WITH a demographic makeup that mirrors that of the country’s, the race for control of two federal seats in urban Kuala Lumpur has become much more than just a competition among its rival contenders.
Rather, the two seats – Lembah Pantai and Titiwangsa, both Malay-majority, both smack in the middle of a cosmopolitan city – represent a political juxtaposition in a grossly divisive contest for Malaysia’s rule.
Much like elections past, campaigning in the 14th general election (GE14) has revealed a polarising truth: as much as Malaysia is portrayed to the world as a tolerant and united multiracial country, its politics make it anything but.
One simple illustration is this: the Malaysian government’s flagship development programme “1Malaysia” is predicated on this very notion of inclusivity and unity but, as many would agree, the actions of the politicians who promote the initiative, as well as those who criticise it, are the antithesis of that.
And the stories coming out from the campaign trail for GE14 seem to confirm this.
Whether the opposition or the incumbent, the modus operandi seems always the same.
When canvassing for support from the Malays, the country’s ethnic majority, the message is either that voting in the Opposition (now called Pakatan Harapan or the ‘hope alliance’) would lead to the Malays ceding power to the minority Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups, or that re-electing the incumbent National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) pact would be akin to voting for corruption, Malay supremacy and zero minority rights.
Similar narratives are then trotted out to the Chinese, Indians and the indigenous, only they are tweaked to suit the different audiences.
Often, other big-ticket issues are thrown in for added flavour. The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal is, of course, the flavour of the year when it comes to corruption accusations against BN and embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak. Firm favourites on cost of living, meanwhile, include debates on the viability of cash handouts to the poor under the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) programme and the alleged abuse of revenue collected from the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST) scheme.
These and other polarising conversations are reflective of a tale as old as the country herself, that is, a tale of two Malaysias.
But with the exception of an increased social media presence, a much, much more tech-savvy election machinery and a new boss in the opposition camp, not much else seems to have changed.
One might even argue that leaders from both the ruling coalition and the opposition could well be preaching to the choir.
There’s a strong belief that despite the mini-battles being fought over and over again in urban centers and far-flung rural constituencies from east to west Malaysia, the majority of the country’s 14.9 million registered voters may have already had their minds made up. And among the so-called fence-sitters are the politically apathetic, many among whom may well stay home come polling day on May 9.
So who will win this ‘mother of all elections’? The answer, perhaps, may lie in Lembah Pantai and Titiwangsa.
In Titiwangsa’s iconic Malay enclave Kampong Bharu, BN incumbent Johari Abdul Ghani was met with a lukewarm response at a ceramah on Wednesday evening.
The 500-odd seats laid out in front of the mini-concert-sized stage, erected at the community football field beneath the twinkle of KL’s landmark Mahathir-era Petronas Twin Towers, was not filled to capacity.
For context, the towers are a symbol of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 22-year reign.
Once BN’s formidable leader, the 93-year-old statesman is now leading the opposition charge following a fallout with Najib over the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal, a scandal now the subject of several multi-agency investigations in the US and across the world.
The historic blue-collar township often described as the heart of the Malay community is one of two seats in the 11-seat capital that went to BN in Election 2013. The remaining nine were snapped up by the federal opposition, then known as Pakatan Rakyat.
But Malay support has traditionally been with BN; the pact scored 64 percent of the Malay vote in 2013, five percentage points higher than the 59 percent it polled in 2008.
This bodes well for Johari, who in 2013 won by only a margin of 866 votes. The chartered accountant-turned-deputy finance minister counts himself lucky, given he was then up against a novice contender from the ultra-conservative Pan Islamic Party (Pas).
At the talk where food coupons and subsidised sacks of rice were generously handed out by a BN-linked NGO, Johari assured constituents that the ownership of their prime real estate land would be preserved.
“We (BN) will ensure that the rights of the Malays and the ownership of Kampong Bahru’s ancestral land will be protected,” Johari told the crowd.
The issue of land ownership in Kampong Bharu is a political hot potato: for decades, the area has been seen as underdeveloped, with plots of land filled with ‘squatter’ type houses inherited for generations. In many cases, a plot of land is shared by dozens of heirs who more often than not could not agree on lucrative offers from developers.
This is a cause that Johari champions, and will likely be used by the seat’s 55,282 registered voters to decide whether or not deserves re-election.
In retrospect, Kampung Bharu was also at the centre of the historic racial riots of May 13, 1969, between the country’s Malays and Chinese, which is why there remains a lingering sense of anti-Chinese sentiments until today.
Kampong Bharu resident Rosli Shauddin, 54, a so-called ‘fence-sitter’ who attended Johari’s ceramah on Wednesday evening sang praises for the candidate, who is affectionately known as Dato’ Jo.
“Dato’ Jo can do the work, but it’s the community leaders and village heads who ruin everything for him,” the taxi driver told Asian Correspondent.
Rosli, who has been a life-long resident of the township, however, said he hoped Johari could live up to his words if re-elected.
“Politicians can say one thing, but in reality, a plot of land near here has been sold off to a mainland Chinese company for redevelopment,” the father of two said.
“We feel that the Malay community is being phased out and the Kampong Bharu area being overtaken by Indonesian workers and all sorts of development.”
For GE14, Johari is running against Mohamad Noor Mohamad of PAS, and the People’s Justice Party’s (PKR) Rina Mohd Harun, in a three-cornered fight that threatens to split votes.
Similar to Titiwangsa, blue-collar families and petty traders make up over 63 percent of voters in Lembah Pantai, just over 10 kilometers downtown from where Johari is contesting.
But aside from concerns of gentrification, voter sentiment here centers around bread and butter issues.
Forty-year-old homemaker Siti Khadijah Johari says she would like to receive more the government’s annual BR1M cash handouts of RM1,000 (US$250).
“I am satisfied with the educational assistance for my four children and my housing needs,” the poor people’s housing project (PPRT) resident said. “But this area is congested and could do with more parking spaces.”
Siti Khadijah’s reliance on the federal government’s handouts and focus on poverty eradication form some of BN’s best arguments in the campaign, and serve as major stumbling blocks for the opposition’s PKR candidate Fahmi Fadzil.
The 37-year-old chemical engineer-turned-politician is a first-time contender who is filling the shoes of Nurul Izzah, the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, the prominent opposition leader imprisoned on sodomy charges.
“Fahmi faces the challenge of trying to convince voters to push for long-term solutions and not favour stop-gap measures from the ruling government,” a PKR campaign worker who declined to be named told the Asian Correspondent.
“Giving out those BR1M allowances do not solve the economic difficulties faced by the constituents who live off less than RM2,000 (US$500) a month in Kuala Lumpur where living costs are increasing.”
While any PKR candidate is tipped to win in Lembah Pantai, owing to Nurul Izzah’s legacy, Fahmi, who is known for his clean-cut appearance and smiling demeanour, is facing a gargantuan task of defeating BN veteran Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal, a well-respected politician. Fahmi is also facing another new face, Fauzi Abu Bakar, of PAS.
“Fahmi has been seen in the area helping Nurul Izzah over the last 10 years but (Raja) Nong Chik has been doing work in the area for the last three decades,” the election worker said.
“It’s going to be a tough fight, especially when there is rumour that the wealthy businessman (Nong Chik) has sold off some properties to fund his campaign.”
Fifty two-year-old sundry shop owner Parameswari Mutusamy, a minority Indian resident who lives in the predominantly Malay neighbourhood in the centre of Pantai says her choice candidate is based on the cost of living.
“My vote depends on whether or not the ruling government will remove the GST (goods and services tax),” she said.
“Everything is so expensive after the tax was introduced.”