Welsh on P-36 Kuala Terengganu by-election


Light and darkness: Reflections on KT
Bridget Welsh | January 19, 2009

Both the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat packed up quickly after the Kuala Terengganu by-election was won decisively by PAS on Saturday (January 17).

The opposition’s 2,631 majority builds the much-needed momentum for Pakatan after it failed to deliver on its promise of taking over power on September 16 last year.

The results also point to endemic problems in Barisan Nasional (BN), which are only likely to continue as the blame game has begun. “Kuala Terang Anu” is shining light on the strengths and weaknesses of both contesting sides, with the opposition’s fortunes brightening.

Chinese in KT more conservative

The focus of media analyses have centred on the Chinese voters. These voters were seen as crucial bellwethers of the opposition’s appeal across races and the electoral viability of weakened non-Malay component BN parties, particularly MCA.

The latter is claiming victory, and Pakatan’s component parties are quietly on the defensive. What happened?

First of all, it is important to understand that not all Chinese in Malaysia are the same. The dominance of the ethnic lens in politics obscures important regional and generational differences.

Most of the Chinese in KT are much more conservative than their counterparts on the West Coast. Many are members of MCA, which has a well-oiled regional machine in this east coast capital. As such, their support of the opposition has traditionally been much more tempered than elsewhere.

Coupled with this conservatism is a deep pragmatism of working in a BN-led state. Many KT Chinese worried about possible recriminations if they did not support the BN, as the message of the community being targeted hit home.

Not only were KT Chinese worried about financial losses, but there was concern that on the eve of the UMNO party elections (where racial chest-thumping is the norm), the party would put KT Chinese in its sights.

Fear did resonate. Yet, so did the rewards and incentives as the over RM35 million of promises sweetened the pot for needy Chinese schools and projects.

Local concerns were crucial, as many Chinese KT voters stationed outside did not come back for the polls. Chinese voter turnout dropped by 10% with more than 1,000 Chinese voters not returning. Disproportionally, these voters vote for the opposition, reflecting the national mood among many Chinese Malaysians.

The opposition also miscalculated, failing to bring in their big guns in the last days of the campaign.

Senior DAP and PKR leaders returned early, believing that their missions were done. They forgot that the lesson they benefitted from in March 2008, that campaign momentum can change and those that gain are those that stay on the ground consistently.

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