Chinese vote swing evident
The Chinese ground has stabilised. The slide has been arrested, even if it has yet to swing back to Barisan Nasional in a big way.
THE scene at the G & D Restaurant in the heart of Tenang was more akin to a victory celebration than a campaign dinner.
There was just another day to go before polling and DAP supporters had turned up in full force for the event, paying RM20 per head for the six-course meal.
You could tell the hardcore ones from the rest – they had something red on and they were the ones who jumped to their feet, hands punching the air and shouting “Huan,” their “Change” battle cry, each time a Pakatan Rakyat leader arrived.
Outside, under a steady drizzle, the non-dinner crowd watched the proceedings on several projection screens and made just as much noise.
When PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang arrived, they surged forward and cheered so loudly they drowned out the emcee. Hadi was grinning from ear to ear as he had probably never had such a “rock star” reception before. At one stage he had to hold on to his serban – the wrap-around headgear that he likes to wear – because of all the pushing.
At that point, it did seem to the average onlooker that the Chinese voter was about to swing en masse to PAS candidate Normala Sudirman.
A DAP MP told a Bernama journalist on the sidelines that, “after tonight, we have 70% of the Chinese vote in our hands.”
The DAP campaign’s majordomo Tony Pua, who hails from Johor, was fiddling with his Blackberry and tweeting about the evening.
The next night, the downpour began and did not stop for the next three days. The waters began rising after noon the next day which, unfortunately, was polling day.
The Election Commission could not have picked a wetter, or worse, day for a by-election.
As things turned out, the 70% Chinese support that PAS and DAP were dreaming of did not materialise.
Of the votes from the four Chinese majority areas in Tenang, 50.5% went to Barisan Nasional and 49.5% to PAS (Chart 1). Barisan had edged out PAS and its ally DAP in the Chinese enclaves.
There are a total of 5,766 Chinese voters in Tenang and 5,321 or 92% of them are located in Bandar Labis Timor, Bandar Labis Tengah, Labis and Tenang Station.
No one is blaming God but some in DAP are blaming the bad weather for the poor Chinese turnout. They are also blaming the authorities for not sending heavy vehicles to bring the Chinese voters out.
So what happened to the Chinese vote? Did they stay home deliberately or did the rain really hinder them?
With the exception of Tenang Station, the other three Chinese-majority areas are part of the town area and congregated along the main road. Yet, the turnout was only 54% in Bandar Labis Tengah, the most central area and a DAP stronghold.
The weather could not have been the only reason for the low turnout because the voting stations in the town were more accessible than elsewhere. Besides, there had been endless reminders from both DAP and Barisan for voters to come out early to vote.
“The Chinese who did not come out were probably those who did not feel like voting for PAS nor were they keen to vote for Barisan. The Barisan and DAP hardcore made the effort to come out,” said Deputy Defence Minister Datuk Dr Latiff Ahmad.
Dr Latiff’s view is that many of those who did not make it to the polling station comprised the swing group, or fencesitters. Other possible reasons on why the middle group did not come out were that they felt it would not make any difference who won, or the issues were not compelling enough for them.
Given the almost 50:50 outcome, it would appear that DAP and MCA have more or less equal portions of hardcore supporters among the Chinese in Tenang.
Actually, both sides were equally disappointed with the low outcome. They had been banking on greater Chinese support.
But MCA is taking consolation in the fact that although its majority of win in these areas was below that in the 2004 general election, it did better than in the 2008 election.
There was a vote swing of 3.05% from PAS to Barisan from 2008 to 2011.
Coming on the heels of the improved Chinese vote in the Galas by-election, it is apparent that the Chinese vote slide has been arrested.
“It’s still quite marginal but the turn-around is there. It was nothing like in Hulu Selangor where Barisan managed only about 20% of Chinese support. The Tenang outcome was a positive improvement. It was not as good as in 2004 but it was better than in 2008,” said Rita Sim of the Centre for Strategic Engagement think tank.
For instance, Barisan’s share of the votes in all of the four Chinese areas dipped in the 2008 election (see Chart 2).
The by-election saw Barisan improve its vote share in all except Bandar Labis Tengah, which remained a DAP area with 70% of the votes.
In other words, the Chinese vote has yet to swing back to Barisan in a convincing way but it has definitely stabilised, for want of a better word. The tide may be about to turn.
“Let’s just say the Chinese vote is no longer in reversal. It now fluctuates somewhere between the all-time high of 2004 and the rock bottom of 2008. But we should not over-extrapolate on by-elections. They are something like trailers for a movie. The acid test is still the general election,” said Sim.
At the start of the campaign, many had wondered whether the Chinese in Tenang were as plugged in to national issues as their counterparts in the Klang Valley.
They are certainly not cut off. One does not see satellite dishes on every roof but they read the Chinese papers and they watch a lot of Singapore TV.
Their concerns are more local than national and they get worked up over issues which affect their everyday lives and future – like land, infrastructure and jobs.
The Chinese here are as Chinese as they get. They are the sort who would have no qualms about declaring that they are Chinese first and Malaysian second. They are also the sort who would confront another Chinese on why he or she does not speak Chinese (Mandarin).
They work hard for a living, and are unpretentious and no-frills folk who have little patience for social niceties. They come from the school of hard knocks, and it takes a tough politician to survive in these parts.
The older generation, unlike the younger set, is still highly suspicious of PAS and even of Umno.
MCA president Datuk Sri Dr Chua Soi Lek understood the Chinese sentiment here all too well.
His decision to go aggressive on the Islamic state and the handshake issue was aimed at this Chinese core, to remind the Chinese electorate that Islam is a non-negotiable issue for PAS.
On the other hand, he also knew that he could not push these issues too far or he would hurt the conservative Malay vote which Barisan relies on.
Dr Chua was being very strategic in taking the bull by the horns. He wanted to force the Chinese voters, especially those on the fence, to take a political stand on PAS from the moment the campaign kicked off.
He was basically telling them: “Look, I know some of you are not into Barisan but you should also take a hard look at what PAS stands for.” And it looks like he did achieve his objective.
Tenang reinforced PAS’ dependency on DAP to reach out to the Chinese.
Their symbiotic relationship is not unlike that between Umno and MCA and it has its plus and minus points. Issues that win votes for DAP and MCA will not win votes for Umno or PAS.
For instance, DAP could not be as hard-hitting on issues like the Allah controversy, the NEP or Chinese schools, otherwise they would have alienated the PAS base.
But the PAS-DAP love affair is here to stay.
Tenang showed that MCA still has a key role to play in Barisan. For some time now, some Barisan politicians have been talking about by-passing MCA to reach out to the Chinese. These politicians have probably not encountered Chinese like those in Tenang.
Rural Chinese communities are still a world apart from the urban Chinese intelligentsia. The MCA grassroots network, the party’s connection to Chinese associations, guilds and temples are still fundamental in these parts.
MCA has a tough competitor in DAP for the Chinese affection. Both parties will have to do their level best to articulate Chinese aspirations and that can only be good for the community.
Dr Chua has had his share of issues but he has brought purpose and direction back to MCA; and this has been very important for the stability of his own party as well as that of Barisan. His leadership of MCA has been a sharp contrast to the earlier political rollercoaster path of the party.
Rural Chinese, said former minister Tan Sri Dr Fong Chan On, were also not immune to national leadership shown by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak especially on the economic front.
“The PM has captured the Chinese imagination. Our job now is to capture the support,” said Dr Fong.
-INSIGHT BY JOCELINE TAN, The STAR-