The exposed gangrenes of Bukit Selambau

(The Sun) For years to come, an idyllic green field in Taman Ria Jaya on the suburbs of Sungai Petani, will be remembered for a dramatic incident unusual for these parts. It was here that on March 23 police fired tear gas and chemical sprays into a crowd of some 3,000 people, including elderly and children, who had gathered to hear Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim speak.

The PKR supremo had barely uttered his first few words when the rally – held before the official Bukit Selambau state by-election campaign period – was forcefully dispersed.

Days later, I met a kampung man who described how he had seen folks run, some getting caught in barbed wires and thorny shrubs, some hurt by the chemical fumes. "People all over town spoke about it for days after that," he said, smoking on his thin ‘cerut’.

Though the police maintained that the gathering was illegal and that a prior warning had been issued, the incident had helped to bolster bitter resentment against the Barisan Nasional (BN) for its perceived high-handedness, even before campaigning had begun.

Whatever its eventual results, the Bukit Selambau by-election must be noted for the gangrene it exposed – both in the BN and its opposing Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

The election was won by PKR’s S Manikumar, who represented Pakatan, amassing 12,632 votes compared to the 10,229 managed by BN’s MIC candidate Datuk S Ganesan.

Though touted as a clean, educated entrepreneur, Manikumar had much to contend with when introduced. One can hardly remember a time when a candidate’s selection had provoked such overtly furious response from within a party.

At first glance, the criticisms appeared to stem from local party stalwarts who felt stung at being overlooked despite their long services to PKR. Seeing an absolute political novice being chosen only rubbed salt into the wounds.

There were however deeper implications beneath these internal criticisms towards the PKR leadership’s choice. For some time now, members had complained of a "party within a party" within Kedah PKR, with certain quarters feeling marginalised.

In fact, a former assistant to V Arumugam, the assemblyman whose resignation forced the by-election, called him a "puppet" in the PAS-led Kedah government. Augustine Gnanapragasam went as far as to describe how PR state executive councillors turned a deaf ear to Arumugam’s reports, particularly on Indian problems.

He even claimed to have watched Arumugam once crying in his car, as certain problems he raised in state executive council meetings were hardly being entertained.

"Now they have just chosen just another person to heed their beck and call," Augustine said of the docile and compliant Manikumar.

Detractors like Augustine sneered at Kedah Mentri Besar and PAS commissioner Datuk Seri Azizan Abd Razak’s act to perform ground-breaking for a Tamil school during the height of campaigning, saying he was being hypocritical. The BN too resorted to using government machinery to offer funds and corrective developments that had been unseen for years in some estates and kampungs.

Sure, there was a euphoric reception for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on the last day of campaigning; but on close scrutiny one found that the crowd at the Dewan Institut Kemahiran Mara in Sungai Petani was packed not so much with local voters as it was with BN members, many of whom were from out of town.

Other BN rallies, including one by Ezam Mohd Noor, a former PKR youth chief who is now a fervent Umno supporter, drew piteously scant local audiences.

But with the PR administration being so bloodily bruised along the way to victory, one wonders if the votes that it had garnered were more anti-BN than genuinely pro-Pakatan.