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Sunday March 2, 2008

New dimension to urban voting

Malay voting patterns are changing in urban areas. While no one can tell whether the change is going to be dramatic, change there inevitably will be. 

THE road to Andalusia, the elegant Mediterranean-style group of condominiums where many a well-heeled Malay lives, is an uphill, often stressful, ride along a street overcrowded with hawkers, indiscriminately parked vehicles, and reckless Mat Rempits.  

Welcome to Pantai Dalam, a residential area on the periphery of Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, that is a perfect watershed between two groups of urban Malays: the affluent and the working class. For the former, this street serves as a daily reminder to count one’s blessings; for the latter, the luxury homes on the hill are perhaps symbols of what one can aspire to.  

To get to the swanky condos, you have to drive past the humble stalls – and that’s fine with the people who live on Jalan Pantai Murni, where the affluent and the working class seem to coexist happily. – Photos by AZMAN GHANI / The Star
The divide is most obvious on Jalan Pantai Murni, a side road on which two buildings stand within a stone’s throw of each other.  

One is the gleaming, whitewashed, RM300,000-per-unit Andalusia; the other, the white-turned black Kondo Rakyat with its RM43,000 a unit “condos”. 

The twain have, however, co-existed happily, with both communities often exchanging tales of woes, such as the stench from uncollected garbage and the Kondo Rakyat dwellers’ frustrations of living on the 20th floor and having lifts that do not work.  

Their bonhomie is seen at the market, the fruits stalls, on morning walks or at the 24-hour warungs (stalls) where the young sit down to teh tarik and nasi lemak in the wee hours of the morning – the young designer-clad clubbers and the young night-shift factory workers.  

What’s more, the ones descending from the hill are mostly non-Malays and expatriates who are far from snobbish. In fact, the expats love the “typically Asian feel” of the warungs. 

This is the beauty of urban living with all its charms and challenges of integrating an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life. Rich or poor, educated or simple, conservative or liberal, people share common concerns about safety, inflation, racial tensions, standards of education, and good governance. These are issues close their hearts, and how politicians tackle them in their campaigns will determine their performances at the polls.  

Change in the wind 

The three candidates vying for the Lembah Pantai parliamentary seat are Barisan Nasional’s fifty-something Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, caretaker Women, Family and Community Development Minister; Nurul Izzah Anwar, 27, who is making her debut for Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR); and Periasamy Nagaratnam, 48, who is standing as an independent candidate.  

With its mix of rich and poor, Pantai Dalam poses some unique challenges to candidates looking for votes.
Pantai Dalam is similar to the other 47 divisions in Lembah Pantai in that it is Malay-dominated, with lower and lower-middle income groups forming the bulk of the electorate. Most of the area’s constituents are blue-collar workers living in flats that had been sold to them under the Projek Perumahan Rakyat Termiskin (Hardcore Poor Housing Project) when they were resettled from their squatter homes several years ago.  

Many more squatters, living in Kampung Kerinchi, Kampung Limau, and Jalan Kubur, are still waiting to buy homes under this project, which was announced last June by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Malays make up the majority of constituents in Lembah Pantai electorates at 52.8% followed by the Chinese at 25.3 %, Indians at 20.8%, and others at 1.1%. The total number of eligible voters is 56,650.  

As Lembah Pantai’s Member of Parliament for the last three terms, Shahrizat has the unenviable task of defending her position. Unenviable because many new variables have come into play this time around that she has to recognise and address.  

If it’s true, as some analysts say, that Malaysian politics are race-based, Shahrizat has little to worry about. But it would be naïve to assume that the Malay voting pattern will remain the same in this election. While no one can tell whether the change is going to be dramatic, change there inevitably will be.  

Prof Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s director of Ethnic Studies, explains that urban Malay voters now fall into two broad categories: those who vote with their “stomachs” and those who vote with their minds. 

“The lower and lower-middle income groups will vote with their stomachs, as they are more concerned about issues like their security, income, children’s welfare, and rising prices. They will vote for Barisan, as it has given them stability.”  

The three contenders for Lembah Pantai seem as happy to coexist peacefully as their constituents. From left: Nurul Izzah Anwar (PKR), Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil (BN) and Periasamy Nagarathan (IND). – File photo
Judging by their reactions at a recent PKR ceramah, many of the women from Pantai Dalam are prime examples of “stomach” voters.  

One would think politicians wooing this group would employ Prof Shamsul’s simple theory and talk about practicalities. Instead, the PKR leaders at the ceramah focused on abstract issues like transparency and corruption. Why? 

“They want Haji Hadi (Awang) as Prime Minister,” Shahrizat opines.  

“They are appealing to voters who want to appease their spiritual side,” thinks Hisham Lokman, a retiree who lives in Lucky Garden, Bangsar, and who has followed every political campaign for decades. 

Not surprisingly, these abstract topics did not go down with the women at the ceramah. When engaged individually, they were definitely “stomach voters”, as they were more concerned about owning the homes they were living in. The Government had promised to sell the flats to them, and they are waiting for word from the authorities, they said.  

