COMMENT Located in the core of the Malay rural heartland, this second by-election after the 13th general election (GE13) is a critical test for both Umno and PAS. This is not just a contest over who wins the hearts and minds of the rural Malays, but it speaks to ongoing political engagement within the Malay community at large and within the two Malay political parties themselves.
Most of the reporting of this contest has centred on personality and symbolism, with the hope of touching the sentiment of rural Malay voters. In fact, many of the incidents involving insults, the use of the former MB Azizan Abdul Razak’s illness and role of different leaders have portrayed a contest that is childish and irrelevant to the national picture.
Do not be fooled by these stories as the contest is fierce, the interests multiple and the potential political impact of the election decisive. Sungai Limau is no ordinary by-election, as its imprint will leave a sweet or sour taste for the winners and losers.
A changing heartland constituency
This rural constituency tucked in between Pendang and Yan has been a PAS stronghold for five elections. This is the Islamist party’s rural base and thus the contest is a bellwether for the party in is traditional core constituencies.
After losing the state of Kedah in GE13, Sungai Limau takes on importance not only in that it represents the seat of the former PAS menteri besar who played a part of the controversy over the party’s loss of the state but also it showcases the ability of the party to maintain its rural foundation. It is well-known that in GE13 PAS lost ground in Malay rural areas – with the exception of Terengganu – and faces the challenging task of holding onto its political core.
Part of this has to do with the fact that the Malay rural core is changing. Sungai Limau with its 19 polling centres is comparatively well-off compared to other rural communities. It has an impressive history of high-yielding quality padi and many of Its residents have assets – particularly land.
While most are relatively cash poor and their overall incomes continue to be shockingly low with the broad neglect of agricultural development that has characterised rural areas ironically since the Kedah-born Mahathir Mohamad years, there is a degree of comfort stemming from the hard work of the farmers in the community.
Issues such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and affordable housing have had little impact on prices and the quality of life. The geographic access and technological advances have contributed to a steady income for the farmers who have essentially been forced to go it alone but have persevered. The community that is the most vulnerable are the fishermen, located in two polling centres, who rely heavily on government subsidies and are strongly in the BN camp.
With modernisation, there are now closer links between the rural and urban areas than ever before. Young people have migrated en masse, and work in cities from Penang and Singapore to the factories in nearby Sungei Petani.
With Internet technology, there is greater connectivity, although the traditional mass media – especially television – predominates as the source for political information. The rural is no longer remote and disengaged, but comparatively close and connected – at least in peninsular Malaysia.
Beyond development and proximity, another element that is changing involves religious socialisation. Sungai Limau is seen to be a religiously conservative constituency. With its traditional religious schools, the dominant mode of education and socialisation rests in religious connections. Mosques are arenas for political discussions and inevitably campaigns, with the political control over these institutions at the local level shaping outcomes.
Since 2008 the federal government has played a larger role in funding religious schools, as it has worked to deepen its political socialisation of young people through national service and control of the universities.
This encroachment into religion socialisation by the federal government in rural areas, where the lines between Umno and government are blurred and politics has been the dominant paradigm for Islamic education, has undercut PAS’s networks in many rural communities. It has also ironically made the issues less about Islam itself and more about politics, as political indoctrination has diminished real debate over morality and justice.
The impact has been a gross political simplification of religious issues and sadly an increasing practice of justifying immoral practices such as corruption by politically-rooted religious officials. More and more, Islam is being used in Malaysian politics for injustice, intolerance and immorality and this dynamic is encroaching into the rural communities.
As these changes have taken place, the strategies to engage rural communities have also been evolving. The traditional campaigning pattern in Malay rural constituencies has been to use party machinery, personality and personal patronage. The local representative was the link to the political establishment.
In Sungai Limau under Azizan Abdul Razak this was the case. But this has shifted in tetratomic ways in recent elections. Instead of making the election in rural areas about the candidate themselves – as the candidates have in many ways been irrelevant to the campaigns from both parties in Sungei Limau – the contests are national, involving modern-oriented campaigning with a central political machine through mass media and offices located in KL and Putrajaya.
The party machinery at the local area has been replaced, especially by Umno, by the use of national and state government resources. The personality in question is usually not the local leader, but the premier or in the case of Sungai Limau, Menteri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir.
The patronage is not about face-to-face links in a community but essentially an outsider using a political mask to handout money and promise more. The dynamic has moved to the machine and the personal power of the current machine operator.
As Umno as a local party machine has eroded in local areas, the campaign has been directed from the centre. The dominant strategic paradigm is that rural residents can be bought, wooed by money. In fact, arguably this materialism is the main premise of the entire Umno/BN national campaign.
It is reinforced by the use of mass media that simplifies and often distorts political discussions, as well as a characterisation of religion that is often without a moral foundation. The sense of community is gone. Rural residents are mere pawns in a power struggle, whose place in national development is unclear. There is no clear priority to develop rural areas. There is no rural policy under Najib Abdul Razak.
This was de facto the case under Mahathir as well, as the model of development excluded agriculture. These areas are being marginalised in the national development landscape. Despite places like Sungai Limau literally providing the rice bowl for the entire country, there has been little attention for decades to their rice bowl, except the occasional election or by-election treat.
PAS on its part is trying to fight this modern campaign machine, but is caught in its own evolution between tradition and modernity. It still relies on its traditional campaigning of party machinery and personality. PAS is struggling to engage today’s new realities and is being held back by many of its own members and traditional parochial leaders who are resistant to change.
