Battleground states

Uphill battle for opposition in Mahathir's home state

Malaysia is gearing up for its next general election, amid speculation that it could be held within months. This is the first in a series of reports on battleground states that are expected to see fierce contests.

In the coming Malaysian general election, the opposition alliance, which includes former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), is facing an uphill battle to win over rural Malay voters in Kedah.

The general election might be months away, but Team Mahathir and the opposition alliance are already pulling out all the stops to win the hearts of rural Malay voters in their do-or-die state of Kedah.

Former premier Mahathir Mohamad played to the crowd in Jitra town in May when he lashed out against Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kedah-accented Malay, drawing laughter and claps.

"Najib has destroyed everything, destroyed his Cabinet, his party, the government and our country. Now we are known as the country of robbers," said the chairman of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). His new Malay party is part of four-party opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Tun Dr Mahathir still commands a personal following after his decades in ruling party Umno, but questions remain as to whether this will be enough to sweep the opposition into power, especially given the three-cornered battles expected ahead with the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance and its Muslim-based ally Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). In the 2013 election, most Kedah voters chose BN or PAS.

Negeri Jelapang Padi or the Rice Granary State is known for its rolling rice fields and conservative Islam. Its rural Malay communities are more party-loyal and care more about direct benefits, which gives the upper hand to parties with a well-oiled election machinery and strong grassroots influence such as BN and PAS.

Rice farmer Mahesah Omar, 54, who resides in Ayer Hitam - the state seat of Dr Mahathir's son Mukhriz - said he would vote for Umno, the main party in BN, as he had done in previous elections.

"I have received fertiliser, pesticide, a padi mower from them. They fixed my leaky roof too," he said. "My family has been voting Umno for generations, so we are more familiar with them."

In a neighbouring village, fervent PAS supporters see the election as a test of their Islamic faith.

"After I die, God will ask if I chose infidels or true Muslims as my leaders on earth. So PAS is my top choice," said 45-year-old house builder Fauzi Ramli.

PAS assemblyman Md Zuki Yusof noted its formidable presence among Malays in Kedah. He said: "We stand on Islamic principles. PAS won in Kedah before, and people were impressed."

But the opposition alliance of former political enemies - PPBM, Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS splinter party Amanah - are counting on more than Dr Mahathir to tip the balance in their favour.

The support of non-Malays and urban dwellers, as well as the groundswell of anger against Umno over national issues, such as high living costs, the weak economy, corruption and scandal-hit 1Malaysia Development Berhad, will give them a fair fighting chance.

"It is this combination that forces Umno to not rest on their laurels," Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan told The Straits Times.

But he noted that the fear of losing Malay political power to ethnic Chinese and Umno's firm hold over rural female voters "make it very difficult for PH to make a confident claim on Kedah at this stage".

BN has another big plus in affable Kedah Menteri Besar Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah, who replaced Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir in February last year.

Even so, Kedah PKR chief Azman Ismail is confident that PH can secure a simple majority of 22 state assembly seats and eight parliamentary seats in Kedah, if it continues to engage voters over bread-and-butter issues. That would be a big jump from the eight state assembly seats and four parliamentary seats currently held by the alliance.

"Our Achilles' heel will be if we play to the gallery on issues of race and religion," said Dr Azman.

In the meantime, PH leaders are working the ground early, descending on their rivals' stronghold constituencies such as Sik to offer free health screenings and distribute newsletters at a wet market.

Kedah Amanah chief Ismail Salleh said he had received taunts from PAS supporters calling him a traitor, a defector and an apostate, but met no hostility this time around. DAP assemblyman Tan Kok Yew cheerfully urged passers-by to "remember our party logos" until he lost his voice.

Their fiery political speeches, made at gatherings called ceramah, were delivered at a nearly empty field; only a few dozen party supporters were there. A sprinkling of villagers chose to hide in the shadows among the trees and bushes, keen to listen but fearful of being seen. "I don't want my neighbours to know I am listening - they won't like it," a young Malay man on a motorcycle mumbled before riding away. He refused to give his name.

