Permatang Pauh and beyond

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Barring massive electoral fraud, Anwar is one by-election and two weeks short of returning to Parliament. When he does, he’d be the Opposition Leader of a second coalition, says Khoo Boo Teik. After that people would want to know if he’d really form a new Federal government in mid-September as he has declared, promised, or threatened.

If we don’t live in them but only notice them while we travel the old trunk roads or veer off the highways, our small towns will seem to be neither-here-nor-there places. They have neither the preserved charm of rural settlements nor the catching vibrancy of large cities.

One small town might be a shrine to a bit of history, like Baling, say, which hosted the abortive ‘peace talks’ of 1955. Another might fortuitously be associated with an unexpectedly prominent personage, rather like Kepala Batas, the hometown of Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

We rarely think of the small towns as repositories of deeply cherished tradition or cradles of consequential change. Truth be told, we seldom expect our small towns to rise above nondescript places that are inhabited by hicks whose lives are so parochial they touch or inspire few outsiders.


Small town, big waves

Perhaps that’s why many people are startled each time a small-town electoral constituency teaches us political lessons that resonate beyond its geographical and social boundaries.

Three such constituencies, each coming alive at a crucial moment in our recent history, readily come to mind: Tambunan (Sabah), Lunas (Kedah) and Sungei Siput (Perak).

The Tambunan by-election of December 1984 gave Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan a spirited triumph that heralded Parti Bersatu Sabah’s toppling of Datuk Harris Salleh and his Parti Berjaya four months later. Tambunan’s many-sided impact on Sabah politics remains to this day.

The Lunas by-election of November 2000, which ended Barisan Nasional’s 40-year control of the constituency, marked the furthest point of Barisan Alternatif’s 1999 sally as a second coalition. The result broke BN’s customary two-thirds majority in Kedah, in hindsight a harbinger of Pakatan Rakyat’s takeover of the state government five months ago.

On 8 March 2008, Sungei Siput spurned Dato’ Seri Samy Vellu after having returned him in eight consecutive elections starting in 1974. Without detracting from Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s tenacious grassroots work, Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj’s victory after two failures revealed the reach of a Hindraf-inspired Makkhal Sakhti (People Power) and the scale of the rout of BN’s non-Malay-based parties.

Whatever their differences, each of those contests supplied a critical lesson. When a small-town constituency concentrates in itself political issues that grip the whole nation, an out-resourced, harassed and otherwise disadvantaged opposition could defeat the BN machine by surfing a wave of sheer voter rebelliousness.

By-election in Permatang Pauh

On 26 August, there will be just such an election in Permatang Pauh, Penang – with a critical difference (from Tambunan, Lunas and Sungei Siput): the voter rebelliousness won’t be directed at a BN incumbent, but will support an old incumbent against the national BN machine.

The immediate reason for the by-election is the resignation of Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as Member of Parliament barely five months after she won her third term since 1999. The most keenly anticipated aspect of the by-election is Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s return to electoral contest after an involuntary absence of ten years.

The basic outcome itself may not be remarkable. Almost everyone expects Anwar to win, after which the spin masters can go to work on the winning margin. Already some UMNO leaders belittle the significance of the by-election – just another by-election, according to UMNO Vice-President Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yasin.

But were that so, there would be no need for Deputy Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak to lead the BN/UMNO campaign, or for the hotels in Bukit Mertajam and nearby towns to be fully booked, or for born-again foes of Anwar, such as Dr Chandra Muzaffar and Ezam Mohd Nor, to train their sights on the Pakatan Rakyat leader.

Startling results

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Permatang Pauh which has 58,459 voters presently has been an interesting electoral battle ground.

Here in 1982, upon joining UMNO, Anwar won against the Parti Islam incumbent, demonstrating the huge electoral support Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad received when he led BN for the first time. (Thereafter, Anwar retained his seat against the challenges of other PAS notables, Mohamad Sabu and Mahfuz Omar.)

Seventeen years later, joining the Malay revolt against Mahathir and UMNO, Permatang Pauh responded to Anwar’s humiliation by electing his wife, Wan Azizah, in her contest against an erstwhile Anwar lieutenant, Dato’ Dr Ibrahim Saad.

Only Permatang Pauh was narrowly left standing in 2004 when BN’s unprecedented sweep cost Parti Keadilan Rakyat four of its five parliamentary seats.

Last March, however, any UMNO hope of seizing Permatang Pauh and wiping out Keadilan was dashed when Wan Azizah won her largest ever majority (while 30 other Keadilan candidates were victorious elsewhere).

Significant shifts

What can we infer from Permatang Pauh’s electoral record and its several startling results?

