Future of Kedah in the balance

The Kedah Government has not been embroiled in controversies like its Pakatan Rakyat counterparts and Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak has a firm grip despite his deteriorating health. Why then does talk persist that the PAS-led Government will fall in the next polls?


DATUK Seri Azizan Abdul Razak has not been in the best of health but he has, from most accounts, a firm grip on his position as Mentri Besar of Kedah.

PAS politicians in the state insist that “MB’s health is good” even though he looks wobbly on his feet and needs two men to hold on to each time he negotiates steps. Azizan underwent eye surgery recently and is rarely seen outdoors without his sunglasses.

Azizan suffered heart problems last year but it is his eyes that are now giving him problems. His vision has deteriorated so much in the last two months that he often identifies people by their voice. Despite all that, speculation that he will be replaced as Mentri Besar has died off.

However, one speculation that simply refuses to go away is that Kedah will fall in the next general election. Talk about Kedah falling had begun as a tentative question some time last year but it has since morphed into a statement of fact among some quarters.

Even those in PAS cannot say for sure whether they will hold on to Kedah. Their response to such queries often range from “Insyallah” (God willing) to admitting that they have a 50:50 chance.

Or as senior state exco member Datuk Phahrolrazi Mohd Zawawi put it: “We are not over-confident but, Insyallah, we believe we can make it.”

There is no blaring siren that the people are fed-up of PAS. At the same time, there are no clear signs that Kedahans are raring to return Pakatan to power. The ground is rather quiet and given the politics of the last few years, a quiet ground is not necessarily a good thing.

Azizan enjoys a strong hand over the other Pakatan parties because PAS holds the lion’s share of Pakatan’s 20 State seats – PAS won 16 State seats against one by DAP and five by PKR; two of the PKR men have since turned independent.

According to IDEAS think tank chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Azizan has kept a lower profile than the other Pakatan leaders and it has worked to his benefit.

“He is not confrontational. I remember he told off a national PAS figure for criticising the Kedah civil service. He does not want to antagonise the key stake-holders in the state. His style fits in nicely with the needs of Kedah,” said Wan Saiful who is quite open about being a card-carrying PAS member.

Wan Saiful, who is from Perlis, has relatives in Kedah who tell him that the Kedah Government is “not doing too badly”.

“More people talk about the problems in Umno than the problems in the State Government. I don’t know if PAS will survive in Kedah but people do not have any major complaints,” he said.

Those in the thick of Kedah politics would beg to defer. Tensions between PAS and its partners have been simmering away since 2010.

“They’re still married and staying at the same address. But PAS is living in the house while the DAP guy is camping out in the backyard,” said Kedah Gerakan Youth chief Tan Keng Liang.

Malays make up 72% of Kedah’s population and PAS’ dominance in Kedah means that it is in a position to push for Islamic policies in the State Government. As a result, DAP and the non-Malay PKR politicians are being pushed into a corner.

The Pakatan honeymoon in Kedah ended some time in 2009 when the State Government demolished an abattoir in Alor Setar used by pig farmers. It was so controversial that the lone DAP assemblyman Lee Guan Aik almost pulled out of the coalition. Another assemblyman, Tan Wei Shu from PKR, eventually chose to be an independent and was kicked out from the State exco. The State promised to build a new abattoir but everything is still up in the air and it looks like the DAP will go into the general election with this issue hanging over them.

DAP may be the tai kor or big brother in Penang and Selangor but in Kedah, it is like a small boy under the thumb of Azizan. It does not have the numbers and has been unable to exert its opinion or views. If Azizan wants to take Kedah down the Islamic road, there is quite little that DAP or PKR can do about it.

Moreover, when it comes to religious issues, DAP and PAS are like what the Chinese term as “chicken and duck talking”. One is going “chirp, chirp” and the other “quack, quack” and neither side can understand what the other is saying.

According to Keng Liang, the PAS Supporters Congress or the non-Muslim wing of PAS has become more powerful than either DAP and PKR. They have Azizan’s ears when it comes to Chinese issues.

Close watch

Keng Liang, who has a legal firm in Alor Setar and is somewhat of a Twitter sensation, has become a painful thorn in Azizan’s side. The legal eagle watches every pronouncement by the State Government and pounces each time he smells a contradiction. He is not afraid to take on Azizan and had a slanging match with the Mentri Besar over the State housing development policy, or more specifically the bumiputra housing quota.

