BN’s offer in Permatang Pasir
By Deborah Loh
AT 1am on Wednesday, 19 Aug 2009, Rohaizat Othman finally appears for this interview after a day of campaigning. The Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate for the Permatang Pasir by-election looks terribly exhausted as he walks into the sparse media room at the BN by-election headquarters in Permatang Pasir.
The BN command centre is a hastily set up outfit of white air-conditioned tents in a muddy plot of land surrounded by padi fields. One wonders too, if Rohaizat’s selection as candidate to stand in this opposition stronghold was just as hasty. Only a week ago, on 10 Aug, the Election Commission announced that nomination of candidates would be on 17 Aug and polling on 25 Aug.
Only two days into the campaign and Rohaizat, 38, was already under siege over his disbarment as a lawyer. Never mind the fact that this poses no legal hindrance to being a candidate. The damage to BN’s credibility has already been done.
Rohaizat says he will take no questions on his disbarment for this interview. He had earlier on the Tuesday of 18 Aug fielded questions from reporters while on the campaign trail visiting voters in the Sama Gagah polling district. He put it down to “character assassination by PAS”. He did the same on Tuesday night, in an emergency press conference with other Umno leaders to defend his innocence.
The gist of the defence was that Rohaizat’s legal firm partner was the one who left the firm with money owed to clients, leaving Rohaizat as the one implicated in the scandal. The Penang Rubber Tappers Cooperative, which lodged a complaint with the Bar Council, withdrew it after reaching a settlement with the law firm. A committee member from the cooperative was also present at the press conference to confirm Rohaizat’s innocence.
Whether this adequately clears the issue for voters remains to be seen. “It’s a credibility issue which is too late to reverse and it’s up to the voters to decide. So long as his standing as a candidate is not illegal, he should just go on campaigning as hard as he can,” says political observer Assoc Prof Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff of Rohaizat’s situation.
But what does the BN candidate have to offer?
Sizing up Rohaizat
“Kelebihan saya yang tidak ada pada calon PAS ialah, saya mewakili Barisan Nasional yang juga memerintah kerajaan pusat sekarang,” he offers.
Right. That much is pretty obvious.
“Dengan itu, saya ada akses atau hubungan direct kepada kerajaan pusat. Saya boleh berhubung dengan menteri-menteri dan ini amat memudahkan dari apa-apa segi; dari segi mendapat biasiswa untuk pelajar-pelajar atau bantuan masuk universiti untuk anak-anak pengundi.”
He reiterates Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin‘s promise to make Permatang Pasir the “anak emas” who will get everything he or she desires.
If elected, Rohaizat says he will implement the “one village, one industry” concept here, boost agro-tourism and village homestay programmes, and expand business networks for local entrepreneurs with the help of federal assistance.
Secondly, Rohaizat believes his youth is an advantage given that 40% of voters here are between the ages of 21 and 40. “I am able to understand their aspirations,” he says. Local observers say Umno is testing to see if Permatang Pasir will confirm the swing in youth votes back to the BN just as what happened in the Manik Urai by-election.
Thirdly, Rohaizat’s vision for Permatang Pasir. “My vision is based on the prime minister’s ‘1Malaysia‘ concept of ‘People first, performance now’. Everybody will be taken care of,” he says.
What does he think Permatang Pasir voters want?
“From my campaign rounds so far, I have met elderly folk who say that they did not receive anything under the previous assemblyperson. In terms of infrastructure development, Permatang Pasir is quite complete, but I think the people want an assemblyperson they can approach easily and who can provide them the human touch.”
We then talk about the “political tsunami” of the March 2008 general election. Given the shift in public political awareness, why should people vote for the BN?
“Because we have had a leadership transition and now we have 1Malaysia to unite the people. Manik Urai has also indicated to us that the rakyat are returning to the BN,” he answers.
Wearily, he shifts in his seat and is momentarily distracted by campaign team members who hover nearby waiting for the interview to end so they can plan the following day’s programme. It is 1.30am.
Tough pleasing everyone
BN continues to face criticisms for selecting Rohaizat as candidate, whether openly from PAS or from the public through blogs and Twitter.
It highlights certain issues in Umno’s selection process that are difficult to undo for as long as the party’s patronage culture remains in place.
Factionalism and expectations of being rewarded with an assemblyperson’s post are some of the pitfalls Umno has to learn to deal with, says party insider Datuk Capt (Rtd) Abdul Razak Baba.
“Umno must look at selecting the right candidate for the constituency, and not limit the choice to the division chief or committee members. The culture and mindset has been that the division chief or someone with rank must be the assemblyperson because he has the most support.
