Welch on Tenang

January 31, 2011


Bridget Welch* on Tenang By-Elections

Malaysia’s 14th by-election since March 2008 scored another victory in the BN column, as they held onto their seat. This was expected, as it was home ground for UMNO and the contest was purely about the winning majority.

Even with the lower voter turnout, UMNO did well with a comfortable and higher majority of 3,707. Rather than provide a numerical assessment of the voting results, let me share some broader observations and tensions that arise from the Tenang campaign.

Despite the centrality of machinery and money, this election highlights the increasing challenges of engaging the diverse electorate in Malaysia. Arguably, the dynamics of the by-election in Johor muddy the waters, making the decisions about national electoral strategies and tactics even more complex.

Decision to proceed irresponsible

The most defining feature of this election was the weather. It was dreadful, and it negatively affected the polling. Watching voters drench themselves to vote, despite umbrellas, and wade in up to knee-high water to the polling station, made me question whether the by-election was worth the risks involved.

I remain deeply puzzled why this by-election was not postponed. I woke up the morning of the poll thinking that it might already be time for Noah’s Ark as the overnight downpour had already affected roads and submerged parts of the constituency.

The fact that four polling stations (30 percent of the stations) were inaccessible by early afternoon made this question even more salient. It is fortunate that no one was seriously hurt and some voters were able to navigate the slick hazardous conditions, as the decision to continue with the polls appeared irresponsible.

Voters, however, braved on. They believed strongly in their civic responsibility to vote, to have their opinion recorded despite the inconveniences involved in casting it. This speaks to an important feature of Malaysian politics, that even despite lackluster campaigns on both sides, when asked to act responsibly, to fulfill their roles as citizens, they do so.

It was not only a matter of reward or partisanship, but a deep-seated desire both to be heard and be part of the national political landscape. Johoreans, in particular, feel left out of the excitement, and don’t like to be ignored.

What was striking is that the weather highlighted perhaps the biggest governance problem locally – flooding. While it is easy to think that climate change and heavy rain were responsible, the fact remains that flooding is also man-made.

The land development practices of clearing land and failure to adequately monitor deforestation have contributed to the high siltation of the streams and river and created increased vulnerability to flooding. The low-lying areas are well-known, but the problem has clearly been inadequately addressed.

Part of the problem is that flooding lies in the multiple jurisdictions of state and federal authorities, but this should not have been an excuse in Johor. The infrastructure is not up to par, and regular flooding is now the norm. Just a few years ago, areas in Johor were completely submerged.

This by-election is a wake-up call to the BN government to act responsibly. The Tenang by-election showcased the problem of flooding that is now frequent in semi-rural areas throughout the country. It is a national problem that needs attention. Many of the voters who opted for the BN did so with the hope that conditions would improve in the future, that their civic responsibility would yield a more responsible government response.

Chinese not spooked by Islamic State

The reasons people voted as they did are not so easy to capture. Three interesting features stand out. First, the focus among voters was on the party rather than the candidate. For BN voters, the dominant thread was loyalty to UMNO. For the majority of opposition voters, the focus was primarily on Pakatan Rakyat.

Chinese voters were not as scared off with the Islamic State tactics, while those loyal to PAS continued to feel both a connection to the Islamic Party and its cooperation with other component partners. In other by-elections, the candidate chosen was decisive. Here, given the credentials of both candidates, party emerged as more central.

This suggests that while the choice of candidate may be increasingly important in urban areas, the image and identity of the party remains central in more semi-rural communities. Both of the main parties concerned – UMNO and PAS – have challenges in improving their images and profiles in parts of the country, especially those where they have limited machinery or tainted images.

Another feature of Tenang was the lack of political awareness or interest. Many, especially in the more rural areas, had never even heard of Pakatan and many were just not interested in politics.

The intense politicking followed closely by Malaysiakini readers does not permeate the lives of Tenang voters, and they like it that way. Unlike Sibu, there was not a major political awakening in Tenang and voters did not relate to many of the opposition concerns about corruption and justice.