More than 90% of land in Alor Setar is gazetted as Malay Reserve and under the Barisan Nasional, developers building houses on Malay Reserve Land were required to allocate 50% of the houses to bumiputra buyers. The idea was to maintain Malay ownership of property in the State.

But after Pakatan came to power, the bumiputra housing quota was increased to 70%, causing an uproar among the developers. The bumiputra quota for commercial property was hiked up from 30% to 50%. Those who thought it was tough doing business under the Barisan were about to find out how much tougher it would be under Pakatan.

“When I heard about it, I went to the media. The MB denied it so I produced a letter issued to a developer. The MB said it was an isolated case, so I produced more letters issued to two other developers. There was total silence after that. They should be more transparent and truthful,” said Keng Liang.

Phahrolrazi who is in charge of housing and local government has since confirmed the quota increase.

Unsurprisingly, there have been few new development projects since Pakatan came in. Developers are unsure of the impact of the changes and are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The irony is that the only big project the State has given the go-ahead for has run into opposition. The Aman Mall project will have a shopping complex and five-star hotel and will boost Alor Setar’s image. However, it also involves demolishing the 100-year-old Madrasah Salihiah, and Umno politicians are stunned that PAS would allow an active madrasah to be razed.

The family whose ancestor had donated the wakaf khas land is also reported to be unhappy. The protests have not stopped even though the State Fatwa Council has okayed the demolition and the Penang-based developer has promised to build a surau in the mall.

“I don’t agree with the decision. I remember when the Mid Valley mall was being built, Tun Mahathir asked that they build around the Hindu temple,” said Sungai Tiang assemblywoman Suraya Yaakob.

But, said Wan Saiful, the Kedah Government has done its homework on the project and those opposing it are politicians who want to capitalise on the issue.

Azizan is not the stereotypical PAS politician. He has been known to by-pass his State exco members and make decisions without consulting them. His party thinks he is too friendly with Umno; he treats civil servants the same way regardless of whether they are Umno or PAS supporters. They also say he gives too much face to two of Kedah’s biggest names – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Daim Zainuddin. But he is quite tactical because he knows this powerful pair can make his life miserable if they wish.

Despite being bogged down by health issues, Azizan has managed to fend off aspiring successors. During a State exco meeting, he said in passing that, “I don’t trust any of you”. No one in his party, not even his president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang, dares tell him to go.

A lot of it has to do with his personality. He is very much an Alpha male, or what the Malays describe as “jantan”, and he is not afraid of being challenged.

Umno’s Suraya who is related to him has this to say: “He has his own way of running the State. Even when the DAP or PKR people stand up to tackle him in the State Assembly sitting, if he does not like the question, he brushes them off like flies.”

But Azizan has a folksy charm and a laid-back sense of humour that makes him stand out from the oh-so-predictable type of ulama found in PAS.

At a recent official dinner, the Sultan of Kedah urged Azizan to help himself to the oysters being served. Azizan, who has two wives, had those around the table smiling when he replied that oysters were of no use to him since he could no longer ride the bicycle, so to speak. He said that nowadays, he was pushing the bicycle along the side of the road and most of the time the bicycle was resting against the rubber tree. By then, everyone including the Tuanku were cracking up with laughter. It was a cheeky joke told in typical Kedah metaphor.

Azizan’s administration has not been as smooth-sailing. His administration came in with lots of promises that included building low-cost houses and making Kedah an agricultural hub – and Kedahans are still waiting. But are all these problems major enough to topple Azizan’s administration?

The answer, said former mentri besar Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, lies in the marginal seats.

Barisan is eyeing five specific seats that PAS won narrowly with majorities of between 76 votes to 506 votes. In several of these seats, the spoilt votes were more than the actual majority. Pakatan currently has 20 seats against Barisan’s 16. If the above five seats fall in the next election, then Kedah may change hands.

Kedah is in the balance and it won’t take very much to tip the scales. PAS does not have the sort of hold in Kedah that it has in Kelantan and Azizan is not Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat.

“Malays in Kedah are quite different. They are not in the grip of the Tok Guru culture found in Kelantan. Kedahans come from a mix of the modern Islamic schooling, liberal education and the sekolah pondok culture. Because of this, they cannot be taken for granted by either side,” said the Kedah-born publisher Datuk A. Kadir Jasin.