“But the person who may have the best support from within [the division] may not always be the best candidate for the constituency. And yet, the political reality is that you don’t want to upset the person’s supporters at the risk of jeopardising the election campaign,” Abdul Razak says.
Abdul Razak is a committee member of the Bukit Gantang Umno division. He had offered to stand but was not selected as the BN candidate in the constituency’s by-election in April 2009. In Permatang Pasir, he is part of Rohaizat’s campaign team.
In Rohaizat’s case, the Permatang Pauh Umno division secretary was picked from a shortlist of five names. In the end, age was on his side as BN wants to recapture the youth vote, notes political analyst Ong Kian Ming.
Candidate or party problem?
Yet, Agus wonders how Rohaizat’s past scandal, even if it does not disqualify him as a candidate, could have slipped through the vetting process.
Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh
If, as Umno’s top leaders say, they knew about it and decided that it was a mere legal technicality, it speaks worse of the party’s understanding about moral principles.
In January’s Kuala Terengganu parliamentary by-election, Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh may have been the most apt choice as far as the local Umno division was concerned, but he too suffered from perception problems. His were due to his links with then outgoing prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and allegations that Abdullah’s cronies were given contracts for mega projects in Terengganu.
Agus observes that in the spate of by-elections since the 2008 polls, Umno appears to have difficulty finding the right candidate who can satisfy public perception as well as internal party demands.
Candidates aside, it could also be that the BN hasn’t successfully convinced the public that it has truly changed. If that is the bigger problem, then Rohaizat’s embarrassment is but a temporary challenge for the BN. That too, is likely what BN wants to find out from the Permatang Pasir polls after its near win in Manik Urai.
—————————–By Syed Jaymal Zahiid
PERMATANG PASIR,— The controversy surrounding Barisan Nasional candidate Rohaizat Othman’s disbarment took a new twist today when his partner, the one Umno accused of taking their client’s money, appeared to deny the allegation.
Yusri Ishak alleged that the money was used by Rohaizat to open up a branch of the firm inand said that the Umno politician cannot deny involvement in the case.
The 38-year-old lost an appeal on Aug 12 against being struck off the rolls of the Malaysian Bar after he blamed his partner for the matter which the Bar Council said involved RM161,000 in client’s money.
Rohaizat is facing PAS’s Mohd Salleh Man Mat Aji in a straight fight for the Permatang Pasir state seat, the country’s eighth by-election since Election 2008.
Umno has dismissed the issue, saying Rohaizat has paid back the money and it is not a criminal case, accusing the opposition of playing up the issue.
Rohaizat was disbarred last year after he was found guilty by the Bar Council’s disciplinary board of misconduct of failing to return the money to the Penang Rubber Smallholders’ Cooperative.
The Bar Council has clarified that Rohaizat had been found guilty of personal misconduct and had lost his appeal against the decision in the High Court last Wednesday, five days before Umno nominated him for the by-election.
The Bar Council’s statement contradicts Rohaizat’s version of the events. The candidate blames his partner in his law firm for committing the misconduct.
His candidacy has become a major embarrassment for Umno as it brings up questions about the party’s vetting process.
Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is in charge of Umno/BN’s campaign in the by-election, has been particularly embarrassed.
Asked yesterday about reports Rohaizat had been the subject of numerous complaints and how he had been fined twice by the Bar Council, the Deputy Prime Minister likened the fines to parking tickets.
He said the Umno campaign was considering having Rohaizat put out a statutory declaration to clear the air on the controversy.
The Permatang Pasir question
By Deborah Loh
Barisan Nasional candidate Rohaizat Othman (left) and Mohd Salleh Man of PAS
greet each other behind face masks (All pix courtesy of theSun)
THE Permatang Pasir by-election on 25 Aug 2009 is a chance for the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to test what the public thinks of their cobbled partnership, post-March 2008 general election and following several significant developments.
Permatang Pasir, with its mixed voter ethnicity of 72% Malay Malaysian, 26% Chinese Malaysian and 1.6% Indian Malaysian, could indicate what people think about the PR’s multiracial platform, its viability, and the very state of things in Malaysia.
In the 15 months since the PR captured five states, the reality is that the coalition today is tested from within and without. It has been thwarted by the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Perak, but component parties have also fought openly among themselves in Kedah, Selangor and Penang. Additionally, the PR’s national leaders have sparred over PAS’s proposed unity talks with Umno. Now, the PR has Selangor assemblypersons being probed for corruption, and a stalemate in Penang with the Kampung Buah Pala villagers. How will the PR campaign answer these issues in Permatang Pasir?
