Barisan Nasional’s victory in the Rantau by-election is a huge achievement for the opposition coalition, unlike the previous Cameron Highlands and Semenyih successes. This has the hallmarks of a significant difference.
For one, this by-election involved Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, who is discharging the president’s duties. The fight was personal and involved a heavyweight. A defeat for a former mentri besar, and a candidate campaigning as a local boy, would snuff out any flickering hope for Barisan Nasional. Never mind the two earlier victories.
Pakatan Harapan chose Dr S. Streram, and while it has said that multi-racial PKR was prepared to field an Indian instead of a Malay candidate as a matter of principle and to uphold its multi-ethnic platform, it would still have been an uphill task for anyone – including a Malay candidate – to challenge Mohamad.
The ethnic electorate breakdown at Rantau is 55% Malays, 26% Indians and 18.8% Chinese. Basically, the non-Malay votes were crucial.
But early analysis after the by-election revealed that Mohamad, known affectionately as Tok Mat, polled a high number of votes from the Chinese.
It’s no surprise though since Tok Mat is an affable person and is familiar to most voters there, regardless of their race.
Unbeknownst to many outsiders, he has an impressive record of rendering services to the non-Malays in Rantau.
Just before the start of the by-election campaign, Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Aminuddin Harun – as PKR leader – announced that he would resign as Seremban International Golf Club (SIGC) president after members voted to overturn a decision by the management to ban the sale of beer at its premises.
Aminuddin said he would write to the management on the matter because he unilaterally “imposed the ban, ostensibly to protect the sensitivity of Muslim communities in the club’s vicinity”.
One would have expected Tok Mat to adopt a similar cautious stand with an election ahead, and not overlook the Malay voters, but he took a courageous stand.
Instead, he rapped Aminuddin, saying: “You must not forget that members of the club, which was set up in the 1950s, are multi-racial.
“The last thing you should do is impose your values on others. Even the Al-Quran says so,” he was quoted as saying.
He said while he also doesn’t agree with alcohol consumption, he would not try to impose his personal views on the public and that “if he had done so, he would have made the whole of Negri Sembilan alcohol-free”.
“But I need to be sensitive to the needs and rights of non-Muslims who live here,” he added.
When the Rantau votes were tallied on Saturday night, Tok Mat won at 13 out of 14 polling stations, which comprised voters of all ethnic groups.
At Kuala Sawah, with a 33.93% Chinese electorate, where Barisan polled a mere 830 votes in the GE14 parliamentary elections, it hit 1,030 votes. The same pattern was recorded at Rantau and Bandar Ekar.
During his term as mentri besar, Tok Mat imposed only a nominal annual fee for quit rent and assessment on Chinese schools managed by the board of governors. He also provided an annual allocation of RM100,000 for two Chinese independent schools, namely Chung Hua High Schools in both Seremban and Port Dickson.
He also awarded land titles to the Negri Sembilan Maternity Hospital (set up in 1932), which previous mentris besar didn’t, and Chinese non-governmental organisations received regular financial allocations.
Tok Mat also obliged Chinese traders by putting his foot down when pressure mounted for the iconic Pasar Besar Seremban to be relocated.
These are local issues which never received national attention, but are remembered by voters who live there, and where day-to-day issues matter, Tok Mat has been a regular presence. Outsiders can barely fathom this.
As the contest neared its last lap, the race card was allegedly used by DAP leader M. Kulasegaran, with the Human Resources Minister supposedly telling Indian voters to support a candidate of their own race.
Earlier, in a 58-second video with Bahasa Malaysia subtitles, Kulasegaran reportedly told the audience in Tamil that he would be ashamed if the Indian community didn’t vote for Dr Streram.
“If not, how can I show my face? If this Saturday, my own race and community ... This is for Streram who is from our own race. We are all the same race, same blood, so what will happen if we do not support our own race?
“If not, what can we do in Cabinet? They will say what la, the one contesting is him (Mohamad Hasan) and is from a different race and religion, but the Tamils voted for him. Think about it,” he cautioned.
Kulasegaran also reportedly told the audience that he preferred to eat at Indian restaurants compared to Chinese or Malay eateries during his trips to Rantau.
“How many times have I come to Rantau? There are many Chinese and Malay restaurants, but I don’t eat there, but I go to an Indian restaurant. This is because this is our own race, so you need to think about what I have said,” he allegedly said.
As expected, he subsequently said his speech was twisted and taken out of context, as usual, and said Barisan trolls were “working overtime”. He has said he is mulling over whether to take legal action against Umno Youth.
Like the Chinese, the Indians are aware that Tok Mat gazetted Hindu temples built on government land, so they wouldn’t face problems in future. He has also made provisions to provide state land to build homes for displaced estate workers, and helped secure funds from the government and relocate Tamil schools with low student enrolment.
And the PAS ally was more strategic this time – many were seen wearing “Team Tok Mat” T-shirts instead of serbans (as if they were in Kelantan or Terengganu), and there was almost no talk of imposing Syariah laws and punishing beer drinkers.
They understood what an opposition party should do – deliver votes to a fellow opposition party and refrain from preaching.
For Tok Mat – he has shown that under his leadership, he is the better product. It’s evident that he can lead the party better than previous Umno leaders, who are now facing corruption and money laundering charges in court.
But during the run-up, Tok Mat wasn’t spared the smear campaign, with one allegation including him wiring RM10mil via a money changer to buy a house in London.
Still, he survived and managed to win with a huge majority. In fact, he won almost all the postal votes, mainly from police personnel.
Tok Mat loves to use football as an analogy when he talks about politics. He has led a team which has scored a hat-trick, has remained focused, and chalked points on the board.
Well, he could well be the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Umno – even if he doesn’t like this example being a die-hard Liverpool fan.
But like the until-recently temporary Manchester United manager, who has now gone on to permanently fill the seat, Tok Mat looks set to be accepted as the man with the plan. Above all else though, he has managed to keep Barisan Nasional intact, which, at one point, looked like it was in danger of disintegrating.