THERE was disappointment when news broke that the Prime Minister was unable to open the 71st annual general meeting of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM) in Ipoh on July 28.
Apart from hoping to see the PM brightening up the event, Perak Chinese chamber chief Datuk Liew Siew Yee was eager to welcome him at WEIL, his new hotel in Ipoh where the AGM was held.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had to chair the weekly Cabinet meeting in Kuala Lumpur then.
Though this reason was acceptable to outsiders as federal matters must be given priority, it could not placate ACCCIM officials who had spent months in preparing the welcome of this VVIP guest.
But this was not the first time Najib’s speech was read out by a representative at an ACCCIM AGM. Hence, national leaders of this influential umbrella organisation of Chinese businesses took it in good stride. Still, there was speculation. The most interesting was that the last-minute cancellation by the PM implied that he was “writing off” Chinese support for Barisan Nasional in the next general election (GE14).
A former ACCCIM president tells Sunday Star that “as a policy, we don’t talk about politics at ACCCIM meetings. But personally, I think it is wrong to read the PM’s absence in this way. Chinese votes do matter to all political parties”.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Department says: “The only indicator that the PM is giving up on Chinese votes is if he decides to forgo the AGM of MCA.”
This is because the MCA, which fought for independence from British rule along with Umno and MIC, has proven to be a loyal and trusted partner of Umno in the ruling coalition since 1957.
A clear example was seen in the late 1980s: When Umno was deregistered due to power struggle during the reign of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then MCA president Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik let go of an opportunity to grab the top seat in Government.
Can Chinese sentiment change?
The “imagination” in Perak is not surprising given that most Chinese in the state had supported the DAP in past general elections.
Moreover, since the 2013 general election (GE13) in which the Chinese voted overwhelmingly for the Opposition, the contention within political circles was that Barisan should just ignore the Chinese and focus on the Malay and Indian voters.
Barisan had blamed the “Chinese tsunami” for the coalition’s dismal performance in GE13.
Many would argue that the voting trend of Chinese voters, who reside mainly in urban and semi-urban areas, may not differ much in GE14.
But MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai and Gerakan president Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong believe the community is shifting its support back to Barisan. Both are of the view that their Chinese-based parties will win more seats in GE14.
They may be right. Chinese voters cannot be taken for granted. In past elections, they had thrown out arrogant strongmen from the Opposition as well as the Government. DAP’s Lim Kit Siang and Penang’s former Chief Minister the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu had experienced such a blow.
“We’re confident we’ll do better than the previous general elections,” Liow told reporters last Sunday.
“MCA has become stronger and more focused on resolving people’s issues, especially those of the Chinese community.”
Liow believes Penang may see a shift of support from DAP to MCA and Gerakan.
Mah predicts Chinese votes for Barisan could improve to 30%, from 13.4% in 2013,
“I’m confident that this time around the support from Chinese voters will hit above 30% based on our survey and projection,” he told reporters recently.
His remarks stemmed from data gathered in the by-elections in Teluk Intan, Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar where Barisan candidates won comfortably.
The optimism of Liow and Ma is backed by the views of Liew Chin Tong, DAP’s national strategist.
“Chinese support for the Opposition has softened. In 2013, the support for Opposition in Chinese constituencies was around 85% and in places like Penang, 90%. But now, we are probably at 65%,” he says.
Without elaborating, he says fatigue and disillusionment since GE13 have led to the decline in Chinese support for the Opposition.
It is known that the corruption charges slapped on Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has tarnished his image though his loyal supporters see this as a political ploy to hurt him and DAP.
At national level, the bickering among Opposition parties, PAS’ RUU 355 and DAP’s delayed response to object the Bill have caused Chinese to feel betrayed.
With MCA and Gerakan taking a brave stand against hudud, the two parties seem to have endeared themselves to the community.
While some leaders such as Tan Sri Pheng Yin Huah, president of the Federation of Chinese Guilds of Malaysia, is prepared to urge the community to support Barisan, others prefer to stay reticent.
Hence, it is difficult to gauge how much of the efforts by MCA and Gerakan will be translated into votes.
Their votes matter
Due to recent changes in political dynamics, which will likely lead to the Barisan and Pakatan Harapan fighting fiercely for Malay votes, Chinese support will be even more crucial in racially mixed seats.
On July 14, the Opposition parties – with the exception of PAS – released a joint statement stating that they had settled their differences and come to a consensus on their leadership line-up.
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was made the leader and Mahathir the chairman, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (president) and with Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (Pribumi), Lim Guan Eng (DAP) and Mohamad Sabu (Amanah) as deputy presidents.
This unexpected emergence of a “united opposition front”, the “Mahathir” factor and the corruption probe into Felda officials have added new dynamics to the already exciting political landscape. But most importantly, these recent developments have led to some adjustments in political analysis.
In an opinion piece last Tuesday, Sin Chew Daily’s deputy executive editor-in-chief Lim Sue Goan wrote: “The PM has lost the golden opportunity to call the polls last year when the opposition was in disarray.
“If he had held it after the huge victory in Sarawak’s election in May 2016, he might have won more handsomely than 2013.”
On the back of these developments, Chinese voters may turn out to be a force to reckon with, particularly in mixed seats where there are Barisan-Pakatan straight fights.
Going by Liew’s assessment, the opposition will need at least 75% of Chinese votes and an additional 15% Malay votes more than what it obtained in GE13 in order to capture Putrajaya.
Herein lies Pakatan’s challenge: How to persuade Chinese to vote for the Mahathir-led Pribumi? Many Chinese feel Dr Mahathir was the root cause of some existing racist policies.
“For Chinese, there is a 20% swing votes to be courted by both sides. Hence, Chinese votes are as vital to Pakatan as to Barisan,” says Liew.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, former Najib’s political secretary, has similar views.
“Both Barisan and Pakatan need Chinese votes. Chinese votes matter most in mixed constituencies and closely contested seats,” says the senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Dr Wong Chin Huat, head of political and social analysis at Penang Institute, says the Chinese voter turnout rate can also influence the outcome.
He notes that in opposition strongholds, turnout could be low if many Chinese think it is a foregone conclusion that the opposition will win.
“If their turnout rate drops significantly, many marginal constituencies may change hand to Barisan, especially in mixed constituencies,” Dr Wong says.
According to him, the Chinese made up 20%-49% of voters in 77 parliamentary constituencies in the peninsular during GE13. Out of these, 34 were marginally won seats by both Barisan and Pakatan. Barisan posted marginal victory in 19 seats, with 45% to 55% of total votes.
“A low Chinese turnout may allow Barisan to keep all 19 seats it won out of the 34, and seize the remaining 15 from opposition, especially if PAS plays a spoiler role,” he says.
According to the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, PAS may hamper the opposition’s dream of taking Putrajaya.
Its chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan said at a recent forum: “Barisan knows that as long as PAS is not with Pakatan, it will be hard for Pakatan to win. Barisan doesn’t even need to get PAS to join forces with Umno. All it has to do is ensure that PAS remains a third wheel, and that’s exactly what it is doing.
“A straight fight is important for Pakatan. In a three-cornered fight, Barisan will come out the victor.”
What do the Chinese actually want in Malaysia?