Time for BN to take stock of its capabilities

The Bukit Selambau and Bukit Gantang by-elections offered yet more indications of a hard road ahead for Barisan Nasional in regaining lost ground.

By Zubaidah Abu Bakar (NST)

THE voters' decision on Tuesday to let Pakatan Rakyat retain Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau showed that little has changed in Malaysia's political landscape in the past year.

Even more alarmingly, the electoral defeats showed not only that the Umno-led Barisan Nasional has lost more Chinese and Indian support since last year, but that a significant number of Malays are happy to continue supporting Pakatan Rakyat.

The two losses meant four straight victories in Peninsular Malaysia for Pakatan Rakyat since last year's general election. The BN's victory in Batang Ai, a remote constituency in Sarawak with 8,000 voters, mainly ethnic Ibans, was not unexpected.

It's a challenge for prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his newly minted cabinet to appease angry Malaysians in trying to claw back support that has been badly eroded.

Malaysians sent a clear signal of wanting change in the last general election, in which BN lost five states and its customary two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The electorate sent two subsequent reminders — in Permatang Pauh, where they gave a ticket to Parliament to de facto Parti Keadilan Rakyat leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who was later appointed opposition leader, and again in Kuala Terengganu, where voters allowed Pas to wrest control of the BN seat formerly held by Umno.

It was clear as daylight in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau that BN had not been able to make headway in regaining lost support, despite the hype for reforms from its leaders.

The new administration will have to make a tangible difference if Malaysians are to swing their support back to the coalition. Does the BN need yet another reminder that it has to keep up with the times and that voters are more discerning?

There is now talk of two more by-elections possibly in the offing, in the Pakatan Rakyat-held Bukit Lanjan and Penanti state seats, whose representatives — Selangor exco member Elizabeth Wong and former Penang deputy chief minister 1 Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin respectively — are widely expected to resign.

Wong was embroiled in a controversy over the circulation of intimate photographs, while Fairus is under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

BN cannot afford another defeat, and has to take stock of its capabilities.

Even the feel-good factor of the leadership transition and some populist decisions taken by Najib, amid promises of reform and improved race relations, were not enough to help BN at the ballot box.

As Pakatan Rakyat's platform of reform and economic assistance based on needs gains ground among large segments of the populace, BN has a lot of hard work to do.

One thing is certain: BN has to review its race-based ethos, where component parties work the ground separately with mixed messages, all of which are now being questioned by the electorate.

Voters are politically mature now, thinking through issues deeply and rationally with information from both sides of the divide.

They are looking at the backgrounds of candidates and judging for themselves the character of those asking to represent them in Parliament or state legislative assemblies.

Umno has to resign itself to no longer being able to claim pre-eminence among the Malays and can no longer make the one-familiar boast of "letak songkok pun menang" (just showing up means victory).

Bukit Gantang signified the failure of Umno's attempt to discredit the Pas candidate, the ousted Perak menteri besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, by portraying him as having committed treason against the palace — a grievous offence among Malays — for not abiding by Sultan Azlan Shah's decision in February to hand over the Perak state government to BN.

The drop in Malay votes for Pas was insignificant, while support for Nizar among the Chinese increased greatly, with about 75 per cent of Chinese voters in the Malay-majority constituency voting for Pas, compared with 65 per cent last year.

In Kuala Sepetang, where 97 per cent of voters are Chinese, some 80 per cent of them, including older voters, gave their votes to Nizar, up from 64 per cent last year.

In Kedah's Bukit Selambau, the majority Malay voters chose PKR's political greenhorn S. Manikumar, who will be sworn in next week as a state executive councillor in the Pas-led Pakatan state government.

Analysts see this as voters' endorsement of the Pakatan Rakyat government in Kedah despite the media criticisms of the shortcomings of menteri besar Datuk Seri Azizan Razak and his team of excos over the past year.

The continuing rejection of BN in Malay-belt states shows that Umno's influence among Malays is waning, despite the party boasting three million members.

Kelantan has been under Pas rule since 1990, Kedah became Pas' new power base after last year's political tsunami, and Terengganu voters helped Pas wrest the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary seat from Umno last January.

It may be just a matter of time before Perlis, the other Malay-belt state still under BN control, falls to Pas.

The outcome of Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau has put more pressure on the new administration to deliver or risk seeing BN's uninterrupted rule since independence end at the next general election, scheduled for 2013.

Time is not on BN's side. The coalition should proceed with all due haste to hold the long-overdue BN convention — planned for February but postponed to allow the leadership transition from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to Najib — to chart a new beginning.

The measures to be taken by BN must also cleave to the prime minister's "1Malaysia" concept. Najib may have big plans for Malaysia, but they will come to naught without the full backing of BN's 13 component members, especially Umno, the lynchpin of the coalition.