By Shanon Shah
THE upcoming by-election in Bukit Selambau, Kedah, on 7 April will be tricky.
At least in Bukit Gantang and Batang Ai, by-elections were called as a result of the incumbents’ deaths. The Bukit Selambau by-election was called because the incumbent, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s V Arumugam, tendered his resignation after alleging that he was bribed and pressured with threats to cross over to the Barisan Nasional (BN).
The Nut Graph spoke exclusively to state assemblyperson for Sungai Tiang, Kedah, Suraya Yaacob, to get some perspective on the upcoming battle. The assemblyperson, a trained lawyer, is also contesting for a spot on Wanita Umno’s national exco in the upcoming party polls.
TNG: In your opinion, what will be the hottest issue that the candidates are going to tackle in the Bukit Selambau by-election?
Suraya Yaacob: I don’t think there are any specific issues so far. There could be outside issues that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) might focus on, for example ongoing developments in Perak, kuasa raja and so on.
What about the Barisan Nasional (BN) — will it try to capitalise on the PAS state government’s controversial bumiputera housing quota policy?
I don’t think we’ll bring up the issue that much. In the state assembly, the PR government is always saying that it wants to review the policy, so we’ll leave it at that at the moment.
What do you think is going to be the determining factor for victory this time? Will voters choose the candidate they feel comfortable with, or will they vote along party lines?
I think the main factor here will be the popularity of the candidate. The voters in Bukit Selambau will not really vote along party lines. Even in the March 2008 election, voters did not vote along party lines in every single constituency. Especially in Kedah, a lot of voters still voted for individuals they believed in.
I speak from personal experience. When I ran for elections for the first time in 2004, I felt validated running under the BN ticket. But in the 2008 election, halfway through the campaign, a lot of candidates had to assert ourselves as individuals rather than ride on the party’s logo. When I was campaigning in March 2008, I felt that I had to help carry the party, rather than having the party carry my campaign.
I think this is why the March 2008 elections saw many new candidates winning. New candidates did not have as much baggage as established incumbents, and new candidates had to promote their individual capabilities much more assertively than merely relying on the party’s logo.
What are the BN’s chances of winning in Bukit Selambau this time? Do you think this is impossible at the moment?
We don’t know who the candidates are yet. So it’s hard to predict anything without even knowing who is going to run.
But do you think the BN candidate should come from Umno, as suggested by the Merbok division of Umno, or from the MIC, as suggested by Gerakan?
I think the BN definitely has to respect the multiracial nature of the coalition. We must give due respect to the MIC and let them field a candidate, unless of course the MIC specifically declines to field a candidate on behalf of the BN.
As a BN state assemblyperson in Kedah, do you sense that there is a wave of anger against the BN?
I personally don’t feel any wave of anger towards the BN at the state level in Kedah. Perhaps that is true at the federal, macro level, but not at the micro level.
In my constituency, the issues are all local issues. So perhaps that’s why I still won the state seat. But in the Parliament seat, the BN lost. I think people voted me back in because they saw the services I had been providing them as their representative.
If the BN suffers a defeat in Bukit Selambau, after being defeated in both the Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu by-elections, do you think this would be a strong signal from voters in Kedah?
I don’t think the upcoming by-election in Bukit Selambau can be the indicator of BN’s overall strength. We lost this seat anyway in the March 2008 elections. So how we perform in this seat this time cannot be used as a benchmark for the BN’s strength.
Besides, there are too many external factors at play right now. The real test for the BN will be the 13th general election.
Do you think the BN will try to take over Kedah in the same manner that it tried to take over Perak from the PR government there? What is your reading of the situation?
The BN needs to wrestle five more seats in Kedah in order to form government now. The gap in Kedah is therefore bigger than the gap that existed in Perak. But I do not want to comment on what happened in Perak specifically.
The thing is, being a practising lawyer I strongly feel that when the rakyat votes for a candidate from a certain party, then the candidate needs to remain in that party. If they jump to another party, then the rakyat suffers.
A government should not be formed via party crossovers. In principle, it is not right to do this, even if it benefits the BN.
Even in my case, the current Kedah Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak, is my close relative. When we meet at family functions, weddings, kenduris and so on, he will ask me jokingly if I am considering joining the PR. But my answer is still no.
It would be immature of us to treat the rakyat in this way. I say this to both the BN and PR. The BN should really focus on the next general elections. That really should be the way to win back the rakyat’s confidence and trust. I see both the BN and PR as being equally guilty of losing sight of this.
Do you think the anger of Perak voters will spill over to Bukit Selambau? Could the BN actually lose by a bigger margin this time, compared to the margin in March 2008?
I don’t think so. If we lose this time, it will probably be by a small margin only; it won’t be a bigger loss.
This time, the issue really will be about candidate selection. Both the PR and BN have to choose candidates wisely, not people who can simply jump from one party to the other.
Both the BN and PR have to pick candidates who will be faithful to their respective parties. And it is up to the respective parties to ensure this. If the candidates we are fielding as peoples’ representatives can simply resign without understanding the true nature and spirit of a constitutional monarchy, then it will be very difficult for the rakyat.
There are some who criticise the dates of the Bukit Selambau and Bukit Gantang by-elections as being more favourable to the BN. This is because polling day for both constituencies takes place after the Umno general assembly wraps up at the end of March 2009. What is your opinion?
I don’t think this is true. I think the main factor is that Perak needs to stabilise a bit more before any other by-elections are held. At the moment, Perak is very unstable. And it could continue to become even more panas, more unstable, if the by-elections were not timed sensitively.
I don’t think the by-election dates have anything to do with the Umno general assembly. I mean, it’s not as if it’s a Quranic injunction that we have to hold the Umno general assembly on a particular date. It’s not as if the Quran forbids Umno from changing the date of the general assembly to accommodate two by-elections, if necessary.
There are many who feel that Umno cannot change, whether it’s the party’s ideology or the corrupt practices within the party. These observers feel that Umno’s reluctance to change is what will cause the BN to lose the next general elections. What is your analysis?
I think these people are mistaken. They are not from Umno themselves. Umno can change because of the systems we have constructed throughout the party’s evolution. And I am sure the incoming president (Datuk Seri Najib Razak) will look into this issue.
It’s true, the present system within Umno encourages bribery, but I think the new party leadership will look into this.
But haven’t leaders from Umno themselves been the target of protests within the party when they have suggested reform and change? For example, when Tan Sri Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen Tengku Ismail suggested party restructuring to stamp out money politics?
But come on, Ku Deen suggested abolishing the sayap. That is why he was criticised. You cannot abolish something that is already good for the party. The sayaps, the party wings, are a good thing for Umno. It is the corruption that is bad. So, we want to correct the bad and strengthen the good.
What are your hopes for the upcoming Bukit Selambau by-election?
I hope voters look back, and compare the [previous] BN candidate with the PR candidate. There are many differences between them. Depa tengok perbezaan tu pun depa akan tau depa buat salah besaq masa pilihanraya 2008.
From the BN component parties, they should all avoid bickering about candidate selection after the candidate to be fielded has been determined. We will need to close ranks after the candidate is chosen by the BN leadership. The time to discuss and argue about candidate selection is now. We don’t want another Kuala Terengganu, where the candidate fielded was disputed even after he was chosen by the BN leadership.
Once the leadership has made its choice, the divisions must accept, and the party machinery must go all out to ensure victory for that candidate. Otherwise what is the point of having party and coalition leadership?
"We don't want another KT"
By Shanon Shah