In Kulim town, Dr Mahathir found unlikely support in his old foe, DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang, who stirred up a coffee-shop crowd by saying: "Chinese tsunami is not enough, Indian tsunami is not enough, urban tsunami is not enough, we want a Malay tsunami from rural areas!"

In the 2013 election, a Chinese tsunami, referring to a Chinese voter swing to the opposition, was blamed for the government losing the popular vote.

Kedah Amanah chief Ismail Salleh speaking with residents as he and DAP assemblyman Tan Kok Yew work the ground in Ayer Hitam in Kedah. Their Pakatan Harapan alliance is going all out to break the ruling coalition's grip in state strongholds, hoping t
Kedah Amanah chief Ismail Salleh speaking with residents as he and DAP assemblyman Tan Kok Yew work the ground in Ayer Hitam in Kedah. Their Pakatan Harapan alliance is going all out to break the ruling coalition's grip in state strongholds, hoping to sway disenchanted voters and even trigger a "Malay tsunami". ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

Mr Lim told The Straits Times that a Malay tsunami would be "a great challenge, but it's nonetheless something that is probable and tangible".


BN is not idly standing by. Even though it stands a better chance of winning in three-cornered fights, it is also sharpening its knives for direct duels because "we won't take any risks", Kedah Umno Youth chief Shaiful Hazizy Zainol Abidin told The Straits Times.

"There's a lot of change made by the current leadership, the morale of the machinery is outstanding, and definitely Kedah will remain in the hands of Barisan Nasional," said Datuk Shaiful.

Nevertheless, PH is hoping that voters will stand behind an old star. Take Kedah resident and deliveryman Abitullah Daulat, 39, who believes Dr Mahathir will help turn his life around. His monthly wages of RM1,800 (S$580) barely cover the bills, so he had to pawn his wife's jewellery for food, utilities and their baby's milk.

He said: "I want Tun Mahathir back as prime minister. He will bring change. He must not let Kedah people and Malaysians down."

Kedah a do-or-die fight for ex-PM and son

Known as "anak Kedah" or the sons of Kedah, Malaysia's former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his youngest son, Mukhriz, are banking on voters in their home state to help them topple the government in the next election.

In September last year, Dr Mahathir formed Malay nationalist party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), and later joined forces with his former political foes to lead a four-party opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan (PH).

PPBM's vice-president, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, told The Straits Times last month that his party is a "game changer" and a "new trump card" for PH to wrest the Malay vote from Umno in Kedah. "The support that Umno traditionally enjoys has waned so much that we have a good chance to win this election," he said.

The 51-year-old was tight-lipped about his father's candidacy, saying only that his influence in Kedah is "especially strong", and "in the party, he is the division head for Langkawi", a federal constituency that Dr Mahathir had transformed into a vibrant tourist spot.

About RM1.2 billion (S$385 million) was spent on various developments on the island, including road networks, an international airport expansion and hotels, from 1984 to 1992, during Dr Mahathir's early years as premier.

Kedah will be a do-or-die battle for PPBM and the prominent father-and-son team because if the year-old party fails to do well in the home state of its two top leaders, then it might face a bleak future, analysts say.

PPBM currently has only one Parliament seat (in Johor) and two state assembly seats - one in Johor and another being Mr Mukhriz's own ward.

On his own candidacy, Mr Mukhriz has yet to decide if he will contest a state or parliamentary seat, "but it will be in Kedah". The former MP for Jerlun and current state assemblyman for Ayer Hitam said it is "very likely I will remain there or somewhere around there".

In February last year, Mr Mukhriz was forced to step down as Kedah chief minister - after only 30 months in office - following a vote of no confidence by the state legislature on the grounds that he had failed to govern well and strengthen Umno in the northern state. The party later sacked him for attacking its leadership.



Opposition alliance faces uphill fight to woo votes

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Uphill battle for opposition in Mahathir's home state'. Print Edition | Subscribe