Umno represented by disbarred lawyer

(The Straits Times) KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 18 – Nearly as soon as he filed his papers to contest the Permatang Pasir by-election yesterday, Umno candidate Rohaizat Othman ran into controversy.

Rohaizat, 38, was bombarded with questions from reporters after it became known that he was disbarred as a lawyer last year over allegations of fraud that implicated his law firm.

According to the Malaysian Bar website, he was disbarred on March 7 last year. This means that he cannot practise as a lawyer or appear before a court, but he is allowed practise syariah law.

It also does not preclude him from standing as an election candidate, but it is certainly not an advantage.

He and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) Penang commissioner Mohd Salleh Man,

52, were the only two who registered as candidates for the by-election on Aug 25.

The by-election for this state seat on mainland Penang was called after the previous PAS assemblyman died, making it the country’s eighth by-election since the general election took place in March last year.

The opposition will certainly capitalise on the controversy to illustrate their claim that Barisan Nasional (BN) is a patronage machine which disregards moral principles routinely.

Umno vice-president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is the party’s Penang state chief, insisted that Rohaizat was innocent of the alleged fraud in his firm.

“This is an issue of public perception. We will explain to the voters what really happened,” Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid said.

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin told The Straits Times that it was Rohaizat’s business partner who was involved in the fraud and who dragged the entire firm into the mess.

He said Rohaizat had settled the problem after his partner disappeared.

Rohaizat, who graduated from the International Islamic University in 1995, has stopped practising law.

The controversy will be fodder for the opposition, which has the upper hand going into this contest.

This state seat is part of the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat held by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

But the opposition is also on the defensive after nearly losing the most recent by-election in Kelantan last month. The PAS candidate won the Manek Urai seat – also a stronghold – by a mere 65 votes.

“In the aftermath of the Manek Urai state by-election and the steps taken to reform and change the country, the winds of change are beginning to blow and I think it has reached Permatang Pasir,” Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said yesterday.

Political analysts are not as confident, although many believe that the BN may be able to slash the majority.

The Manek Urai by-election showed that internal bickering among parties can severely damage their electoral showing.

The opposition is also fending off accusations that it has sacrificed Malay interests to win support from the minority communities.

“It will be a test as to whether the attacks against the Pakatan will stick. It is significant as this is the power base of Anwar,” said law professor Abdul Aziz Bari.

Permatang Pasir is not as Malay-dominant as the Manek Urai. Of its 20,290 voters, about 72 per cent are Malays, 26 per cent Chinese and almost 2 per cent Indians. But the Malay votes are large enough to be visible, especially as the Chinese voters are expected to remain in favour of the opposition. The number of Indian voters is negligible.

The campaign kicked off yesterday with a noisy nomination process filled with the chanting of slogans, the waving of banners – and the wearing of face masks due to the Influenza A (H1N1) pandemic.

There was a brief scuffle when police tussled with opposition MP N. Gobalakrishnan outside the nomination centre. The Parti Keadilan Rakyat supreme council member had failed to heed two warnings by the police to stop using a loudspeaker to make provocative remarks. He was handcuffed and taken away.