On the other side, the BN will have no shortage of ammunition. They can use race and Islam with the beer sales spat in Selangor to tell Malay Malaysian voters that PAS has sold its soul. With the same issue, they can tell non-Malay Malaysian voters the kind of assemblyperson they’ll get if they vote for PAS. At the same time, efforts by Bahasa Malaysia newspaper Utusan Malaysia to depict Malay Malaysians as being under siege will likely flavour the BN’s campaign.
Will voters fall for it?
The Islam card
The by-election is being called after the death of Datuk Mohd Hamdan Abdul Rahman on 31 July. He held the seat for three terms and was the sole PAS assemblyperson in the Penang legislative assembly after March 2008.
Rohaizat, the Permatang Pauh Umno division secretary, and Mohd Salleh, the PAS Penang commissioner, seem apt choices for a face-off. Both have training in syariah, and will be able to appeal to the Malay Malaysian segment.
Penang PAS deputy commissioner I Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa believes the use of Malay identity and Islam will figure strongly in the by-election. One reason is that Permatang Pasir is a semi-urban constituency with no urgent development needs. In any case, the BN, too, has realised the development card has little play with voters post-March 2008.
“People are attuned to national issues here,” Mujahid says. “The DAP, with the most seats in the Penang assembly, controls the government, and people perceive that it has not done much for Malays [Malaysians] and for Islam. Umno can say, look, the PR is not doing enough and it is ridiculing Islam; what is PAS doing about it?” he tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
The “ridicule” he is referring to is the outburst by the Penang chief minister’s chief of staff Jeff Ooi, who called a Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Penang municipal councillor a religious extremist because of his membership in Jemaah Islah Malaysia.
Mujahid also expects that recent spats like the sale of beer in Selangor, and the PKR-led state government’s decision to let stores self-regulate, will be manipulated in the BN campaign rhetoric. The Selangor beer sales dispute might make it a tricky argument for PAS, whether to Malay or to Chinese Malaysian voters.
“Our test will be to convince voters of the PR’s effectiveness despite all these problems,” Mujahid says. “And for Malay [Malaysian] voters, we have to convince them that a PAS voice to speak for Islam in the state legislative assembly is still needed because if you vote for Umno, they can’t do anything as they are not part of the state government.”
The Anwar card
Permatang Pasir lies within PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s stronghold. In both the 2008 general election and the August Permatang Pauh parliamentary by-election, all of Permatang Pasir’s nine polling districts were swept by the PR. In the general election, Permatang Pasir went to PAS by a majority of 5,433 votes.
But Manik Urai in Kelantan was thought to be a sure win with a hefty majority for PAS; yet that by-election saw the BN a mere 65 votes shy of victory.
PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub says while Permatang Pasir may be in Anwar’s stronghold, the lesson learnt from Manik Urai is that voters now are not afraid to buck trends.
“When they feel like teaching you a lesson, they dare to vote differently,” he tells The Nut Graph.
Umno, in claiming that Malay Malaysian voters have started flocking back to them, has tried to secure this by calling Anwar a traitor to the Malays. It is rhetoric that jives with manufactured fears that bumiputra political power is on the decline.
Salahuddin admits that what it will come down to is showing who the bigger traitor is: “We’ll tell voters all the things Umno has done to betray the Malays for the past 52 years.”
Umno information chief, Ahmad Maslan, is cautious, especially since the numbers show that the BN is the underdog in this race.
“We are not going to be overconfident. But we are hopeful because Permatang Pasir was not always an opposition stronghold. It used to be the BN’s until three terms ago,” Ahmad tells The Nut Graph.
What is critical for the BN is team unity, something which was said to be lacking in the Permatang Pauh by-election when the BN candidate stood against and lost to Anwar.
PAS supporters waiting outside the nomination centre
With a sizeable number of Chinese Malaysian voters in Permatang Pasir, it would not be surprising if the BN and PAS adjusted their campaign rhetoric for this group.
Chinese Malaysian support for BN was 16% in the Permatang Pauh by-election, according to Umno’s Ahmad. At the same time, both the BN and PR will seek to polish their Islamic credentials with Malay Malaysian voters.
The BN is expected to go to town with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia to match the opposition’s PAS for All. But the BN might find it hard to be credible following the uproar over Utusan Malaysia‘s racialised articles of late, and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin‘s tacit defence of the newspaper.
Up to 40% of Permatang Pasir voters are between the ages of 21 and 40, adds Ahmad. Hence, they are likely to be critical of both the BN and PR.
With so many national issues on the plate, including the death of DAP political aide Teoh Beng Hock, Permatang Pasir on the outset may look like a PAS win with a smaller majority. If the BN wins, it only adds one more seat to its current 11 against the DAP’s and PKR’s combined 28, and does not change the balance of power. More interesting, then, is what this by-election will tell us about where the PR stands with the public.