In Ipoh, a Secret Loyalty for Pakatan Among the Chinese
Ahead of Malaysia's 2013 General Elections, I returned to my hometown to find out which way the voters were likely to swing.
( the malaysian insider — now offline )
IPOH, April 11, 2013 — The city’s traditionally pro-opposition Chinese appear unlikely to budge this May 5 when they face the ballot box again, many still strong in their conviction that a Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government will care for their rights better than Barisan Nasional (BN).
Last weekend’s luncheon with Perak’s Chinese guilds and associations, presided over by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, seemed to reflect this trend. Even though the crowd appeared in droves at the Tow Boo Keong Taoist temple, many still expressed disdain at the ruling pact.
When approached, some were very generous with their criticisms and openly admitted that they were only attending the luncheon because they had been invited and wanted the free food. “We are just here to eat,” a 36-year-old civil engineer who preferred to be known only as Kevin told The Malaysian Insider.
He glanced at his friend, a 42-year-old civil contractor who preferred to go by the name Tiger, and an elderly retiree they had just met, who both nodded and laughed.
“It’s bullshit,” Kevin said, referring to Najib’s speech, where the latter had called for the support of the Chinese community by pointing out the benefits the BN caretaker government had brought to the state of Perak in the past four years.
In his speech, Najib had also pointed out the significance of the Tow Boo Keong temple to him, noting that it had been officiated in 1968 by his father, Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak. He expressed his gratitude and wonder at the “meriah” crowd that he said had clearly come out to show BN their support.
Pointing to the people spilling from the main hall to more round tables upstairs and even outside the temple, Najib said: “Who says the Chinese in Perak don’t support BN?”
“Sokong BN?” he asked.
“Sokong!” the crowd cheered back. And again. And again.
However, although Najib’s efforts looked to be a resounding success inside the temple, the Chinese voters outside, who couldn’t see but could hear all the goings-on in the hall via blaring speakers, painted a different picture.
“Let’s put it this way lah. If they feel they sure win, they won’t have this lunch right?” Kevin scoffed. “Whatever he said is not the actual thing we want. We want a clean and fair country, with no corruption or cronyism. That is the most important.
"Corruption and cronyism have caused inflation and higher petrol prices. It is unfair to education and development. And the crime rate has increased, even here in Ipoh. I’m living in a gated residential area, but still I was robbed. Already, here on this table, two of us have been victims of crime just in the past six months,” he said, pointing to the elderly man beside him.
“What they said about helping Chinese education is also all just bullshit. I’m actually part of one primary school committee and we suffer. We don’t get subsidies. We have to depend on the community for donations,” Kevin added.
All three men told The Malaysian Insider that they had voted in the 2008 elections in favour of the opposition, and will do the same this year. Kevin and Tiger are voters in the parliamentary constituency of Ipoh Timor, while the elderly man is registered in Kuala Kangsar.
“I think the government has to change. Let other people try, see how. It’s like an old car right? When it’s old you need to change it,” the elderly man said.
He said that he used to live and work in Singapore as a salesman and driver, and that he had only come back to Malaysia to retire as it was, in the end, his home. “I tell you, Malaysia is rich in resources but it is second grade compared to Singapore, from public services to the crime rate and salaries," he said.
Perak’s fall to opposition parties DAP, PKR and PAS in Election 2008 was largely due to a massive swing in votes from the Indian and the Chinese communities, at least 70 per cent of whom had voted against BN. But in the famous 2009 power putsch sparked by the defections of three PR assemblymen, the state returned to BN’s hands, angering many voters in the Kinta Valley.
Speaking to The Malaysian Insider, Perak DAP chief Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham said that PR’s estimates for the 2013 General Election indicate that the pact can recapture the silver state by sweeping 33 to 38 seats in the 59-seat assembly.
“Last round, we won 11 parliamentary seats. This round, we are counting on 15. Winning 70 per cent of the Chinese vote should not be a problem,” he said, but stressed that the DAP’s campaign would not be Chinese-centric as together with PKR and PAS, the party would be wooing voters across racial lines.
At the luncheon, these predictions appeared to be possible.
After a whispered consultation, Kevin and Tiger showed The Malaysian Insider their blue Police Diraja Perak identity cards. They are both part of the state’s police volunteer reserve.
“Look, we are part of the police force, and even we don’t want the current government,” Tiger said. “We are not blind voters. We make our own judgment. We see that the country is getting worse. I speak to my friends and family, and even those from overseas are concerned enough to come back and vote."
Other Chinese voters The Malaysian Insider approached, including a table of four housewives and another of elderly retirees, declined to say which political coalition they favoured.
“How can we tell you this? It’s a secret, isn’t it? Can you even ask me this question?” one housewife said. But she confessed that they were part of a group called Praise Dance, and that Sungai Rapat state assemblyman Datuk Hamidah Osman had asked them to attend the luncheon, to which about 30 of them had shown up.
When asked what the Praise Dance Group does and what their purpose was in attending the event, she declined to elaborate, saying simply: “I don’t know. We just come.”
Another housewife said jauntily: “I just came here to eat,” before adding, “I’m just joking ah.”
When Najib and his entourage, which included former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir, had left the temple and all that remained on the abandoned tables were scraps of food, one 75-year-old woman sat waiting alone at the gates of the temple in a plastic red chair.
Clutching a walking stick in her hand, she told The Malaysian Insider that she had come to the luncheon alone and that she was now waiting for her ride home. With quivering fingers, she took out a round BN sticker from her shirt pocket, saying that she had come because BN had invited her.
However, she refused to say which coalition she supported, saying only that she had voted in 2008 and that she would vote again this year in her constituency of Ipoh Timor.
The elderly woman said she had not been paid to attend the luncheon. But when she was asked further about who she would prefer to see win the coming polls, she refused to speak until her taxi arrived, and then hobbled laboriously away.