Sungai Bakap: Back to the BN future

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JUNE 27 — Almost a year back, during the Penang state elections I was driving around the backroads of Nibong Tebal-Parit Buntar looking for a ceramah by Kedah Mentri Besar Sanusi Md Nor. This was peak Sanusi time and any appearance was expected to pull in the crowds. By the time we arrived, he had left.

Arrived at where became more of the story. It was the compound of two houses by the service road, with around 20 seats arranged.

The attendees were senior citizens and a TV set up so they caught the candidate’s livestream. It was dimly lit and strangely quiet.

It was just as hard to find the Pakatan session for the evening. It was as if elections were stripped down to more basic constructs and overly elaborate gatherings seemed unnecessary overkills.

Even physical posters and banners seemed less critical to the business of acquiring votes. Perhaps this will embolden the Election Commission to do away with nomination days soon.

But seriously, the votes are not in the events anymore. They are at best a show of strength, a pow wow for all party or coalition’s faithful. No more do pundits rely on numbers at rallies or ceramah as an indicator of electoral support.

Party flags are seen along the road ahead of the Sungai Bakap by-election. — Bernama pic
Party flags are seen along the road ahead of the Sungai Bakap by-election. — Bernama pic

Party flags are seen along the road ahead of the Sungai Bakap by-election. — Bernama pic

Political parties are unsure if the by-election result on July 6, 2024 disrupts the national mood — or at least how the rakyat weigh the trajectory of both major coalitions.

Yet, trust the winner to milk the outcome as an indication people are disgusted with the Unity Government or that people are unbelievably thrilled by the great work of the Unity Government. Yet, the “actual” people are expected to be underwhelmed by the politics regardless of whether the moon or eye triumph.

Can they be blamed for doing so in this low-impact election?

The only vote-swinging issue is reliable water supply. While PAS-Perikatan Nasional may point to DAP-Pakatan-Unity coming short on the matter, the obvious rebuttal is how far did the late assemblyman together with his special officer who is the candidate now get to resolve it?

It’s staid and screams stalemate.

Don’t get me wrong.

A resolution most certainly appeals to the masses, however, the inability of both sides to provide a compelling narrative moves no hearts through it.

What the by-election does provide is insight into two elements. One a trend and the other symbolism.

Ketua Wanita PKR

Retail politics is rising in prominence in Sungai Bakap.

The state seat — one of three — is under the Nibong Tebal parliamentary seat which is held by PKR’s Fadhlina Sidek.

The education minister is also PKR Wanita chief. She was not able to get PKR’s candidate last year to pip PAS’ candidate, but this being a by-election it allows her party, and more importantly her wing to canvass longer and harder for the seat.

Candidate Dr Joohari Ariffin is a long term education bureaucrat but a novice in party politics. He’d do well to lean on Wanita PKR.

But is Wanita PKR strong?

Wanita Umno was the single most successful election campaigner in the history of Malaysian politics. While the party had incumbency seemingly forever, it was the women who did the heavy lifting in the party.

Probably the reason Pakatan took such a long tumultuous route to power was their glaring weakness to court female voters.

Wanita was on top, seas ahead of the rest until the men messed up the party’s overall appeal through a series of political suicides through the 15 years. By then even Wanita Umno could not explain or deflect the missteps in the stairways and corridors of PPRs.

Whether Wanita PKR has picked up the mantle from its erstwhile competition is to be tested as its cadres go door to door in Sungai Bakap.

Wanita Umno cooperates with PKR, but with the contest in Fadhlina’s backyard — and the candidate from her party — Wanita PKR takes the lead in this campaign.

PKR lost by about 4 per cent of the total possible votes 10 months ago, if Fadhlina and crew can overturn the deficit sufficiently, then PAS has much cause to pause.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim needs electoral cover as the country approaches eclectically — but still approaches — subsidy rationalisations.

I promise now, coincidentally

Umno Supreme Council Member Ahmad Maslan said that election fraud cases against the government of the day meet dead-ends.

He was responding to allegations that fresh announcements of development projects and financial investments in the by-election seat in the middle or lead-up to the by-election are tantamount to vote manipulation.

For those unacquainted with Malaysia's patronage politics, it is par for the course for state and federal government to offer more when votes are nearby. The moral disposition of the action is actively ignored.

Back to Ahmad, our public works minister.

He explained plainly that these ministers, chief ministers, senior civil servants who report to the government of the day are only announcing or launching projects and actions within the ambit of their respective offices. It is fair action but more importantly legal actions.

If the public works minister fixes a bridge in Sungai Bakap between the time a by-election is called in Sungai Bakap and that said by-election is held in Sungai Bakap, according to the minister’s reasoning, it’s merely a coincidence.

The universe is full of coincidences (you mistrusting ignoramus!).

Sungai Bakap is part of mainland Penang, part of Penang as a whole, which is part of the Federation of Malaysia. Therefore, it is completely natural for the works minister to oversee works ministry-related development. This development being in Sungai Bakap does not legally fault the minister or ministry.

They are just doing their jobs. People should stop attacking ministers like Ahmad for just doing their jobs, is the gist.

By the way, there is a by-election in Kelantan’s Nenggiri in a month or so — the state speaker ruled the assembly seat vacant.

I’ve a strong feeling that more ministries and government agencies will just be fulfilling their duties in Nenggiri next month. Maybe development projects cause by-elections, rather than the other way around. A proper study should be carried out on this causality.

Remember the shifts

The change in tone, the preference for retail campaigning in Sungai Bakap with the opportunity for Wanita PKR to shine is worth keeping an eye on. It clearly has electoral ripple effects for future elections if it goes Wanita PKR’s way.

On the matter of timely expenditures by both state and federal government during by-elections, the latest being Sungai Bakap, is not a high risk for the Unity Government’s administration. Ask Barisan Nasional, it was part of their formula to stay in power for over 50 years. There is a moral dimension, a huge Megatron sized one, but for now few in civil society are paying attention to it.

As if time and space melded while we didn’t notice and Pakatan and BN have almost flipped roles, identities or both.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.