The Permatang Pasir question

By Deborah Loh (
THE Permatang Pasir by-election on 25 Aug 2009 is a chance for the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to test what the public thinks of their cobbled partnership, post-March 2008 general election and following several significant developments.

Permatang Pasir, with its mixed voter ethnicity of 72% Malay Malaysian, 26% Chinese Malaysian and 1.6% Indian Malaysian, could indicate what people think about the PR’s multiracial platform, its viability, and the very state of things in Malaysia.
In the 15 months since the PR captured five states, the reality is that the coalition today is tested from within and without. It has been thwarted by the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Perak, but component parties have also fought openly among themselves in Kedah, Selangor and Penang. Additionally, the PR’s national leaders have sparred over PAS’s proposed unity talks with Umno. Now, the PR has Selangor assemblypersons being probed for corruption, and a stalemate in Penang with the Kampung Buah Pala villagers. How will the PR campaign answer these issues in Permatang Pasir?
On the other side, the BN will have no shortage of ammunition. They can use race and Islam with the beer sales spat in Selangor to tell Malay Malaysian voters that PAS has sold its soul. With the same issue, they can tell non-Malay Malaysian voters the kind of assemblyperson they’ll get if they vote for PAS. At the same time, efforts by Bahasa Malaysia newspaper Utusan Malaysia to depict Malay Malaysians as being under siege will likely flavour the BN’s campaign.
Will voters fall for it?
The Islam card
Permatang Pasir, one of three state seats in the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat, will be a straight fight between the BN’s Rohaizat Othman and PAS’s Mohd Salleh Man.
The by-election is being called after the death of Datuk Mohd Hamdan Abdul Rahman on 31 July. He held the seat for three terms and was the sole PAS assemblyperson in the Penang legislative assembly after March 2008.
Rohaizat, the Permatang Pauh Umno division secretary, and Mohd Salleh, the PAS Penang commissioner, seem apt choices for a face-off. Both have training in syariah, and will be able to appeal to the Malay Malaysian segment.
Penang PAS deputy commissioner I Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa believes the use of Malay identity and Islam will figure strongly in the by-election. One reason is that Permatang Pasir is a semi-urban constituency with no urgent development needs. In any case, the BN, too, has realised the development card has little play with voters post-March 2008.
“People are attuned to national issues here,” Mujahid says. “The DAP, with the most seats in the Penang assembly, controls the government, and people perceive that it has not done much for Malays [Malaysians] and for Islam. Umno can say, look, the PR is not doing enough and it is ridiculing Islam; what is PAS doing about it?” he tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
The “ridicule” he is referring to is the outburst by the Penang chief minister’s chief of staff Jeff Ooi, who called a Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Penang municipal councillor a religious extremist because of his membership in Jemaah Islah Malaysia.
Police personnel controlling the crowd of BN supporters outside Institut Kemahiran Belia Negeri
in Butterworth, where nomination took place
Mujahid also expects that recent spats like the sale of beer in Selangor, and the PKR-led state government’s decision to let stores self-regulate, will be manipulated in the BN campaign rhetoric. The Selangor beer sales dispute might make it a tricky argument for PAS, whether to Malay or to Chinese Malaysian voters.
“Our test will be to convince voters of the PR’s effectiveness despite all these problems,” Mujahid says. “And for Malay [Malaysian] voters, we have to convince them that a PAS voice to speak for Islam in the state legislative assembly is still needed because if you vote for Umno, they can’t do anything as they are not part of the state government.”
The Anwar card
Permatang Pasir lies within PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s stronghold. In both the 2008 general election and the August Permatang Pauh parliamentary by-election, all of Permatang Pasir’s nine polling districts were swept by the PR. In the general election, Permatang Pasir went to PAS by a majority of 5,433 votes.
But Manik Urai in Kelantan was thought to be a sure win with a hefty majority for PAS; yet that by-election saw the BN a mere 65 votes shy of victory.
PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub says while Permatang Pasir may be in Anwar’s stronghold, the lesson learnt from Manik Urai is that voters now are not afraid to buck trends.
“When they feel like teaching you a lesson, they dare to vote differently,” he tells The Nut Graph.
Umno, in claiming that Malay Malaysian voters have started flocking back to them, has tried to secure this by calling Anwar a traitor to the Malays. It is rhetoric that jives with manufactured fears that bumiputra political power is on the decline.
Salahuddin admits that what it will come down to is showing who the bigger traitor is: “We’ll tell voters all the things Umno has done to betray the Malays for the past 52 years.”
Umno information chief, Ahmad Maslan, is cautious, especially since the numbers show that the BN is the underdog in this race.
“We are not going to be overconfident. But we are hopeful because Permatang Pasir was not always an opposition stronghold. It used to be the BN’s until three terms ago,” Ahmad tells The Nut Graph.
What is critical for the BN is team unity, something which was said to be lacking in the Permatang Pauh by-election when the BN candidate stood against and lost to Anwar.
PAS supporters waiting outside the nomination centre
With a sizeable number of Chinese Malaysian voters in Permatang Pasir, it would not be surprising if the BN and PAS adjusted their campaign rhetoric for this group.
Chinese Malaysian support for BN was 16% in the Permatang Pauh by-election, according to Umno’s Ahmad. At the same time, both the BN and PR will seek to polish their Islamic credentials with Malay Malaysian voters.
The BN is expected to go to town with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia to match the opposition’s PAS for All. But the BN might find it hard to be credible following the uproar over Utusan Malaysia’s racialised articles of late, and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s tacit defence of the newspaper.
Up to 40% of Permatang Pasir voters are between the ages of 21 and 40, adds Ahmad. Hence, they are likely to be critical of both the BN and PR.
With so many national issues on the plate, including the death of DAP political aide Teoh Beng Hock, Permatang Pasir on the outset may look like a PAS win with a smaller majority. If the BN wins, it only adds one more seat to its current 11 against the DAP’s and PKR’s combined 28, and does not change the balance of power. More interesting, then, is what this by-election will tell us about where the PR stands with the public.