BN counters bid to wrest its military vote bank

(From left) BN state assembly seat candidate Adam Sumiru (in blue), Ex-Servicemen Association Johor chairman Onn Mohd Yassin, long-time Johor Baru MP Shahrir Samad and Stulang state seat candidate Chong Chee Siong at a rally against Mr Shahrir's opponent in Johor Baru yesterday. -- ST PHOTO: ZAKIR HUSSAIN

THE Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance, seeking to unseat Malaysia's long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), thought it had scored a decisive strike when it announced former army chief Hashim Hussein as its candidate in Johor Baru constituency, which makes up a large part of the state capital.

Then came the counter-punch.

Yesterday, more than 800 former soldiers gathered under the banner of the Ex-Servicemen Association (PBTM) to pledge support for veteran Umno politician Shahrir Samad, 63, who first stood in the seat in 1978.

They came in buses from across the state to decry Mr Hashim's challenge. Their banners declared "We reject the opportunistic retired ex-general" and called him a "traitor to the race, religion and country".

Said Mr Onn Mohd Yassin, chairman of the association's Johor branch: "The government has given us so much, but he is not grateful."

The 66-year-old Mr Hashim's nomination and the rolling out of military support for Mr Shahrir underscores the battle being mounted to secure the vote of serving and retired servicemen, seen so far as an establishment vote bank.

Senior former military figures have traditionally stayed clear of active politics - they say they are, after all, the King's soldiers - but a record number of senior former military figures have appeared on PR's slate for the May 5 election.

Retired air force lieutenant- colonel Nazari Mokhtar, who heads another organisation of former servicemen, Kerabat, is contesting the Pasir Raja state seat in Johor on the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) ticket.

Like Mr Hashim, retired admiral Imran Abdul Hamid is standing on a Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) ticket for the Parliament seat in Lumut, Perak, which hosts a major naval base. Retired brigadier-general Najmi Ahmad is a PAS candidate in Baling, Kedah.

Mr Hashim, who joined PKR only this year, has been doing low-key walkabouts in the seat that Mr Shahrir won by a majority of 25,000 votes in 2008.

"Fighting an election is like preparing for battle," he told The Straits Times. He had said he joined the opposition to promote national integration and combat corruption in defence procurement, among others.

He was born in Johor Baru and hopes to draw support from rising anti-government sentiment. He was army chief from 1999 to 2002, and then high commissioner to Pakistan until 2006.

PBTM's Johor Baru chief Ahmad Shuhaini made clear his group is not political and has members who are with PKR or PAS.

"We are the King's soldiers," he said. "But many of us don't find it acceptable for a former army chief to go against the government in this way."

Mr Shahrir told the former servicemen the move to field former top soldiers was a wayang - a game by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to show his friends abroad that the military was on his side.

"If we stay silent, we may see an outcome we do not wish for."