Living a stone’s throw away from each other, both high and low income groups suffer the stench of uncollected garbage – but do such concerns still affect votes in urban areas?
One of the women, Jamilah Jumat, a cleaner at the luxury condos, said she was lucky to have bought her three-bedroom flat in Pantai Permai with her son’s Employer’s Provident Fund money. Her late husband, with whom she built the squatter home in Pantai Dalam when they first arrived in KL from Kelantan 30 years ago, would have been proud of her.  

Housing squatters had been Barisan’s trump card. To date, some 90% of squatters in Lembah Pantai have been resettled and allowed to purchase their homes, says Shahrizat. 

When Shahrizat first became the area’s MP in 1995, the problem of the day was squatters as well as other “stomach voters’” concerns, such as floods, fire, garbage collection, street lamps, and children’s scholarships.  

“People want to own homes and hawkers want licenses for their businesses. I’m the go between, making personal phone calls to the right authorities. You need a team to get things done. I have a team of seven, and they work hard.  

“Those who touch base with me will know. After all these years, I’ve come to the conclusion that no urban community, no matter how perfect, can satisfy everybody. But this is not an election for the local council. It is choosing the government to run the country,” reminds Shahrizat. 

Abstract yet vital issues 

Which brings us to Prof Shamsul’s second group of Malays, the “mind voters”. These would be the educated and affluent who are aware of and concerned about governance. Any dissatisfaction may be reflected in their voting.  

This argument had been the basis for crossovers between parties in the past, says Hisham. Disillusioned with one party, people switched to another, only to be equally disappointed. 

“Promises are not kept, inflation is looming, and corruption is blatant. We know this because we have the inside story. We have contacts in the right places,” says the 60-year-old.  

“I think Shahrizat will win hands down,” says Rashidah Abdul Rhaman, 32, who lives in Pantai Hill Park. “She has delivered. Look at how Bangsar has developed and become a coveted residential area. People are jostling to come and live here.” 

“Personally, I think Barisan will win because Bangsar Malays are conservative. When it comes to the crunch, so are the Chinese and Indians,” says Hisham. 

“We don’t want too much of a change, so we won’t vote for the Opposition, but we want to reduce Barisan’s margin so that it will wake up,” he adds. 

Without a doubt, much of this sentiment stems from recent improprieties exposed at various levels of the Government, including the executive and the judiciary. This has caused concerned voter Datin Halimah Mohd Said, 58, to decide against voting in the upcoming election because she is “unhappy with the way things are”. 

A concerned resident, Halimah says: “The political parties, both Barisan and the Opposition, say they are fielding candidates with greater credibility and integrity. But is the concept of integrity really understood? 

“It is an abstract Western concept that needs to be explained in simple, pragmatic terms like ‘being honest’, ‘keeping one’s word or promise’, ‘upholding one’s principles’ and ‘not telling lies’. Look for the equivalent in the Quran or in Malay vocabulary to explain to the man in the street.”  

Her observation is that, among professional groups, there seems to be a certain disillusionment with the leadership – politicians, government servants, and agencies like the police and the Anti-Corruption Agency.  

“Lately, many things have gone wrong, and the lies we hear in the courts are staggering. If this can happen at that level of the courts, among lawyers and judges and a Royal Commission of Inquiry, what about further down where people are less concerned about ethics and integrity?” she asks.  

“The Government must listen to credible voices of protest, like those symbolised in the Bar Council’s march in Putrajaya (in September). Look at peaceful demonstrations positively as feedback from different sectors of the community that the Government can act upon to improve governance. Not everyone can present their case in Parliament.”  

Another concern is racial integration. Many feel that only lip service has been paid to this issue with no real progress made.  

Halimah says, “My Indian friends who are articulate professionals say they feel like secondary citizens. They feel the word ‘race’ is still being played up when it is no longer valid as a category. 

“In these modern times, racial boundaries have become so fluid none of us can really claim to be ‘pure’ this or that. If we really need to distinguish people by ethnicity we should use a category like ‘ethnic background’.”  

New perception, too 

If bread and butter issues are not of much concern to the rich in Bangsar, or elsewhere for that matter, then perhaps the Opposition’s tactic of playing up issues like corruption and transparency is on the ball. 

What could also be affecting voters is the change in the old perception that Opposition-held areas will not be developed. Now, people might be realising that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, your roads will be paved, and your garbage collected as long as you pay your rates, says Prof Shamsul.  

“This means that the affluent, urban voter’s well-being will not be affected by who they vote for. This is a new dimension to urban voting. No one has seen it in this light, that’s why the Opposition is fielding smart candidates,” he says. 

It will be interesting to see if any of these theories hold water. 

Periasamy’s candidacy is proof of the belief that race is no longer as much of a consideration in elections as before since the number of Indians in the constituency he has chosen to stand in is small. His issues are human rights, and he must have something to say that’s going to be worth this outing.  

Is Shahrizat worried about the Opposition taking advantage of these changes and new perceptions? 

“No. I am not a Jill-come-lately. I asked my conscience if I have served my community well. The answer is yes. I’ve also been the minister who looked after the affairs of women, children, the elderly, and the disabled. Surely my performance in the Cabinet speaks for itself?”  


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