This is a challenge politically, as many outside of urban centres have limited sources of political information and do not connect with issues touted by the urban-based political leaders the same way. Take ‘Interlok’, for example. This book was seen as distant from the life experience of voters. Meshing political issues with local outlooks remains a challenge across the political spectrum.

Finally, given the dominance of UMNO and its close relationship to government officials, one of the most difficult issues involves the blurred lines between government and party. The nasty weather conditions brought this to the fore, as police, fire officials, rural development authorities and election officials faced real challenges in managing their jobs neutrally.

The scarce resources of boats and equipment added to the perception – deeply held in the Chinese-majority areas where assistance was less forthcoming – that civil servants did not respond fairly. It was exacerbated by the perception and reality that voting cut along ethnic lines and added to the view that the response was ethnically biased.

Further investigation is needed to assess this, but the perception remains and is a product of the government’s failure to draw sharp lines between what is for the party work and what belongs to the citizens at large.

Given the multiple jurisdictions of governance and increased competitiveness, the need for civil servant neutrality is even more pressing. Any election should ultimately not rest on the selective use of government resources for the interest of any party. It makes the victory hollow, and raises ethical concerns and feeds unnecessarily into the increasingly racialised political lens.

Soul searching for PAS and MCA

As the waters subside, there are two political parties that have the most soul-searching to do. First is PAS. They are losing Malay ground in semi-rural areas. While in fairness, they had little support in the first place in Tenang, this election taken with the totality of results in the past few elections, including Galas in Kelantan, suggest some serious rethinking.

The challenge for PAS is how to gain support in semi-rural areas that are multi-ethnic constituencies, e.g. Galas, Tenang and Merlimau, especially those in western and southern parts of Peninsular Malaysia.

The Islamic State agenda polarised the electorate creating a zero-sum dynamic. Finding an identity that is inclusive, across races, and does not put pressure on Pakatan partners is not easy. The recent by-elections point to PAS’ Malay deficit, one that is focused in some areas more than others.

PAS is not able to effectively engage FELDA  settlers and break into traditional UMNO ground. Despite the strong candidate, PAS appeared less connected to voters in Tenang than it did elsewhere.

For the BN, Tenang was MCA’s test in its strongest base. They did not deliver. The money, the promises, the Islamic State bogey, the personal presence and the month-long campaigning tied to the Chinese New Year did not win additional votes.

There was no major swing back to MCA in its core political ground. This spells trouble for the party as it relies heavily on UMNO for its seats and is unable to be seen as a strong representative of the Chinese community. The fact that very few young Chinese voters came back from Singapore to vote (many from Kuala Lumpur did, however) is even more telling for MCA. The results could have been worse.

Like PAS, the MCA faces the challenge of redefining its political identity and engagement. It can see first-hand how MIC and Gerakan have weakened, and MCA – along with perhaps PBB (Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu Sarawak) – remains the last party standing that has some autonomy besides UMNO.

The choices ahead for MCA are as difficult as those of PAS as it balances its subservient role in the BN with the need for its own survival.

Beyond Tenang

It is fitting that the next by-election is in a similar mixed-race constituency in a semi-rural area. Pakatan will face an uphill battle there as well. Campaigning has started already.  One hopes that the all the parties go beyond the shallow and negative messages and “goodies” that have dominated Tenang.

It is the last round pre-Sarawak contest before the next general election. Both sides are weary and the fatigue is showing.

Yet if yesterday’s polls are illustrative, the parties have to step up their game and give more responsible and positive options to voters to deserve the level of national commitment to Malaysia’s future that the Tenang voters showed by voting despite having to wade through very muddy waters.

*DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She was in Tenang to observe the by-elections. Welsh can be reached at bwelsh@smu.edu.sg.

24 thoughts on “Welch on Tenang

  1. Many of the voters who opted for the BN did so with the hope that conditions would improve in the future, that their civic responsibility would yield a more responsible government response.
    Hope? They have hoped for 53 years. Isn’t that enough.
    I would say they are plain stupid. Nothing matters to them , not even corruption, injustice and abuse of power.
    They vote with their feet for temporal gains.

