu was always the Malay Malaysian vote, which was, by extension, a referendum on the relevance of Umno. But the fact that Chinese Malaysians largely stayed with the Barisan Nasional (BN) is perhaps indicative of the DAP's and Parti Keadilan Rakyat's inability to penetrate non-Malay enclaves on the east coast. Indeed, sentiments about human rights in the peninsula's east may not yet be on par with that in the west.

The 17 Jan Kuala Terengganu by-election results throw up lessons for both the ruling and opposition coalitions. How quickly these lessons will be learnt might just determine the results of the next general election.

DAP and PKR rejected

The morning after the by-election result was announced, a DAP leader conceded that Chinese Malaysians, some 11% of the electorate, did not swing en masse to the Pakatan Rakyat as expected.

Even though PAS won in the MCA-held Bandar state seat by a 100-plus majority, Bandar assemblyperson and state MCA chief Toh Chin Yaw says votes for PAS here came from Malay Malaysians.

Toh says Bandar's Kampung Cina voting district, which comprises 83% of Kuala Terengganu's Chinese Malaysians, is reflective of the community's preference for the BN. The district gave the BN a slightly increased majority of 457 votes this time, compared with 396 in the 2008 general election.

The BN's majority in Bandar's other racially mixed polling districts was also slightly higher, but these gains were negated by the greater number of votes for PAS in Malay-dominated districts.

This raises a question about the Pakatan Rakyat's collaboration. Did PAS win this by-election alone? No doubt, the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) dazzled voters through their show of unity with the Islamist party. In fact, the coalition displayed unprecedented cohesion despite threats by the DAP chairperson Karpal Singh to pull out of the Pakatan Rakyat over the issue of implementing hudud.

Targeted Chinese Malaysian voters turned up in droves at Pakatan Rakyat ceramah and parted with money when the hat was passed around. But were these voters' enthusiasm misread? Did they, in the end, come simply out of curiosity to see political celebrities like blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, or to experience the inimitable charisma of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim?

Raja Petra Kamarudin having his picture taken with supporters at a Pakatan Rakyat
ceramah in Kampung Cina in the Bandar state constituency (Pic by Danny Lim)

A PKR leader told The Nut Graph during the campaign that the Pakatan Rakyat strategy was to leave Malay Malaysian areas to PAS, while the DAP and PKR focused almost entirely on the Chinese Malaysians. Ironically, PAS won the by-election, but its two partners were rejected.

But this will not necessarily weaken their ties. "It is historic that the DAP campaigned for PAS. With PKR, they are signalling a new kind of politics for Malaysia based on a two-party system," says political analyst Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff.