On March 6, we went to a DAP ceramah that drew some 50,000 people. In contrast, we attended a BN ceramah in Jelutong for Gerakan candidate Thor Teong Gee. There were only about 100 people in attendance, and they milled around and chatted while he spoke. The crowd was completely ethnic Malay and Dr. Thor spoke Bahasa. BN provided food and drinks, but still there were many empty chairs. Dr. Thor was not very animated, and after he finished his 30-minute speech he left immediately.


Raja Petra Kamarudin


1. (SBU) Embassy KL positioned election observers in six hotly contested states during the final days of Malaysia’s campaign period and on the March 8 polling day.  In addition to our previous reporting on campaigns in the capital city areas of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, this message provides first hand observations from Perak, Terengganu, Penang, Kedah, Kelantan and Sabah.  We observed common patterns in many of these states which highlight some factors that may have brought about the unprecedented opposition gains (ref A). 

Despite the prevalence of signs, banners and flags around the country for Prime Minister Abdullah’s National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) coalition, and despite the coalition’s heavy dominance of the mainstream media, the BN was out-campaigned in many areas.  The opposition parties’ ceramahs, or street rallies, dwarfed BN’s efforts, and the coalition’s decision to limit most campaigning to small groups and “walk-a-bouts” failed to draw the large number of votes to which it was accustomed. 

Issues of corruption, crime, good governance, fair elections and racial equality resonated loudly in the communities that eventually fell to the opposition, and many voters chose “anyone but BN.”

Finally, on the peninsula we also saw a general lack of confidence among both BN volunteers and candidates in constituencies that the eventually fell to the opposition. The opposition’s energetic campaigns contrasted with lackluster BN efforts, foreshadowing the serious political setback suffered by Prime Minister Abdullah and BN in the March 8 polls.  End Summary.


2. (SBU) In our early visits around Perak’s capital of Ipoh we heard many conclude that the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) would have a tough time beating DAP.  The MCA ceramahs were far from a success and turn outs were minimal.  Staffers of the BN-MCA candidates went around the tables, shook hands and handed out brochures, hand fans and CDs. 

We attended a typical ceramah that had a maximum of 500 people in attendance with about 30 per cent of the crowd being children.  They were there primarily to watch the Lion Dance (which the party paid RM 8000 for a 10 minute performance).

When the performance ended the people began leaving.  By the time the 3 late-teens girls act finished singing and the politicians started talking, the crowd was less than 200 and most were ignoring the speakers.  People were just not interested.  Looking for other BN activities, we walked into the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) building, but it was sparsely staffed and looked like a ghost town.  We were told they were not holding any ceramahs, only going door-to-door.

3. (SBU) We also attended parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang’s last ceramah in Perak.  It was raining heavily up until the start of the event.  When we arrived the rain had just stopped and there were almost 2000 people, with umbrellas.  There were no performances or gimmicks to attract the crowd, only speakers.  The people came in droves and by 11:30pm there were about 20,000 people mostly of Chinese and Indian descent, at the event. 

Speakers worked up the crowd mentioning the brandishing of the ceremonial Malay kris at the UMNO conventions. They emphasized that Chinese born in Malaysia are also true Malaysians; and touched on religious cases of Lina Joy, and other conversion cases; and on education and the number of Chinese schools allocated in the last 10 years. 

Speakers also complained of the Altantuya murder case and called it the “MongolianNajib” case, in reference to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s alleged connections to the case.  Making fun of Prime Minister Abdullah’s reputation of sleeping through meetings, one speaker commented that the Royal Malaysian Customs close “one eye” to matters but the Prime Minister closes “both eyes”. 

Speakers frequently referenced the rising crime rates and linked the crimes with corruption and poor governance. Speakers made reference to the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) and renamed it “Another Collection Agency,” and highlighted the endemic corruption that was apparent in the VK Lingam case.

4. (SBU) Election day was uneventful.  Embassy observers traveled around Ipoh to different polling sites.  At each site the people were coming in a steady trickle.  Volunteer civil-defense personnel (RELA) or police were at all the polls, with a BN booth (locally called a “pondok panas”) set-up near-by to help voters verify their registrations. Observers did not see any buses or other overt forms of possible voting irregularities.


5.  (SBU) We observed the election in three districts – Marang, Kuala Terengganu, and Kuala Nerus. Kuala Terengganu was awash with banners and posters of both parties.  However, both the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and UMNO did not hold any mass ceramahs two days prior to polling, but instead focused on smaller neighborhood ceramahs door-to-door campaigning and the distribution of political pamphlets and CDs.

In Kuala Nerus, it was a similar situation as in Kuala Terengganu.  However, in the PAS stronghold of Marang and the state constituencies within the district, it was obvious that there were many more PAS posters and banners compared to BN.

6. (SBU) In PAS ceramahs, we noted that speakers were focusing on two issues – Islamic values and the “kain kapan” (or funeral shrouds). The speakers were emphasizing the importance of Islam and the afterlife. They told the people that they should vote for the “right candidate” but reminded everyone that it is sinful to vote for a candidate or party who is corrupt.  The rationale being, since all BN candidates are corrupt, the vote should go to PAS.

In one small ceramah at Kuala Terengganu, a local PAS leader campaigning for PAS Vice President Mohamed Sabu, also stated that although they hated Mahathir, they could still tolerate him but not PM Abdullah whom they claim was “stupid.”  PAS also accused BN of stealing the people’s money and added that Terengganu does not need any more development that only benefits the rich.

7. (SBU) BN supporters on the other hand were generally happy with the PM and developments in Terengganu.  A MCA party worker told us that the people should give the PM at least two terms before judging his administration but “the uneducated folks in Terengganu want to see results in a day.”

Another BN supporter shared her experience on how PAS supporters had openly questioned her at the local market for supporting the BN and gave her a “religious lecture” on why she should be supporting PAS.  Due to these incidents, BN supporters told us that they would normally pretend to agree with PAS whenever they are approached by the Opposition party to avoid a lecture, and because of “the fear of a mishap from Allah” (as PAS supporters would claim if someone did not support the party).


8. (SBU) On March 6, two days before the election, we met DAP candidate Liew Chin Tong and asked if he felt confident.  He replied that he felt confident in himself, but still not sure if the voters would turn out.  Nevertheless, the DAP headquarters and PKR operations center we visited were buzzing with people and activity.  Groups of people were chatting outside, and seemed charged up and excited. A steady stream of people were coming and going, while candidates Liew Chin Tong and Jason Ong Khan Lee (PKR) were among the group of workers greeting people and handing out literature.

9.  (SBU) On March 7, at the People’s Movement Party (Gerakan) headquarters, a volunteer told us that he felt like it was hopeless, and that he felt very discouraged. We visited Barisan Nasional’s MCA headquarters and Gerakan headquarters and both were relatively quiet and empty.  In fact MCA’s office was so quiet that we initially thought it was closed.  We tried calling one of the Gerakan election centers for directions to a ceramah, and no one answered. When we inquired about ceramahs at the MCA headquarters, a volunteer suggested that we attend the DAP ceramah instead.

Issues of importance to Penang voters

10. (SBU) From Chinese and Indians, most comments were about the economy, high prices, and declining standard of living. Several Chinese mentioned that huge schools are being built for Malays in areas where there are few Malays, and the Chinese are packed into tiny schools.  There is anger on this point and on other race-related inequities. They said that they cannot demand higher wages from the multi-nationals or the companies will be driven out of Malaysia.  People are fed up that the government is not keeping costs down.  Many Chinese and Indians said that they are poor, and the government does not help them.

11. (SBU) We attended several ceramahs in the state, but without exception, only DAP and PKR were able to draw a crowd.  On March 6, we went to a DAP ceramah that drew some 50,000 people. Speakers included Karpal Singh, Lim Guan Eng, and Lim Kit Siang among others.  They spoke a mix of Hokkien, Mandarin, English, and Malay; all speakers using at least two languages and some using four. 