  2. It is very disspaointing the now not so charismatic Anwar Ibrahim was dead silent or preparaing his speech for the next intrenation jaunt. Ali Azmin was piping his political drone. None of these characters had thought they could roll up their sleeeves and provide countervailing call to the Malays. They left it to a n inexperienced PAS candidate to battle it alone.

    Good bye Putrajaya.

  3. Pakatan Rakyat need to gather its strength in diversity. It therefore has to bring parties like SNAP in Sarawak and a credible Sabah party into its fold. PKR, DAP and PAS can work with these parties to remove the “fixed deposit” from BN. In the peninsula, the Pakatan Rakyat has an easier task as MCA, MIC and the hosts of allies have already been discredited. Imagine CSL raising the fear of the PAS Islamic state when his UMNO gang is plotting the Christmas Palace party to snare PAS. Why is PAS not using this incident to rebute all the CSL spin and venom? PKR has to sort out its internal problems and do it fast and BN may feel that with the Tenang win after the Galas win, they are already ready to take on all comers. For the sake of Malaysia and its Rakyat, PR has to get its acts together. It has to organise to bring in the money for financing the coming GE13. Think of how Obama did it in the Primaries. Go for many, many small donations and you will have a big amount. Think of 5 million Malaysian each contributing RM100 each and you have RM500 million to bank roll the coming GE13. Have to do it fast though.

  4. Wonder if Dato’ Din saw the DMCA Protection on Malaysiakini website.
    No, Warga Malaysia. I have an understanding with both Steven Gan and Prem Chandran to use articles from Malaysiakini which I deem appropriate for this blog.They know that I do not make money from this blog. –Din Merican

  5. Jefrey,
    # Pakatan has brought SNAP….What talking you? Credible Sabah political party….Which one? SAPP….They wanted to contest in 40 seats out of 60. Jefrey Kitigan’s party. I can accept PBS

  6. By the way, I am not sure how Lee San Choon felt about MCA….I do wonder if Chua Soi Lek has the bola to challenge Lim Kit Siang in Ipoh Timur to show MCA relevance in the chinese communities.
    #Lee San Choon has done it by chalengging Chen Man Hin in 1982 Seremban GE & win

  7. “Think of 5 million Malaysian each contributing RM100 each and you have RM500 million..” Jeffrey Lim

    Let’s put it this way, Jeff:
    Say i take the handout, Ang-pow or whatever from BN which amounts to roughly the same amount and bank it into the PR account. Would that be a good idea? 5 million contributors? You must be dreaming. I really think you really ought get out your shell, that money makes winners. The Message and the will to deliver on promises are the key to success.

    It is not only for the lack of funds for the Opposition that they are handicapped. It is the massive endemic vote-buying and corruption that is so dastardly! Do you want PR to do the same?! The Establishment has a massive matured electoral machinery which misuses governmental agencies, utilities and property.

    The Opposition can only counter with vague promises and hope for a better day – besides running down the present System that is entrenched in kleptocracy, mismanagement, fiduciary incompetence, opaque under-table dealings, irrational and unsustainable policies.

    Take your Americanized methodology and shove into the longkang.

  8. Why is it that when some gweilo (some with dubious titles preceding their names) put pen to paper and write about politics in Malaysia, it is looked upon as the gospel truth… There is no dearth of local pundits and writers experts in their respective fields more qualified to write about local politics. Yet instant celebrity status goes to that gweilo looking at local politics through tainted glasses who then try to tell us how things are supposed to work, that we have neither the understanding nor the wherewithal to make things work?

    This could well be an article on the difference between weather and climate as it is on politics in some part of the state of Johor no one ever heard of less still point to.
    Wrong, Mongkut Bean. Bridget Welch is no ordinary gweilo. She grew up in Kuala Lumpur and received her early education in The International School of Kuala Lumpur when her Dad was in Esso Malaysia before returning to the United States for her tertiary education. She was a straight A student and a summa cum laude (with highest honours).

    Bridget taught at John Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies under Dean Paul Wolfowitz before joining Singapore Management University. She specialised in Southeast Asia, with interest in Malaysia.