For the past 26 years, the constituency has been loyal to Anwar and Azizah. Crucially, though, its electorate has taken turns over several decades to support PAS, UMNO and Keadilan. In the heat of previous battles, the deeper significance of this willingness to vote in and vote out might have been overlooked. But such an attitude among the voters is precisely what’s necessary to liberalize the political system.

The present state-level balance of power is unusually equitable. Within Permatang Pauh, the State Legislative Assembly seats of Penanti, Permatang Pasir and Seberang Jaya are respectively held by Keadilan, PAS and UMNO. In other words, no party has a monopoly over local support. This situation may not gladden the hearts of party partisans. But it needn’t dishearten those who seek to pluralize the political system.

Moreover, the tripartite division of seats at state level suggests that this 69-percent-Malay constituency is barren soil for narrow appeals to ‘Malay unity’, UMNO’s constant refrain since Reformasi was first declared by Anwar in Permatang Pauh in September 1998.

And if a constituency such as Permatang Pauh, with its 31 per cent non-Malay voters, is also poor soil for BN’s ethnic politics, as shown by the March 2008 election, then the gerrymandering that long favoured BN against the stand-alone race-based parties has been undermined.

In short, this small-town constituency has quietly anticipated the shifts in voter attitudes and voting behaviour that now make a two-coalition system feasible.

Rebelliousness

The tenor of the by-election will surely be set by a persisting voter rebelliousness made up of four parts.

First, the 8 March voter defiance of BN remains. Abdullah Badawi’s regime has offered nothing meaningful to assuage non-Malay anger at UMNO, or to reverse Malay disenchantment with Abdullah’s leadership. For their losses in March, BN’s non-Malay-based parties blamed UMNO while large segments of UMNO blamed Abdullah.

Hence, the low or sharply reduced popularity and approval ratings for Abdullah, Najib, and BN in the Merdeka Centre polls of July and according to other less methodical soundings of public opinion. The ratings are indications that the regime has not won back disgruntled voters.

Inflation

Second, there’s the post-election anger at worsening inflation, most starkly represented by the 41 per cent and 100 per cent increases in petroleum and diesel prices respectively in June. By now, public resentment of inflation is part of a deeper loss of confidence in the Abdullah regime’s ability to manage what many fear is impending economic decline.

Indeed, at the Bankers Club Luncheon and Forum of 15 July, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah dismissed Abdullah’s various ‘Corridors’ as ‘stillborn projects’. Tengku Razaleigh described current economic policy as being ‘haphazard, driven by whims and special interest projects rather than by a cohesive design geared to shape areas of distinct national competitive advantage’.

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Many voters would remember that Pakatan Rakyat’s New Malaysian Agenda stresses an urgent need for reform precisely to restore national competitive advantage.

The return of the sodomised

Third, there’s the collective disgust at Sodomy II (see ‘Conquering and vulnerable’, Aliran Monthly, 28, 5, 2008). The charges, based on Saiful Bukhari Azlan’s police report of ‘consensual sodomy’ performed by Anwar on him, will be tested in a court of law in September.

But with only 11 per cent of the Merdeka Centre’s surveyed respondents believing Anwar to be culpable, the court of public opinion has resoundingly rejected Sodomy II.

An electorate, and especially the Malay electorate, that painfully remembers Anwar’s 1998 sodomy trial is bound to regard Sodomy II as a politically-directed character assassination to preempt Anwar’s return to Parliament.

Political degeneration

And fourth, there is impatience over Abdullah’s undelivered promises of institutional reform. Politics in the country appears to have been reduced to a charade of allegations and counter-allegations, police reports and counter-reports, and statutory declarations and counter-declarations. Where have these led?

These have not clarified controversies such as the Shaariibuu Altantuya murder, Sodomy II, or the alleged roles of the Inspector-General of Police and the Attorney-General in alleged evidence-fixing during Sodomy I.

These have not allayed suspicions over the disappearances of private investigator, P. Balasubramaniam (who had made two opposed statutory declarations in two days, first linking and then delinking Najib from the Altantuya murder trial) and Hospital Pusrawi’s Dr Mohamed Osman Abdul Hamid (whose medical report on Saiful had indicated no sign of sodomy).

Such are the symptoms, to paraphrase Tengku Razaleigh, of ‘a crippling loss of confidence in our key institutions’ when ‘personality dominated politics degenerates’, leading to ‘the destruction of reputations, intrigues, spy scandals, succession plans and whatnot as stratagems to resolve leadership contests’.

