PONTIAN, Nov 9 — With the Tanjung Piai by-election campaign entering its final week, Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) dwindling support among the constituency’s Chinese voters is increasingly apparent.
As the general election was just over a year ago, memories are still fresh with the images of packed crowds at the coalition’s rallies then.
Now, attendance at such events has fallen to as low as 20, fuelling concerns that Chinese voters here could swing towards Barisan Nasional (BN) or simply abstain out of apathy and disappointment.
The community is believed to be aggrieved with PH over its handling of national issues such as rising costs and increasing polarisation as well as recent controversies such as the introduction of khat calligraphy in schools.
This was exacerbated by continued resistance towards recognising the United Examination Certificate (UEC) and funding cuts to the Tunku Abdul Rahman University College next year, both topics near and dear to the hearts of the community.
One source told Malay Mail that the pact only magnified the dissatisfaction when it picked Tanjung Piai Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (Bersatu) division chief Karmaine Sardini, 66, to contest.
“From the beginning we found that the Chinese community here can’t relate to Haji Karmaine, signalling a bad start to the campaign and causing a further decline to PH votes,” a PH census agent told Malay Mail on condition of anonymity.
The person said that while Karmaine has the right credentials, he has not been able to connect with voters, particularly the Chinese community.
They saw him as an outsider who spent most of his adult life working elsewhere and not a representative who was aware of their concerns.
The person said this was not an ethnic issue by pointing out that the late incumbent, Datuk Dr Md Farid Md Rafik, had been embraced by the community even with his youth and inexperience as he had put in genuine effort towards reaching them.
“The Chinese community here wants a candidate that is approachable that they can connect with in a personal manner irrespective of what their race is,” the person said.
On paper, Karmaine appears to be a local boy through and through. He was born and raised in a Javanese family in Teluk Kerang, Tanjung Piai, and even taught at SMK Teluk Kerang here before pursuing his studies in architecture.
After that, he left to be an architect at Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) from 1978 to 1990, before returning to his home state and becoming involved in religious work and politics through Umno, reaching the post of Tanjung Piai Umno division treasurer prior to joining Bersatu.
Before his candidacy, he had been the imam of the Al-Muttaqin Mosque in Taman Sutera in Taman Perling, Johor Baru.
Worries about being misunderstood
Pekan Nanas resident Tan Meng Han, 48, said he found it difficult to vote for an unrelatable candidate, saying Karmaine did not seem to give the Chinese community any reason to pay him much attention.
“Let’s look away from political party affiliations and focus on the individual and how they tackle the Chinese community here.
“At the moment, BN’s Wee (Jeck Seng) and Gerakan’s Wendy (Subramaniam) seem to have the edge in creating a bond with the locals,” said Tan, who works in supplying industrial equipment.
The sentiment was prevalent across the constituency, with a coffeeshop operator named Yeo saying the Chinese community simply wanted a representative who knew them and would be fair.
At his shop, Yeo said some of his customers have expressed concearns whether Karmaine’s background would make it difficult for him to understand or care about the community’s problems.
“The Chinese are generally worried about those they don’t understand and (those who) can risk stirring racial and religious sentiments,” said Yeo, who is in his early 50s.
Yet Karmaine’s lack of popularity is not directly positive for his Barisan Nasional rival, as Yeo said his same customers have still not forgotten Wee’s failure to help the Chinese villages when he had been the Tanjung Piai MP.
“When the time comes, some Chinese voters may not come out as they feel that their vote will not make a difference,” said Yeo.
With the Chinese community accounting for 42 per cent of the Tanjung Piai electorate, their apathy and dissatisfaction could be fatal to the PH’s defence of the seat as the Malay vote is likely to be split.
Johor PH chief Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin acknowledged on Thursday that there was discontent among Chinese voters, but said he was confident they would not turn on PH.
However, evidence on the ground suggested that the Bersatu president’s confidence could be misplaced.
During a Wednesday campaign stop in Penerok, only 20 people turned up despite the attendance of DAP stalwart and crowd-puller Lim Kit Siang, causing Perling assemblyman Cheo Yee How to express misgivings about the pact’s chances with the group.
Before the unusually low attendance at that event, other talks and discussions in Pekan Nanas also fizzled out.
The PH census agent told Malay Mail that these signs were building up to a negative outcome for the pact on November 16.
“With a total of 27 district polling centres (PDM), our black areas are most of the Malay-majority areas. This leaves us with the four Chinese-majority PDM’s in Pekan Nanas, namely the Pekan Nanas Barat, Pekan Nanas Timur, Pekan Nanas Tengah and Pekan Nanas Selatan to deliver votes,” he said.
Pekan Nanas has 26,608 registered voters who are mainly Chinese, while Kukup has 26,920 who are largely Malay. In total, the constituency has 53,528 registered voters.
The person said the apparent snub was worrying as Pekan Nanas had been thought to be a DAP stronghold since 2013 and solidified under two-term state assemblyman Yeo Tung Siong.
“However, the reality now is that the Chinese voters have abandoned us with a possibility of the voters showing signs of delivering a protest vote.
“The worst casualty among the PDMs may actually be the Pekan Nanas Timur centre where according to our estimates, PH can only secure about 1,000 votes from its total of about 3,200 voters,” the person said.
Despite the prognosis, the person said full effort will still be poured into Karmaine’s campaign.
“Winning or losing is another matter. As party workers, we will deliver what has been entrusted to us.”
The Tanjung Piai by-election will see a six-way contest between PH’s Karmaine, BN’s Wee, Gerakan’s Wendy Subramaniam, Berjasa’s Datuk Badhrulhisham Abdul Aziz and two independent candidates Ang Chuan Lock and Faridah Aryani Abdul Ghaffar.
The by-election was called following the death of incumbent PH’s Dr Md Farid from Bersatu on September 21.
The Election Commission (EC) has set early voting on November 12, while polling is on November 16.
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