    I know her personally and sat on the same panel at the ISEAS Regional Forum in Singapore a few years ago. She knows her stuff and is a respected academic in Southeast Asian Affairs. Singapore attracts academic talents like Bridget to teach and do research.

    BTW, our academics and so-called pundits don’t do fieldwork and they don’t cover local elections the way Bridget does because they prefer to remain cloistered in their ivory tower. She will be back among the voters of Merlimau, Melaka next.–Din Merican

  9. Gweilo or no gweilo, one very telling point is the fact that after 53 years, the voters in Tenang still have to face yearly flooding. Goes to show that nothing was done to the infrastructure in the area to deal with flood. BN has been successful in keeping a vast portion of these voters ignorant about anything other than their immediate needs. That is how one continue to retain power. Keep the people’s stomach full but do not nourish their minds!!!

  10. Mr Bean, I agree with Dato Din.

    Bridget Welch knows her stuff and her analysis on Malaysian politics is pretty balanced and right on the money. I enjoyed reading her articles. Her analysis is much better than some of the shallow articles of s\the Ph D-pro PKR commentators on Malaysiakini or on Malaysia Today.

  11. Anyway, who won the Tenang by election?

    The FLOODS won the by-election. Both UMNO-BN ad PR got cheated by the weather.

    UMNO-BN got nothing to crow about.

    As Bridget said, if UMNO-BN is really interested in democracy, the by election should have been postpone.

    Malaysia Boleh.

  12. Dear Bean, this gweilo (pardon me Dr Walsh – just using a term my blog buddy used) is certainly more sensitive to environmental degradation and flooded mental circuitry of the rural inbreds.
    The last time i was there in this here un-nameable parts, i too lamented the clear-cutting of jungles and peat swamps that characterized this region. The price of progress? Inundation of simpletons.

  13. Allah showed them the failure of the BN govt. thru the flood but the racist voters chose not to see what Allah showed them and prefer to vote their own kind.

  14. I am amazed to read that no commentator, including Dr Welch, seems to be wondering about the very high rate of participation.
    The constituency was being flooded by a severe storm. Dr Welch says 30% of the polling stations were out of reach at some point. She adds that many overseas-based voters did not return to vote.
    Despite all this, the EC first announced a doubtful record participation of nearly 72%, later revised to around the same as during the 12th GE, which was held under nationwide sun.
    Call me a cynic, but I smell an EC-sponsored rat here. I would not be surprised if Cikgu Mala makes it to ADUN come next GE (anyone remembers Ijok?).
    I believe there is a wordlwide trend that local by-elections attract fewer voters that general elections (outstation voters not returning, lack of interest due to the media focusing on other issues, etc.). Except, weirdly to me, in Malaysia.
    I hope Dr Welch and other academics could look into this.

  15. The writer’s rather oblique reference to the abuse of state resources by the incumbent ruling political party was also made in passing. The abuse of state resources by the incumbent government in a country like Malaysia which has remained rural for the most party, has always impacted the polls and is a major factor. This is not by accident but is a deliberate use and abuse of state resources. It is not because they do not understand the difference between government and the political party running the government.

    The writer commented on the need for “civil servant neutrality” but everyone knows that the doctrine of civil service neutrality has been dead for some three decades and is not likely to be brought to life any time soon; and the absence of it today is in fact being used as a portent weapon by the federal government to frustrate administration at state level of states under opposition control. We saw what happened in Penang earlier and more recently in the appointment of the State Secretary in the state of Selangor.

    As for Mother Nature, everyone knows that whenever Mother Nature intervenes it is always on the side of the incumbent government. It does not take a rocket scientist or a political scientist to tell us that.

    The writer makes an observation that voting appears mostly to be along party lines. I am not so sure. Because it is a distinguishing feature of politics in developing countries and emerging democracies where social infrastructures are less developed, that voting tends to be along personal lines


  16. “I believe there is a wordlwide trend that local by-elections attract fewer voters that general elections (outstation voters not returning, lack of interest due to the media focusing on other issues, etc.).’ Eric

    Your “worldwide trend” is in fact a universal feature of politics in both emerging and developed democracies.