The crowd’s reaction to Lim Guan Eng stood out the most. He first approached while someone else was speaking.  The crowd which had been sitting on the grass stood and chanted his name, cheering wildly.  He didn’t come up on stage then, but came back later.  Again the crowd stood, with deafening chanting and cheering greeted his entrance.  When he finally spoke, he was given a rock-star reception, again with deafening cheers to his words. Although others received enthusiastic receptions, the standing, cheering and roaring applause were reserved for Lim Guan Eng.

12. (SBU) In contrast, we attended a BN ceramah in Jelutong for Gerakan candidate Thor Teong Gee.  There were only about 100 people in attendance, and they milled around and chatted while he spoke.  The crowd was completely ethnic Malay and Dr. Thor spoke Bahasa.  BN provided food and drinks, but still there were many empty chairs.  Dr. Thor was not very animated, and after he finished his 30-minute speech he left immediately.  BN later hosted several other speakers, and though the crowd fluctuated in size, there were at most only 200 people at its height.


13. (SBU) Upon arriving in Alor Star, the capital of Kedah, we stopped at the UMNO headquarters and spoke with a worker. The office was empty except for him and one other, and they were entirely at a loss when asked about ceramah schedules. They said another office took care of that, and searched for the phone number of someone to call.  When we called, we only got an error message.  With little support from the party we decided to speak with locals about the campaign. 

We spoke with a Chinese Malaysian vendor at a printing shop with large a Gerakan banner posted above the entrance.  He said that a large number of BN banners around Alor Star were not necessarily representative of widespread support, and estimated the town at 60-40 pro-BN.  He himself was not sure whom he would vote for and seemed to weigh some of the same things that media had been harping on — making votes “count” by voting for BN vs. voting for the opposition as a way to signal displeasure at the current government.

14. (SBU) As we drove through the rural areas of the state we saw considerably more PAS banners, which increased markedly as we made our way into the small town centers. The owner of a local shop confirmed that PAS would be holding 22 ceramahs across the state every night of the campaign.  When talking about his own district of Pendang, he said the race was “hot” between PAS and UMNO but guessed it 50-50 that either side would win. 

Not surprisingly for this conservative area, very few women were seen to be involved in the political process, and the people we spoke to seemed generally suspicious and uncomfortable when an American woman asked questions about the elections.  Although it was considered a “hot” race, there was little outward political activity to suggest active mobilization or participation on either side.  In general, it was very quiet for 2 days before polling, and we surmised that most voters had long since made up their minds about which party to vote for.

15.  (SBU) On the last day of campaigning we happened upon one of the campaign offices of PKR candidate Gobalakrishnan (a recent Embassy IVP alumnus) in Padang Serai.  One of the campaign’s biggest concerns was about polling-day shenanigans, including phantom voters.  The indelible ink issue was brought up constantly, as evidence that the government was intent on ensuring that voting would not be fair while at the same time blaming others for it.

Gobal described how the local Indians were very angry with Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) President Sammy Vellu, so much so that when Samy came to the town last week to support the BN candidate he did not inform the Indian community.

When word got out, according to Gobal, there was a spontaneous protest demonstration by 10,000 people that clogged roads and brought out the police.  Police arrested the PKR candidate’s son, claiming his stereo speakers were too loud, then told Gobal they would release him if Gobal told the crowd to disperse.  Gobal proudly said that he told them to keep his son locked up.  The campaign figured their chances of success were about 50-50, but in the end won by almost 12,000 votes and the opposition took the state.


16. (SBU) In the battle of banners, Kelantan was the Maginot Line of Malaysia where the green banners of PAS buttressed the navy blue of Barisan Nasional at every corner.  Yet despite the constant flag warfare, and despite repeated

visits earlier in the campaign by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, little else was observed that would indicate BN was truly prepared to fight.  In the final days of the campaign, while PAS held street rallies (ceramahs) and mass prayers at the local stadium in Kota Bahru, BN candidates quietly visited their neighbors and limited their campaigns to “walk-a-bouts.” 