PAS is deeply frustrated in how to manage the overpowering bombardment of money and the undercutting of its religious roots in rural communities.
In Sungai Limau the struggle of both parties in how to deal with the changes in political campaigning manifested themselves clearly in the messaging. PAS’s main theme was ‘Kekal’ or remain, with the subtext of ‘Damai’ – keeping the peace. They are looking to the past to keep them in power. PAS wrestles with how to modernise their engagement with rural areas.
Umno used the revealing banner ‘Hijrah’ which implies change, but speaks to the need to move on or migrate. The phrase is tied to move from the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 and it usually seen as the beginning of the Muslim era.
The irony here is on so many levels, from the call to leave the rural areas to the promise to a supposed better moral standard. Umno and the BN more broadly are essentially offering voters a new promised land in the land they have controlled for over 57 years in office.
There is an assumption that rural folk can be fooled with promises and are not aware of realities. There is an assumption that materialist interests predominant in rural areas. These are mistaken assumptions.
Today’s contest will be close, with the vote coming down to three key communities – women, the return of the estimated 3,700 voters working outside of the constituency, and the pivotal role of the Chinese minority who comprise 6 percent of the electorate and have only marginally moved toward the opposition in GE13, with 55 percent of them supporting PAS.
The contest is one that pits modern against traditional campaigning. PAS has the clear advantage despite the millions of goodies spent by the BN.
The reason has to do with the fact that Umno has miscalculated in its messaging and its framework in engaging rural areas. It has failed to appreciate that in highly competitive constituencies such as this one that has modernised in many ways that it faces a double-whammy disadvantage – its inability to carry out a traditional campaign and the flaws it has in how it applies a modern campaign to rural areas.
Umno has not managed the traditional campaign well. While Mukhriz (left in photo) made significant headway in the local areas, and was warmly received even in PAS strongholds, Mahathir’s last minute visit undercut his own son. It revealed that he was not able to manage the by-election on his own, through the force of his own personality. Mahathir brought in the past and undermined the Umno local personality of the present.
While the party machinery among women is strong, the election was primarily managed by outsiders rather than those in the community itself. The personal links in Umno’s patronage have gone.
And the centralised patronage of hundreds of RM handed out will have an impact among the poorest residents and women who control household finances, the higher level of comfort of Sungai Limau compared to places such as Kuala Besut and Manik Urai in Kelantan will dampen some of the effectiveness of the materialist bombardment strategy. Materialist incentives will have less of an effect.
Umno has also miscalculated on the impact of the voters coming home who understand GST and are more connected into national developments. It does not understand that many voters see through the modern efforts of monopolising the mass media and promising money, but simultaneously increasing the cost of living through the reduction of subsidies, introduction of new taxes and failure to formulate meaningful polices to promote inclusive development.
While fewer voters will return home than in GE13, those who do will primarily vote for PAS. Those that have migrated have seen the promised land and the as yet limited promises it holds.
The Sungai Limau Chinese will likely remain split, but the majority will swing to the opposition. PAS should win, although as has been noted by others by a likely reduced majority. The power of personality and sentiment remains strong in Sungai Limau. There are many who would not like to send a signal of disrespect to Azizan’s memory by voting for Umno. Even many of the local Umno supporters are cognisant of this message.
Memory and sentiment will supersede materialism this by-election. Sungai Limau should be sweet to PAS rather than UMNO in this election.
Sungai Limau’s outcome represents much more than one by-election that will not affect the fortunes of state power in Kedah. Its impact is national in scope. I have highlighted above the intensive struggle for rural Malays. There are specific party dynamics as well.
Sungai Limau’s result will directly shape the party election forthcoming later this month in PAS. The campaign has fielded a conservative ulama but been run primarily by progressives in the party. A victory in Sungai Limau represents a message for consensus and bridge-building within PAS which is politically divided, especially in GE13 in Kedah.
Azizan may have fostered division within the party during his tenure, but the campaign over his seat after his passing has the potential to heal divisions and spill over into a more inclusive PAS leadership with leaders who understand some of the challenges in grappling with new strategies for engaging rural Malays. A potential PAS loss in Sungei Limau would have represented a victory for those in the party who want the party to stay in the past rather than engage the present and the future.
For Umno, the party politics subtext is also present. Despite national leaders close to Najib assuring there was no bad blood over the party contest, the fact that this had to be discussed openly showcases the reality of open wounds.
Many of the Umno leaders showed their faces in Sungai Limau – except Najib – but the support behind a Mukhriz victory was not always clear, as that victory was still portrayed as a Mahathir (left) victory. Ironically, Mahathir himself undercut this possibility by visiting the constituency, making the contest about him rather than his son’s political future. The challenge for Mukhriz to set his own path and for Mahathir to step aside is ongoing.
The challenge within Umno to move beyond Mahathirism is more real than ever. Sungai Limau is one of the contests pointing in this direction, with the next major arena being the December Umno general assembly.
For the parties involved at both the local and national levels – Sungai Limau may prove to be both sweet and sour. PAS may have short-term got the sweet taste of a needed by-election victory but will have to deal with the sourness of figuring out a political strategy for rural communities and bringing its party out of the past.
Like in Sungai Limau itself, PAS will have to deal with Sungei Limau Dalam, the name of one of the polling stations and the river inside the constituency.
For Umno, they will also likely portray a reduced majority as sweet, denying the bitterness that remains in the party contest and the fundamental sourness that exists in how they have engaged rural areas. Like PAS, they will have to deal with the sourness inside.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She can be reached at email@example.com.