Crowd at a ceramah

Against this political background, within and beyond the constituency of Permatang Pauh, Anwar spoke at the Ceramah Perdana Menuju Ke Putrajaya, held in a field at Taman Pauh on Saturday, 9 August.

The large crowd, 15,000 according to one media estimate, was predominantly Malay. The majority sat in orderly fashion on the fenced field. The rest milled about the perimeter of the field.

There were many elderly men and women, mostly dressed in casual kampong attire. There were couples with young children, a few mothers with infants, and a small number of children who were peddling balloons and snacks. A lot of young men sat on or stood by their motorcycles. From the nearby flats, some residents leaned out of their windows.

Along one side of the field were the stalls that regularly add a pasar malam (night market) air to the Pakatan Rakyat rallies. The stalls sold food, drinks, and the Pakatan Rakyat parties’ paraphernalia – stickers, photos of Anwar and Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, DVDs of political speeches and events, and even ‘aic’ (Anwar Ibrahim Club) t-shirts.

The crowd very much recalled the gathering outside Anwar’s house in Cherok To’kun ten years ago when Anwar issued the original Permatang Pauh Declaration to launch Reformasi to a resounding reception (see ‘Wit and Wisdom’, Aliran Monthly, 18, 9, October 1998).

The world watches us

Several speakers spoke before Anwar, namely Shamsul Iskandar Mohd Akin, Mohd Fariz Musa, Khairil Anuar Ahmad Zainudin, Tan Seng Toh and S. Kesavan, all leaders of Keadilan’s Angkatan Muda; Nga Kor Ming from Democratic Action Party; and Salahuddin Ayub from PAS.

Their presence and speeches underscored three points. Keadilan, itself a ‘youthful’ party, would heavily mobilize young voters who have always been drawn to Anwar’s charisma. All Pakatan Rakyat was united in defence of Anwar against Sodomy II and would spare no effort to secure his victory. And not just Malaysia but the world would be watching Permatang Pauh on 26 August.

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New days

Then spoke Anwar.

It was 11 pm, not the time of night for shouting oneself hoarse. It was August 2008, not the time in Anwar’s career for demonstrating the desperate defiance of September 1998 when his days of freedom were numbered.

True, his days of freedom could be numbered again if, he said, a ‘correct, correct, correct’ judge presided over the Sodomy II trial. But now was a time to rally and reassure, and Anwar always did that with unmatched eloquence.

His tone was measured, his approach relaxed and comradely. The crowd was not a sea of anonymous voters, curious onlookers and itinerant stallholders. He addressed them as friends and neighbours which many of them were. Now he raised the pressing economic problems they faced; now he jested about the attempts on his reputation, derisively mimicking some of his detractors. On two occasions, he playfully broke into a few lines of song.

Son, not traitor

After all, this was Permatang Pauh, and he its favourite son. He wasn’t ever a sodomite; not then, not now. To charge him so was a conspiracy then and now.

He was no traitor to the Malays. Since his University of Malaya days he’d struggled for their interests. He was no one’s tool. But as Pakatan Rakyat leader he would be the instrument for uplifting all Malaysians. Before a crowd that was 90 per cent Malay, he didn’t hesitate. No more ketuanan Melayu: that was the slogan of corruption and cronyism.

He quoted Ibn Khaldun as if the Muqadimmah was meat and drink to his audience. Surprisingly, he also drew on Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbons to make a point about the rise and fall of civilizations and empires.

Anwar’s point was one that Mahathir had repeatedly taught: we have been sliding and sliding and we must catch up. But whereas Mahathir agonized over the decline of the Malays, Anwar was indignant about the decline of Malaysia.

The old doctor’s prescription was knowledge, work, discipline, and the New Economic Policy. His former ‘anointed’ successor’s solution was terse: Change the government!

Return to Permatang Pauh

Thus Anwar emphasized that his agenda was not personal. Permatang Pauh’s mission, come 26 August, was more than returning him to Parliament. This small-town constituency had to make a national choice. ‘If you want a small petrol price reduction, vote BN,’ he said. ‘But if you want real improvement to your lives, vote for a Pakatan Rakyat government.’

Barring massive electoral fraud, a qualification that even some observers indifferent to his fate have found it necessary to make in cyberspace, Anwar is one by-election and two weeks short of returning to Parliament. When he does, he’d be the Opposition Leader of a second coalition.

After that people would want to know if he’d really form a new Federal government in mid-September as he has declared, promised, or threatened.

But about that, don’t ask me, I wish I knew. Don’t ask Anwar either; he might just quote Hamlet to you.

Ask the Permatang Pauh voters: they may have something to do with it.

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