IN Kelantan, where 94% of the population are Malays, race was not the issue, although religion might well have been. When all the votes were recounted, PAS formed the state government, if by a squeak. And that precious three-seat margin could have been due to the votes of Kelantanese youths.
Whither Kelantan goes in the decades ahead rests in the loyalties of its young voters – first-time voters and those below 30 – to Islam and the PAS leadership and their perceptions of job opportunities at home.
These are the people who toil quietly in some modest job at home, attend university outside their home state and are exposed to new ideas, or work outside the state and send remuneration home.
The lack of jobs is one of the main grouses against PAS, which has governed Kelantan for 31 years since Malaya achieved self-administration in 1955 prior to independence two years later. Umno, either in the Alliance or the Barisan, governed for 16 years. The rivals formed an unlikely coalition government for two short years from 1974 to 1976.
“Kelantanese are conditioned to migrate, at the very least to Kuala Lumpur, if not Singapore and Saudi Arabia,” noted Datuk Hassan Harun, Umno media director for the 2004 election and KUB chairman.
During the 1986 economic crisis, Kelantanese youths left in droves to seek their fortunes as factory workers in the Klang Valley or as unskilled labour in Singapore.
The Barisan, by comparison, has promised jobs. On the cards is the upgrading of the present airport to one of international status, a satellite town outside Kota Baru, a university of Kelantan, and a four-lane highway from Kuala Krai to Kota Baru, cutting today’s three-hour journey to just one.
Projects such as these, and more light industries in the Pengkalan Chepa area, will generate jobs and therefore the monetary trickle-down effect.
The commerce-minded people of Kelantan agree that one needs money to accomplish many things – including good works in the name of Islam. Money is not just important for bringing up one’s children, but also to enjoy a better standard of living.
“If previously we could survive on RM300 per month, today we need RM500,” said a cab driver identified only as Hassan.
“We don’t need a lot of money gained through corruption, just more money than today, earned through halal means,” he added.
For this, he greatly admires Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s stand on fighting corruption.
“Plus, look at Bank Islam. When the federal government called together all the Islamic experts and set up Bank Islam, PAS was silenced,” he pointed out. “There was no more issue. After that, all the other banks followed suit.”
In truth, even the Barisan had not expected such a strong performance. The election was actually something of a dry run on which to build its popularity for 2009.
PAS has governed Kelantan for the last three terms. As it enters its fourth term, albeit narrowly, PAS is scrambling for the young voters and so is the Barisan.
Speaker of the last Kelantan state assembly and PAS strategist Wan Abdul Rahim Wan Abdullah pointed out that it was the middle-aged voters, those in their 40s, who swung away from PAS, perhaps due to dissatisfaction. The elderly and the youths remained, he claimed.
Umno, on the other hand, feels that youths want jobs at home. They do not want to be nomads for all their life.
Could Kelantanese have grown tired of PAS’ brand of Islam? Could the youths in particular have found it too restricting?
“Religion is everything,” avowed Husam Musa, state assemblyman for Kijang, and for seven years political secretary to Tok Guru (Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat) as he is referred to in both PAS and Umno circles.
Young Kelantanese women working in Kuala Lumpur have been known to don the compulsory tudung as soon as they step on Kelantan soil. In the city, they are comfortable going about bare-headed.
How much then is form and how much is substance?
“People have high expectations of politicians in Kelantan,” said Wan Rahim, reflecting on the election results.
“We have programmes where we lead maghrib prayers, give Islamic education, hold religious classes and get-togethers,” he said.
“We are very mesra rakyat – meeting at kedai kopi, playing sepak takraw, and holding kenduri for weddings and funerals.”
“People don’t dislike Tok Guru or PAS,” maintains Wan Rahim.
He feels that Kelantanese have just grown sophisticated. “They want PAS in the state but they want Barisan in Parliament to speak for them. So they split the vote between PAS and Barisan.”
Mesra rakyat is the order of the day too for the Umno-led Barisan.
Three days after the recount, Kelantan Umno liaison chief Datuk Mustapa Mohamad promptly went round the state for a series of thank-you kenduri.
Umno is portraying itself as more of a people’s party as it aims to oust the PAS government once and for all in 2009. It is PAS that is on the run.
Husam feels that PAS can still count on 41% to 45% of votes, which translates to 36 out of the state’s 45 state seats. But this is an old formula.
After the re-delineation exercise, and with youths growing disillusioned with worn-out edicts, PAS must be prepared to lose its one precious foothold in the country.
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