Grudge Match Shapes up in Key Malaysia State

Chuin-Wei Yap, Wall Street Journal

Heavy campaign-related spending by the ruling National Front coalition in the opposition stronghold state of Penang has put the incumbent Democratic Action Party on the defensive ahead of Malaysia’s general and state elections on May 5.

Penang is a key electoral battleground. The northwestern state is the third-largest contributor to the national gross domestic output after Selangor and Johor. More importantly, the unprecedented win by the opposition of Penang five years ago marked a watershed decline in the ruling coalition’s fortunes there. Penang’s 13 seats out of 222 total in the Parliament may not be hefty in numbers, but the opposition’s five-year ascendancy has enabled it to showcase the state as an example of its policies in action to the national voter.

The DAP, which mainly draws support from the ethnic Chinese minority, said it expects the National Front to wage a bitter campaign to regain control of the state. Penang has emerged a big draw for investors, with many from China and Singapore snapping up luxury properties and companies like U.S. electronics manufacturer Bose and chip-maker Intel Corp. INTC +2.34% pledging cash to build hi-tech factories.

In recent months, the ruling coalition and its allies have financed a lavish round of goodies and giveaways in Penang. This has included a Lunar New Year concert by Korean “Gangnam Style” rapper Psy, organized by the Penang branch of the National Front. Opposition leaders say National Front allies are using their financial clout to invite Taiwanese and Hong Kong entertainers – playing to the state’s plurality of Chinese, an ethnicity that accounts for a quarter of Malaysia’s population – for a second concert in late April, though an official with the ruling coalition said the event hasn’t been confirmed yet.

The Malaysian Chinese Association, a member of the National Front, has also given out thousands of plush toys. Government-controlled newspapers have been printing the National Front’s election manifesto, and opposition leaders say non-governmental organizations allied to the National Front are handing out donations in a bid to shore up support.

Acknowledging that the DAP has been heavily outspent by the National Front on its home turf, DAP’s assistant national publicity secretary Zairil Khir Johari said Tuesday his party is counting on social media to narrow its financial disadvantage and court a critical segment of active voters. 

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