The battle between inclusiveness and division

Umno/BN has worked day and night to instill this perception of Nizar among Malay voters who form 63 per cent of the 55,000 voters in the hope that rural Malays might see him as a Chinese stooge and therefore stay with Umno.

By Baradan Kuppusamy, The Malaysian Insider

With the battle for Bukit Gantang in its final leg a faded star newly risen in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has returned to the hustings preaching the politics of fear and race.

The entry of Dr Mahathir threatens the future of the rising new political star in Pas candidate Datuk Mohamed Nizar who preaches a new inclusive politics minus race or religion.

Bukit Gantang, that old Umno stronghold, is where the old world and the new are battling for what DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang says is the soul of the country.

The voters have been given two choices — the Pakatan Rakyat/Pas message to discard race and religion or to give way to the politics of race, fear and divide and rule that are all the forte of the ageing, 83-year-old veteran Dr Mahathir.

The outcome of the battle can go either way. Race and religion fuelled by fear of social and economic loss remains the most powerful political force in the country.

The frosty reception in some Malay villages, where the battle really counts, to Nizar is a ominous sign.

It’s the rural Malay vote that will decide the outcome of the Bukit Gantang battle and if they are not welcoming Nizar as the Chinese are in their settlements, than it is a bad sign of the political disaster ahead.

The tall, impeccably groomed and personable Nizar shot to fame for resisting the Perak palace and the BN takeover of his government on Feb 5 which was sparked by PR representatives defecting to the Barisan Nasional.

His failed bid to save his government made him a household name but it also earned him unease among some sections of the Malay community who see him as a puppet and pawn of the DAP-dominated Perak government.

Umno/BN has worked day and night to instill this perception of Nizar among Malay voters who form 63 per cent of the 55,000 voters in the hope that rural Malays might see him as a Chinese stooge and therefore stay with Umno.

Furthermore, by resisting the palace, Nizar was also hit with accusations of ‘derhaka’ or disobedience of the Perak Ruler, a serious charge in traditional Malay society.

After a long and hard debate PAS had unexpectedly picked Nizar as candidate, falling for the argument of the DAP and PKR that his star power alone would propel him to victory.

But the Chinese stooge and derhaka accusation — the two key issues that now crowd Nizar, have come to haunt the PR by-election campaign.

Everywhere in Bukit Gantang the two issues are exploited in speeches, house-to-house whispering campaigns, banners, posters, leaflets and ceramahs.

The issues have been cleverly packaged and offered to the Malay majority voters as a choice between preserving the traditional Malay future or surrendering to a “new and alien” dogma where all Malaysians are “unseemingly equal.”

The message is that a vote for PAS is a vote against everything Malay and familiar in Malay life. Choosing Umno, they say, signals a return to normalcy, comfort and security.

The contrast in the reception of voters for Nizar is very obvious.

In all the urban centres and Chinese new villages Nizar is mobbed by enthusiastic non-Malays giving the unmistakable impression that their votes are already cast for him.

But there is little enthusiasm for Nizar among the Malay voters except for the existing hardcore Pas support in the constituency said to number about 9,000.

With Tun Mahathir in the fray the equation would have changed. The desired effect of his involvement in the final lap is to stampede hesitating Malay fence sitters, who were enamored by Nizar’s star pulling power, to fall in behind BN.

The seat is a traditional Umno stronghold but was lost to Pas in the 2008 tsunami after enough Chinese, Indian and Malay voters tipped the balance in favour of Pas giving the late Roslan Shaharum a 1,566 vote majority.

In comparison in the 2004 general election Gerakan Wanita Chief Datuk Tan Lian Hoe had cruised home with a large 6,702 votes majority.

Ironically the back room man who made it possible her and other earlier victories is the current BN candidate Ismail Safian, a man who as secretary to the local council for over 20 years knows the constituency like the back of his hand.

BN campaigners also say the main reason for Umno members voting for PAS in 2008 — factional infighting — no longer exists.

The rapprochement in Umno and the return of Dr Mahathir will have a positive effect on the Malay ground, they claim.

Victory or defeat depends also on how rural Malays in the constituency see the collapse of the PR government in Perak — whether it was a loss or a gain.

A defeat for Nizar would stall a sterling career as a powerful, new moderate voice in PAS and also bring into question the multi-ethnic ideology of Pakatan Rakyat.

A victory on the other hand would confirm the arrival of a new political star in the country and confirm that despite all the resources thrown at the people, Dr Mahathir included, the new inclusive politics of the Pakatan Rakyat has arrived.

However the victory has to be large enough — either way — for either of the contending forces to claim they have the upper hand.