Malaysia GE13: A clenched fist - and a RM40,000 problem
Dozens of people turned up in bright red T-shirts to support the nomination of Pakatan Rakyat's Sungai Siput candidate Michael Jeyakumar on Saturday, but their specially printed tops will have to be packed away when campaigning heats up.
The T-shirts are the latest victims of a concerted effort by Malaysia's two main political coalitions to rid their image of any negative connotations- whether real or imagined - as they try to woo voters from now till the election on May 5.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP), a key member of Pakatan Rakyat alliance, may have hogged headlines for its recent wrangle over the right to use its famous rocket logo during campaigning. But a similar tussle has been taking place in Sungai Siput constituency in Perak state.
Up until Friday - one day before nomination - Dr Jeyakumar was neck deep in negotiations with key members of Pakatan who were dead set against the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (socialist party) member using the red clenched fist logo on his campaign.
The reason: The logo had communist overtones, and may cost Pakatan votes in other states where locals have especially bad memories of Malaysia's communist insurgency, which ended as recently as 1989.
It didn't matter that Dr Jeyakumar, Sungai Siput's incumbent MP, is well known for helping underclass communities like squatters. The mild-mannered medical doctor tells The Straits Times: "We have been here for 10 years, people know that we are not terrorists."
In the end, it came down to perception more than anything else, says a key strategist of one of Pakatan's component parties. Mr Ismail Yusop, the election director of Parti Keadilan Rakyat in Perak, says: "We have no problem with the party, but politics is about managing perception."
Dr Jeyakumar was issued an ultimatum: Drop the logo, or Pakatan would send a candidate to Sungai Siput to start a three-cornered fight. He relented, registering as a PKR candidate in the Sungai Siput contest on Saturday.
"To bring changes, you need authority," he explained, and that authority can only come if Pakatan parties win enough seats to control the state. The opposition won a majority of seats in the state assembly in 2008, but lost power one year later after three of its politicians defected.
Ironically, Sungai Siput will see a three-cornered fight anyway, as an independent candidate S.P. Nagalingam registered for the race on Saturday. But Dr Jeyakumar brushed off the challenge from the relative unknown. His main rival would be deputy minister S.K. Devamany, who was moved from his old seat in neighbouring Pahang state to help the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition regain Sungai Siput.
At the PSM's office in Sungai Siput on Saturday, treasurer S. Nagenteran looks crestfallen as he tallies the cost of this last-minute logo change: One thousand T-shirts, 2,000 buttons, 4,000 flags, and 40,000 posters all printed at a cost of RM40,000 - and most of it going down the drain. The collaterals with pictures of the red PSM logo on ballot papers, especially, can't be used as it will confuse voters.
The logo issue did not crop up in the last election five years ago because PSM was not a registered political party then. Dr Jeyakumar and two other compatriots stood for election on PKR tickets, while another contested as an independent. He did not disappoint, defeating former works minister and Malaysian Indian Congress president Samy Vellu.
This time round, with PSM a fully registered, Pakatan-friendly political party, it is free to use its logo for the wards it is contesting in, unless pressured to do otherwise. PSM candidates are contesting in three other seats, including Jelapang, a state assembly seat in Perak where its candidate will have to beat off competition from Barisan as well as the DAP.
Unlike in Sungai Siput, a Pakatan compromise could not be reached in Jelapang as both the DAP and PSM wanted to contest there. Hence, numerous flags bearing the PSM's clenched fist logo flutter merrily in the town just north of state capital Ipoh.
Dr Jeyakumar , meanwhile, stresses that nothing has changed for him as he pins a PKR button on his crisp white shirt.
"I'm not here to bluff the people of Sungai Siput saying that I am Keadilan member," he says.
"I'm standing on the Keadilan ticket at the invitation of the Pakatan Rakyat. But I am a PSM member.
"I am a socialist."