IN the Malay village of Serkat, an open-air screening of the Malaysia Cup final by Pakatan Harapan last weekend attracted more youth than the one organised by Barisan Nasional in the same village.
In nearby Andek Mori, Malay villagers are opening their doors to PH activists who come knocking to get their votes in the Tanjung Piai by-election.
Eighteen months ago, during the 14th general election, such a reception was rare as Malay villages in Johor’s rural areas are known for being staunchly pro-Umno and BN.
The change in mood among rural Malays has been a morale booster for PH campaigners working to increase support for the ruling coalition.
Despite the warming attitude towards PH, the pact’s activists said the going is still tough, as Umno’s vast network and long history there mean the party has a bigger election machinery and deeper rapport with villagers.
Think-tank Institut Darul Ehsan had told The Malaysian Insight that PH needed to increase its Malay support to more than 35%, to stand a chance of retaining Tg Piai come November 16.
In GE14, PH garnered only 32% of the Malay vote, which collectively makes up 57% of voters in the federal seat. BN, meanwhile, won 57% of the Malay vote.
“We have to increase our votes from Malays to help balance out a potential loss in support from Chinese voters,” said Darwis Saleh, PH’s official in charge of the Pekan Nenas Timor polling district (PDM).
There are 27 PDMs in Tg Piai, of which 16 are Malay-majority, with most in Kukup. Kukup and Pekan Nenas are the two state constituencies in Tg Piai.
The PDMs of Serkat and Andek Mori, which have 1,516 and 1,592 voters, respectively, are between 80% and 90% Malay, said PH officials. Others, like Peradin, which has 688 voters, have almost no non-Malay voters.
But, political veterans such as Azmi Abdul Moin are still cautious about PH’s chances of getting a boost in Malay support, despite villagers’ friendlier attitude.
“We meet people and they are open towards us. But at the end of the day, we don’t know who they will vote for,” said the 66-year-old, who is in charge of the Peradin PDM.
Another PH official, Hasni Bachok, believes that the new openness is due to rural folk having accepted that PH is the government both at the state and federal levels.
“So, they will be interested in what we have to say, but whether they will vote for us is another matter,” said Hasni, who is in charge of the Andek Mori PDM.
“But at least, we have (more of) a chance to speak to them now compared with before.”
The imam and the anaesthesiologist
PH is fielding imam and religious school board member Karmaine Sardini as its candidate. The 66-year-old will face off with Wee Jeck Seng from BN’s Chinese party, MCA, and four others.
Karmaine’s popularity with villagers has been an advantage in PH’s campaign, said Abu Hassan Mohd Moin, who is in charge of the Serkat PDM.
“Our work is easier because people know him. Even Umno people like Karmaine.”
Karmaine was born in Kg Hj Shaari, Tg Kerang, and has a wide network of friends and family scattered throughout the Malay villages of Kukup.
Another factor that has helped the PH campaign is the service record of another well-known local boy – the late Dr Md Farid Md Rafik, the MP whose death triggered the Tg Piai by-election.
In his brief 18 months at the helm, Farid helped build halls for almost all the schools in the constituency, so that they can hold more co-curricular activities for youth.
Farid, an anaesthesiologist by profession, had also aimed to build or repair three jetties per year for local fishermen.
“He gave money to PIBGs (parent-teacher associations) and village committees. And, this was above and beyond the RM14.7 million in infrastructure projects,” said Abu Hassan.
“His wide service opened people’s eyes to PH and helped change their minds about us.”
This is why, said Abu Hassan, when he and his colleagues go out campaigning for the pact, they are no longer met with sour faces or shut doors.
But even with the change of attitude among Malays, the activists said they are realistic about their chances.
“We’re not going to win an outright majority of votes in the PDM. I think we have to be realistic,” said Hasni of Andek Mori.
“BN is still very strong here. But if we can at least double the amount of votes we received last time, from 300 to 600, that’s already good enough for us.”
Gerakan offers ‘genuine’ 3rd option for voters sour on Pakatan, BN
GERAKAN aims to be a third force in the Tanjung Piai by-election by banking on its scandal-free image, said candidate and deputy secretary-general Wendy Subramaniam.
She added that the former Barisan Nasional party is not a “rubbish bin”, as some have dubbed it, for voters who plan to shun the former ruling pact and Pakatan Harapan.
Those unsupportive of BN but disillusioned with PH should give Gerakan a new lease of life and help rebuild the party as a genuine third option, the 38-year-old UK-trained lawyer told The Malaysian Insight.
“Gerakan is the third force in the fight between PH and BN. The people have the power to choose. We are not a rubbish bin.
“Those who are dissatisfied with both PH and BN will be able to vote for a third party, and we are waiting to make history,” she said, adding that being able to offer voters a third choice is worth the possibility of losing her deposit.
“Contesting was not a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. I analysed and thought about it hard, and agreed to contest because I know the party’s image is clean, without scandals dogging it.
“I also intend to stay on in the party and serve the people through it.”
Subramaniam said she is also motivated by her 5-year-old daughter, who, despite her young age, had asked her mother what it meant to represent other people.
“My daughter asked me one day if the people really do have a voice. I replied that I hope we do.
“I feel that I need to do my part for our children’s future. So, when the party chairman asked for my opinion, I said I was ready to accept this challenge.”
She does not think of Gerakan as an underdog, even if the front-runners are PH and BN in a six-horse race that also features two independents and one from Islamist party Berjasa.
“The reception hasn’t been bad. Since Gerakan announced it was contesting and that I am the candidate, I have been on the ground, and many people know who I am.”
The Johor Baru native said her focus for Tg Piai, if elected, is enhancing its tourism industry and upgrading its healthcare infrastructure.
“There is no general hospital in Tg Piai, so any serious or sudden cases of disease and illness have to be referred to Johor Baru.
“This is a geographical issue, and the local population is also ageing. I hope I will be able to improve the local medical infrastructure and give the elderly quality healthcare.
“The roads here are also of poor quality; there are many potholes, and accidents are common.”
On developing tourism, Subramaniam said there are local spots and food that have yet to be promoted well to the rest of Malaysia.
She acknowledged her lack of campaign and governance experience compared with the PH and BN candidates, but said her youth is actually an advantage.
While she has been interested in politics for 12 years, she said she did not actively paticipate in politics until 2017.
Gerakan contested 11 parliamentary and 31 state seats in the 14th general election last year, without success.
In June last year, the party quit BN, which it had been part of since the late 1960s.
Gerakan had consistently promoted itself as a multiracial BN component and sought to carve out a name for itself as the former ruling coalition’s “conscience”.
Had Gerakan remained in BN, said Subramaniam, she would not have supported it.
“I would not have been able to accept it if Gerakan stayed in BN.”
She is campaigning with the support of her family, with her husband driving her to campaign stops around Tg Piai.
However, she said, her parents are worried that she will become a victim of cyberbullying.
“Whenever they see online comments against me, they get angry. I tell them to ignore the comments and keep calm. I am more concerned about children being bullied online.
“I also do not like personal attacks, so I will not respond in kind, as it is very immature.”