Celebration and soul-searching after by-elections: The Star columnist

Barisan Nasional candidate Budiman Mohd Zohdi celebrates after Barisan Nasional won the  by-election for Sungai Besar, on June 18, 2016.
Barisan Nasional candidate Budiman Mohd Zohdi celebrates after Barisan Nasional won the by-election for Sungai Besar, on June 18, 2016.THE STAR PUBLICATION

By Joceline Tan 
The Star/Asia News Network 

The Umno headquarters in Sungai Besar was all lit up and music was blaring from inside the auditorium.

It is quite a grand building, built during the golden years of Umno in Selangor before the state fell to the then Pakatan Rakyat.

It was already 11.30pm, but the Umno faithful were there in full force, their adrenalin pumped up by the amazing wins in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar earlier on.

The Prime Minister was on his way from Putrajaya, having been persuaded by the local leaders to join them in their victory gathering.

All of them had worked hard in the last few weeks and it was time to let their hair down and a few of them, including the very attractive second wife of a local Umno strongman, entertained the crowd with Malay pop songs.

It has been a long time since the Umno folk had tasted such a sweet victory and when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak arrived, he looked even more thrilled than most of them.

He gave a short speech which was almost drowned out by all the cheering and clapping. It was as if they had won back Selangor.

That is not an impossible dream if Pakatan Harapan and PAS go into the next general election as separate entities.

The twin by-elections were some sort of perfect storm that blew over Pakatan Harapan.

The alliance was at its most vulnerable following the exit of PAS while the Selangor government was unsettled by tensions between DAP and PKR.

To compound matters, Amanah was its junior partner that had generals but no soldier, machinery or funds in the two sprawling constituencies.

The area under padi cultivation in Sungai Besar is almost 10 times the size of Singapore and only Umno and PAS knew how to get around.

For instance, the Umno network was such that the members knew where all their supporters lived.

Amanah was totally reliant on DAP to run the show and deliver the votes.

DAP, on its part, was more interested in proving that it was on the right track on using the 1MDB issue to bring down Najib where bread-and-butter issues were important to voters in these parts.

These people are holding the reins in Selangor but they were campaigning as though they were the Opposition.

They do not seem to realise that ordinary people are tired of petty politics and attacking for the sake of attacking.

This has been the hallmark of first Pakatan Rakyat and now, Pakatan Harapan.

The only DAP leader who campaigned like a representative of the state government was state executive councillor Datuk Teng Chang Khim.

When speaking at a ceramah, he would elaborate on what Selangor had done for the people, from free bus rides to scholarships and free water. His talent was being able to explain policies and issues in a simple way. 

It is policies which touch on the everyday lives of the people that matter more rather than grandiose projects.

Amanah’s disadvantage was that it lacked a distinct identity and MCA managed to paint it as: “Amanah – PAS”.

This was very effective especially in rural Chinese areas in Kuala Kangsar where the locals recognised Mohamad Sabu as a PAS leader even though he was now Amanah president.

Political analyst Khaw Veon Szu said it was premature to write off Amanah as yet. 

“It has famous names and brainy people but without grassroots and network, you are nothing in the Malay heartland.

“The true test will come in the general election when DAP will not be available to hold their hand,” said Khaw.

DAP, despite all that hype about recruiting Malays, is at sea in this kind of cultural environment.

Pakatan Harapan probably thinks it can arrive in Putrajaya on a strategy of attacks and more attacks against its opponents. That worked beautifully after 2008 but now, eight years down the road, people expect them to talk less and focus on delivering.

The outcome of the by-elections provided empirical evidence that the Chinese vote is softening and that Barisan is on the recovery. 

Some Umno leaders in Selangor are already dreaming of recapturing Selangor. Nothing is impossible but Pakatan Harapan will do what it takes to hold on.

The soul-searching has begun on the Pakatan Harapan side. The twin polls have been timely in enabling the two sides to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to act on them.

It was also useful in gauging the impact of former Premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who has been the top newsmaker the past one year.

But as Unisel vice-chancellor Datuk Prof Redzuan Othman pointed out: “I could have told them there was no point bringing in Mahathir.

“My surveys before the by-elections had shown that he would have limited impact. Playing up issues about Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would have been more effective.”