Saturday, May 4, 2013

Malaysia In Johor, a struggling MCA on the brink of collapse

Tee Yong speaks to a woman while on his campaign rounds in Labis recently.

Inside a small tuckshop in a town called Tenang Station in Labis, Johor, a mahjong game was left abandoned on a cool Thursday afternoon.

Its four players — two middle-aged and two elderly men — had left the seats they were occupying since breakfast to stand outside on the street along with other patrons, craning their heads to watch as Lim Kit Siang’s colourful motorcade pulled up front.

Before the 72-year-old Lim could step out of the vehicle, they rushed to hold the door open for him, many among them shouting “Ini kalilah” and “Ubah”, the famous rallying cries of Pakatan Rakyat (PR) that has been reverberating throughout Johor since April 20.

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Lim signs autographs for supporters on one of his campaign stops in Labis recently.

About 6km away in a neighbouring village called Pekan Air Panas, a white-haired man was tucking away at his food when incumbent Labis MP Datuk Chua Tee Yong came by to shake his hand.

Looking disturbed, he barely acknowledged Tee Yong, who is the son of MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, and only glanced briefly at the camera before returning to his interrupted meal.

The stark contrast between the two scenes — a show of indifference to MCA’s Tee Yong and the idol-worship of the DAP’s Lim — has been the same throughout Johor since campaigning for the country’s most heated polls contest kicked off on April 20.

Today, with just a few hours left on the campaign clock, talk is that the MCA’s Johor fortress will come crumbling down tomorrow at the announcement of the polls results.

PR supporters have put in encouraging predictions for their candidates contesting in MCA seats while politicians in the Barisan Nasional (BN) camp have either admitted their Chinese support is flagging or chosen not to offer any forecast. Of the seven federal seats the MCA is contesting, at least four look shaky, namely Labis, Kluang, Kulai and Bakri, all Chinese-majority areas. Bakri was the sole seat that the DAP won from the MCA in Election 2008.

Without these four Chinese-majority seats, the MCA’s parliamentary representation will be significantly slashed and the party, in keeping with a two-year-old promise made by its presidential council, would have to turn down any offer of government positions.

The other seats — Ayer Hitam, Tebrau and Tanjung Piai — boast a higher percentage of Malay voters, which observers believe might be the only saving factor that could keep the MCA in power there.

Speaking to The Malaysian Insider in Kluang earlier this week, the DAP’s Liew Chin Tong said internal strife and a lethargic, old-school campaign style of playing the race card have only hampered the MCA’s efforts to keep its Chinese support.

Liew, who left his seat in Bukit Bendera, Penang to contest in the MCA-held Kluang, said observations over the stretch of the campaign have also shown that the Johor’s Chinese voters, having been left out of the 2008 political tsunami, are now making up for lost time.

“The urban Chinese especially... they are like... wow... suddenly, all that suppressed sentiment just erupted,” he told The Malaysian Insider.

“They are so eager that even in the smaller ceramahs in the Malay kampungs, they would want to go.”

Across Johor, PR’s ceramahs have been attracting massive, almost frenzied crowds of predominantly Chinese voters who come decked out from head to foot in PR merchandise, from their T-shirts to caps, banners, balloons and even face paints.

Every big ceramah event has resulted in donations of up to over RM200,000, particularly in central Johor, mirroring the number of supporters who not only turn up but are willing to part with money to back PR’s campaign.

But in comparison, the MCA’s campaign has been drab, a rehash of old tricks from an even older political playbook that include daily walkabouts in markets and neighbourhoods to greet voters, and orderly sit-down dinners where participants are fed with repeated warnings that a PR government would implement hudud law.

Even Liew’s contender, Kluang incumbent Datuk Dr Hou Kok Chung, admitted to The Malaysian Insider recently that he was trailing behind the opposition in terms of the Chinese vote, saying bluntly: “Chinese votes, we are far behind.”

In a report last week, Umno’s Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed admitted the same, telling KiniTV that while Johor may remain a BN stronghold, the pact was likely to bleed Chinese votes.

There is also the notion that many of the MCA’s candidates are new and unknown, even to their running mates in BN’s other parties like Umno and the MIC, making it difficult for the pact’s machinery to promote them.

Of MCA’s seven parliamentary and 15 state candidates, only three federal and three state candidates are incumbents.

Speaking to The Malaysian Insider at his service centre in Taman Suria on Thursday, Umno’s Johor Baru incumbent Tan Sri Shahrir Samad admitted this, saying it could pose a problem to BN’s and the MCA’s campaign in certain areas.

“MCA has been working closely with many community organisations here and theirs may be an old style of politics but I still feel we have the edge.

“Except for issues over the candidates... in some instances, because they are new candidates and are not known to the people and do not fit in with the community, then maybe we will have problems there,” he said.

Shahrir, who is defending his Johor Baru seat, was earlier seen trying to introduce the MCA candidate for the Stulang state seat under his constituency during a special briefing for the deaf at his service centre. The candidate, Chong Chee Siong, a new face, was not present during the session.

“Chong is 36 years old... he is a former teacher. I hope we can get your support for Chong as well,” he told the group.

“He’s new. Yes, we did start with a bit of a disadvantage... but he has to work hard to introduce himself to the people. But it does not mean our votes are lost,” the veteran politician said to The Malaysian Insider later.

All around Johor, the sentiment has been the same — the MCA will bleed seats at the ballot boxes tomorrow owing to a massive swing in Chinese support for the opposition.

Liew said PR is targetting a sizeable 80 to 85 per cent in Chinese support and at least 30 per cent Malay support, a formula that could sufficiently win at least 13 of the 26 federal seats for the opposition pact in Johor.

A more cautious estimate, however, points to possible victories for PR in Gelang Patah, Kluang, Bakri, Segamat and Labis, where the son of the MCA president is leading his quiet campaign.

But when met in Labis, Tee Yong was all smiles and still optimistic of his chances there.

He appeared dismissive of the large crowds that have been trailing PR’s campaign events or the almost fanatical reception leaders like the DAP’s Lim has been receiving.

“Sometimes the attendance may be because of the carnival air... so it become more like a family activity so since they are there, they decide to stay and probably to listen to the speeches,” he said during his rounds in Pekan Air Panas.

“But what is the impact? No one knows. Seriously.”

He then quietly finished shaking hands with voters in the tiny village and stopped for a drink with his campaign team. A few elderly villagers sat with the group and chatted with him when they got the chance.

About 6km away, Lim and the DAP’s Labis candidate, former Senator S. Ramakrishnan, finished their brief blitz in the constituency atop the back of a pickup truck where they took turns to give short speeches, punctuated every now and then by loud shouts of “Ubah” from the crowd they had amassed.

When they were done, the nearly 200 supporters who had gathered around them, offering them the backs of their T-shirts and all sorts of paraphernalia to sign on, slowly left to where they had come from as Lim and his team were ferried away to their next campaign spot.

The four men returned to their mahjong game clearly in high spirits, each one comparing the signatures they had managed to get from Lim and Ramakrishnan — one man on the back of his shirt, one on his cap, and another on a scrap of paper.

“Ini kalilah!” one man shouted. In response, all the remaining patrons in the coffeeshop yelled: “Ubah!”

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