    Voting in by-elections tend to go the other way i.e. against the ruling government. It is just the nature of democracy with its emphasis on check and balance that it does. Come general elections these same voters would then shift their voting and cast votes back the other way. Voting at by-elections is not a measure or an indication of voter sentiment during general elections.

  17. Dear Bean, this gweilo (pardon me Dr Walsh – just using a term my blog buddy used) is certainly more sensitive to environmental degradation and flooded mental circuitry of the rural inbreds.

    C.L. Familiaris

    The writer devoted four full paragraphs on the environment and only one short para on “civil servant neutrality” (or civil service neutrality). She has to decide whether she wants to be an environmentalist or a political scientist.

  18. She has to decide whether she wants to be an environmentalist or a political scientist.- Mr Bean

    You are splitting hairs. Hope it is the one on the head.

  19. I agree that she sounded more like an environmentalist. She couldn’t help but comment on it, cuz politics is about everything.

    The Felda folk can’t even get it into their thick skulls that unless a more holistic approach – besides ad hoc drainage improvements, they will soon be occupying a toxic swamp. Where do you think all the industrial sludge and wastes from Singapore and the Peninsula are going to? Yes you can blame el Nina and the monsoon, but the floods were abnormally severe for north-central Johor. Muar is the usual town that gets drowned.

    Although there was just an excess of 330 votes more for umno, there will be a backlash next time round, if PR play their cards right. This area is hard-core pro-BN.

  20. Like I said, when Mother Nature intervenes it is always on the side of the incumbent ruling party. And bearing in mind the long tradition of abuses of state resources by the ruling party in times of elections, the decision to continue with polling is to be expected.

    It is a no-brainer.

  21. I am not disputing Dr Welch’s credentials and qualification. But she is out of touch with the realities on the ground.
    How dare she said that Malays did not know the existence of PKR. Malays are very political creature.
    The plain fact is the Malays in Tenang are wary of PAS alliance with DAP. The Chinese are scared of the hudud laws despite DAP saying it is not in PAS agenda.
    Whatever is said, there is a significant swing to BN among Chinese voters except in the black area of Labis Tengah.
    And Johor is still the fixed deposit of BN.
    Rain is a blessing from God and the floods do help BN who has all the logistics at it disposal.
    Tok Ai has not had a honeymoon since winning because the people there wants him to be hands-on in the rescue operations.
    It’s a blessing in disguise for Normala. She will be flummoxed on how to help the flood victims.
    Her hubby has to take MC to help her.

  22. “I am not disputing Dr Welch’s credentials and qualification. But she is out of touch with the realities on the ground.” Pak Abu

    Unfortunately, Dato’ views my criticism of her writing as criticism of her academic credentials.
    Mongkut Bean and Pak Abu,

    I happen to know Dr. Welch. She speaks excellent Bahasa Malaysia.She goes to the ground and spent days in Tenang, for example and she talks to people in power, power brokers, civil society activists, bloggers, political analysts and ordinary voters. She is in touch with realities on the ground. Her field reports are accurate and reliable. –Din Merican

  23. About two weeks ago Sheridan the senior Foreign desk reporter of the Australian wrote a glowing article about Najib as the rational and the enlightened Prime Minsiter of Malaysiia. It appears his trip was sponsored by some one in the Najibs office. He must have well fed and treated well. May be APCO did the ground works. Of course the lenghty article was all praise for Najib style of governance. What a hollow parise, It looked like a “paid” job as it was far removed from the ground reality. I was furious for the lies the article was projecting. This it appears is laying the ground work for Najib’s address to the Australian parliament in march. Full of lies and one sided strory.

    I got hold of a friend of mine who aslo works as a journalist for the same Australian and we decided to educate Sheridan. I had a whole lot of snippets of counterwailing stories ranging from the Mongolian lady to the 500K submarine commission, to use of Police and MACC to opress oppositon members to Sheridan, We also sent him artices seletcted from RPK blog, and Najibs silence whener Perkasa incited racial hatred.

    We gently challenged Sheridan to follow with the truth and suggested Najib be not allowed to foul and ville the sanctity of the Australian parliament untill Najib clears the allegation against him.

    I invite others to write to the Australian editor.

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