On March 6, just two nights before the election, we were informed by a sparsely staffed campaign headquarters that UMNO would not be holding any ceramahs or public events before the elections.

17. (SBU) Nevertheless, PAS candidates continued to campaign hard throughout the state and in the capital city.  Former State Assembly Speaker and parliamentary candidate Wan Rahim Wan Abdullah invited us to attend a PAS ceramah in a Chinese village on the outskirts of Kota Bahru, “to get a real feeling for the issues facing Kelantan.” 

Upon arriving, we quickly noticed that the only Muslims at the ceramah were the candidate and his family. Yet, a crowd of some 200 Chinese voters bought food from local hawkers and listened for hours as Hokkien speakers explained why even non-Muslims should support PAS over Barisan Nasional. 

The crowd laughed and cheered as the speakers disparaged the BN national government.  As one attendee explained, “PAS cleaned up our state.  So you want to gamble or go to a night club. . .go to Thailand.  It’s not far.  Some of us go, but we don’t need he problems those things bring us here.”

18. (SBU) We spent the final day of campaigning in Bachok, the hotly contested seat of Deputy Finance Minister Dr. Awang Adek Hussin and his challenger PAS Deputy President Nasharuddin Mat Isa.  BN supporters confirmed that the coalition had taken the same approach throughout the campaign and limited most of their campaigning to small group meetings, door-to-door encounters, and relied heavily on the personal reputation of the candidate. 

We met briefly with Awang, and he expressed optimism of retaining his parliamentary seat, but less confident of winning the state seat which would designate him the coalition’s choice for Chief Minister.  PAS supporters remained confident of sweeping the parliamentary and state assembly elections in the district and held ceramahs nightly even to the last day of campaigning.

19. (SBU) Election Day in Kota Bahru remained calm and voters flowed to the polls in steady streams throughout the day. There was a true feeling of excitement in the air as both PAS and BN “pondok panas” workers greeted arriving voters with enthusiasm and attention.  But by the end of the day, BN workers confided that they had hoped for a better turn out.

They estimated that turn-out was around 70 percent, and they had hoped for 80 percent to ensure a BN victory.  In the end they were right, and PAS and PKR candidates handily defeated BN in both state and parliamentary elections across Kelantan.


20. (SBU) Prior to election day in Sabah, there was sentiment expressed both in news articles and even by some supporters within the BN’s Sabah People’s Progressive Party (SAPP)  that some Barisan seats were likely to be lost in the general election, with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) expected to reap the benefit of any BN losses.  Journalists speculated in the run-up to Election Day that the areas with Chinese voter majorities were being targeted by opposition parties such as the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and DAP.

21.  (SBU) When the voting was done and the ballots were counted, DAP managed wins only in the Kota Kinabalu and Sri Tanjung districts.  Just days before the election, however, many BN candidates confided that they were not sure how well the BN would perform in urban areas, and that they expected to lose more seats.  Still, one BN party activist we interviewed made the interesting comment that Chinese voters in Sabah become anxious when they see demonstrations leading to crackdowns such as those taking place in the peninsula where Bersih and Hindraf demonstrations came to grief.  He noted that Chinese in East Malaysia would, in order to avoid strife, rather stay away from supporting parties like PKR in the elections and prefer instead to support moderate mainline groups like the SAPP who are already aligned to folks in power.

22. (SBU) During the period of observations, we saw no buses being used to transport potential voters.  However, at one site we could overhear an UMNO worker on his cell phone requesting that transportation (including buses) be provided to bring voters to the station.  We observed an interesting situation when a youthful voter exited from the polling area and asked one of the uniformed UMNO party workers what he should do now.  Paraphrasing, she told him “not now” but to “come to the office tomorrow.”

KEITH (March 2008)