What Umno needs to do to win back urban voters

Urbanisation certainly has its discontents. The culture shock of living in enclosed areas such as flats coupled with the inability of BN and Umno members to engage them resulted in these people expressing their discontent at the ballot box, as they did in 2008.

New Straits Times

IN July 2005, the then deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, inaugurated a yearly Umno Selangor convention. He mentioned the importance of Selangor for the party and Barisan Nasional. Selangor is, after all, the California of Malaysia, the richest state in the country.

The theme of the convention was urbanisation and Malay politics. He reminded the audience to be wary of the changing dynamics of Malay society, especially in the urban areas, and with it, their voting patterns. There was also a paper presented by Datuk Salamon Selamat warning about the erosion of the Malay political power base as a result of unbridled urbanisation. Salamon had presented his view on the matter back in 1990s when he was one of the division heads.

Nothing could go wrong with Selangor at the time. Their leaders had every reason to be irrationally exuberant back then. Selangor was the first state to become negeri maju (developed state) — on Aug 27 that year. Three years later, BN lost Selangor in the general election. BN lost Penang, Kedah, Perak and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, too, and failed to wrest Kelantan from Pas. But the loss of Selangor was, to say the least, devastating. Had the leadership of Umno Selangor taken heed of Najib’s advice and the views of many others at the time, including Salamon’s, perhaps things would not have been that bad.

Political analysts and pundits have given various reasons for the loss of Selangor and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur. But most agree urbanisation played a part. As Salamon pointed out in his paper, urban voters are a different breed altogether. They are more discerning, more articulate and demand more freedom. According to the paper, as a result of the emergence of many new residential areas where Malays are the minority, a situation arises where support for the party will be severely eroded.

The figures speak for themselves. By 2000, 87.6 per cent of the population of Selangor was living in urban and suburban areas. In 1970, only 26.2 per cent were urban dwellers, while in 1980 the percentage was 34.3 per cent. Based on the 2000 figures, there were only five districts that recorded a high rural population — Kuala Selangor, Hulu Selangor, Kuala Langat, Sabak Bernam and Sepang. Even then, the district with the highest number of rural inhabitants, Kuala Selangor, registered 39 per cent urban dwellers while Sepang recorded 44.5 per cent.

It was common knowledge at the time that Umno’s power base in urban areas came largely from traditional Malay villages and squatter areas. Malays living in affluent and middle-class residential areas (they are there largely because of the success of Umno’s policies) are hard to predict. In the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, prior to the 1999 election, Umno had been strong in places like Kampung Baru, Kampung Kerinchi, Kampung Abdullah Hukum and the squatter settlements.

At its peak in 1980, there were 233,109 squatter dwellers in Kuala Lumpur. The number dwindled to 82,000 in 2003. While Kampung Baru is a study in anachronism as the last traditional Malay village in the shadow of the once tallest building in the world, Kampung Kerinchi is now a footnote in history. Many more such villages are disappearing. Both the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor targeted 2005 to be setinggan sifar or “squatter-free”. Perhaps the target was achieved. There are very few squatter areas, if any, now. Certainly, the number has shrunk significantly from the peak of 225 in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur in 1980.

The irony is that the Umno-led BN government has successfully turned Selangor and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur into the most dynamic growth areas the country has ever known. Kuala Lumpur is a bustling city with an ever-changing skyline and arteries of world-class highways. Much of this infrastructure was built on former squatter settlements, even traditional villages. Thousands of squatters were relocated to give way to spanking new apartments and shopping complexes, not to mention toll highways. Many were relocated to all types of rumah murah — from low-cost houses to flet (flats) or rumah pangsa.

Sadly, poor maintenance and bad management created unnecessary anxiety among the dwellers. There is always limited parking spaces. As they left the “comfort” of their squatter homes, they faced insurmountable problems in these “pigeon holes” many floors above the ground. Some claimed no one listened to their grouses. The dire plight of the urban poor has been somewhat addressed, but the living conditions have not been improved. Many would rather go back to the old ways of living — free, easy and less worrisome.

It took politicians from the other side to embrace them, and they left BN and Umno in droves in 2008. They blamed their predicament, perhaps unfairly, on Umno. While the Umno-led government tried hard to address the issue of urban poverty with various programmes and initiatives, opposition leaders needed only to convince them that their woes were the result of many years of neglect by the ruling party.

In many of these new urban enclaves, Umno has lost its influence. Lembah Pantai is a classic example. Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil is one of the most hardworking and affable politicians around. Even her charm did not save her in 2008 when she lost to a rookie politician. Anger, distrust and a constant barrage of personal attacks and repeated lies drove voters away from her. Sadly, what happened in Lembah Pantai was replicated in other constituencies in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur. BN was left with only one parliamentary seat.

To be fair, the government would not be harping on the urban poor living in squalid conditions to retain its power. People simply cannot be allowed to live in deprivation just because they are potential voters. The very idea of taking them off the shackles of urban poverty is in itself commendable.

Urbanisation certainly has its discontents. The culture shock of living in enclosed areas such as flats coupled with the inability of BN and Umno members to engage them resulted in these people expressing their discontent at the ballot box, as they did in 2008.

Reaching out to them is critical. Najib, in one of his walkabouts, was told that a lift in one of the flats had not been working for some time. We can’t expect the prime minister to monitor lifts and basic amenities in urban dwellings. Others have to play a more proactive role. The rakyat are not asking too much — just some attention and their basic needs to be taken care of.

Perhaps this time round, they will reciprocate accordingly when the government of the day lives up to the mantra of People First, Performance Now.