Muhyiddin’s Folly

Regardless of whether those comments were taken out of context or not, the damage has been done. The MCA, Gerakan, and DAP have come out with statements strongly rebuking his comments, saying that the Chinese in Bukit Gantang are not to be blamed for the loss.

Written by John Lim, The Edge

Just over a week after Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Ismail Saffian lost to Pas's Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin in the Bukit Gantang by-election, newly appointed deputy prime minister and by-elections director Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has drawn flak for criticising an unappreciative Chinese community for their loss.

"The drop in Chinese support is like as if there is no appreciation towards what we (the BN) are doing," Muhyddin was quoted in a Mingguan Malaysia interview on April 12. The interview was translated by the Chinese press, which translated his comments to mean that the Chinese were “ungrateful” for the RM1 million worth of development projects. (Read the English translation of the Mingguan Malaysia interview here)

Muhyiddin subsequently took to task the Chinese vernacular press for taking his quotes out of context, adding that he was only giving his assessment of the by-election in which BN lost further support from the community.

Regardless of whether those comments were taken out of context or not, the damage has been done. The MCA, Gerakan, and DAP have come out with statements strongly rebuking his comments, saying that the Chinese in Bukit Gantang are not to be blamed for the loss. This comes as a new low in the two-week old Najib administration, which is showing cracks and contradictions to Datuk Seri Najib Razak's message of 1Malaysia, which promotes racial unity.

All the propaganda work that Najib has done to win the Chinese voter support has been undone by what Muhyiddin has said,” says Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist in Monash University Sunway.

Bad Perception

That Muhyiddin, who is also education minister, came out saying “If they (the Chinese press) don’t know Malay, we can send them to school” is another wrong step in media relations. It also sends out mixed messages to the people that perhaps Muhyiddin and Najib are not on the same page.

“My initial impressions was that Muhyiddin was playing bad cop to Najib's good cop,” political analyst Ong Kian Ming says. “But the mixed messages have been too many. A perception is now building that Muhyiddin is more of a gaffe machine acting on his own accord and Najib has to correct him. It's not a good start for the Najib-Muhyiddin partnership.”

Further adding to the confusion was the Terengganu situation on April 14, when Muhyiddin looked to back the action of the ten Umno state assemblypersons who ‘boycotted’ the Terengganu assembly sitting. Hours later, Najib ordered all BN state representatives in Terengganu to attend the state assembly sitting.

It will take time for the two to get on the same page, but as Najib said himself, he cannot afford a honeymoon period to win the people over.

“The majority of the public will focus on the negative rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt,” says Ong.

As for now, damage control would ideally include an apology from Muhyiddin, but that doesn't seem to be in the offing.

A hard road to 2013

Merdeka Center's programme director Ben Suffian says Muhyiddin's remarks signals a difficulty in BN between Umno and coalition parties to recognise the different of opinions of the majority of Chinese voters.

There is a misperception between what issues the non-Malays are supporting versus what the BN feels that needs to be addressed,” Ben says. His comments only highlights how hard it would be for the Umno-led BN to improve its standing amongst the non-Malays, which is already at rock bottom.

To give a picture of how important the Chinese votes were in deciding the Bukit Gantang by-election, Ong noted that the chief cause for BN's defeat was the sharper-than-expected drop in non-Malay support, of which the Chinese make up 74.4% of the non-Malay voter base. In his initial analysis, he found that even though there was a 5% increase in Malay voters (from 53% to 58%), it couldn't compensate for the sharp 13% drop (from 35% to 22%) of support from the non-Malays.

Though Ong initially predicted a 5% drop in non-Malay support for the BN, the reality of a 13% drop reflects the unhappiness amongst non-Malays regarding the BN takeover of the Perak state government.

“The results in Bukit Gantang are indicative of the mood across the country,” says Wong on the voting patterns of the non-Malays there. “I say this because a similar mood was felt in Bukit Selambau where non-Malay voters were angry about the Perak situation. I would fear for the BN if there was a by-election in Johor, where you would see a crack in the stronghold. Like I said before, if nothing is done for BN and Umno to wake up, they will lose 95 seats in the General Election.”

According to Wong, BN's component parties too need to buck up in their role in waking Umno up to reality. “MCA and Gerakan, as extensive as their statements are, did not address the real reason why BN lost,” Wong says. “It was really the unhappiness of the non-Malays over the Perak government takeover. Unless they wake up and acknowledge that fact, the non-Malays will want to kick them out.”

As evident from today's mixed headlines between News Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia (read the story here) getting on the same page – whether it's between Najib and Muhyiddin or BN and its component parties – is proving to be a task that goes beyond linguistic matters.