Tweet and die

By Insight

Widespread anger: Muslims all over the country vented their anger against the Sam Bacile film. Picture shows Khairy addressing protesters in Kampung Baru after Friday prayers.

The backlash from Perak DAP strongman Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham’s controversial tweet in connection with a video insulting the Holy Prophet Muhammad has dented his party’s image among Muslims and will cost his partners in PAS precious votes.

DATUK Ngeh Koo Ham was probably having trouble sleeping on the night he tweeted about Umno Youth’s plans to protest against the film mocking the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Ngeh had apparently been watching CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera news reports on the Muslim protests taking place all over the world and he posted the tweet on Sept 17, at 1.43am, little knowing that it would soon engulf him in a political firestorm.

The tweet was also in response to Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin’s plans for his wing and the PAS Youth wing to have a joint demonstration against the film that has angered Muslims worldwide.

Ngeh’s tweet read: “Khairy wants Muslim protest against Sam Bacile. For Islam or for his political gains? Are Muslims wasting too much time and energy on this?”

The last line was the part that cooked his goose. Ngeh is the Perak DAP chief who, together with his younger cousin Nga Kor Ming, controls the party in the State. He is also Bruas MP and Sitiawan assemblyman, all of which makes him a leading figure in Pakatan Rakyat.

To compound matters, Ngeh is also a very committed Christian and a respected lay preacher in his church and it was all too easy for his enemies to take his words out of context.

Hypocritical stand

By afternoon, streams of criticism of the tweet had built up into a flood. Ngeh is usually quite a savvy politician, yet he initially did not or, as some suggested, refused to see that his tweet had offended many Muslims. His stand on Khairy’s plans was also quite hypocritical given that DAP is a huge advocate of public protests, from the Bersih street protests to the anti-Lynas demonstrations.

Two nights later, he attended a DAP dinner at Ipoh’s famous Lee How Fook restaurant, his face looking like a thundercloud, according to one of those present.

The dinner was a fund-raiser organised by Pasir Pinji assemblyman Thomas Su who, together with Ipoh Barat MP M. Kulasegaran, is the ringleader of the camp opposed to the powerful cousins Ngeh and Nga.

“To have to attend the dinner of a person you don’t like and to lose face over the tweet, who wouldn’t look unhappy?” said an Ipoh-based journalist.

When Ngeh’s turn came to speak, he launched into a concerted self-defence and lashed out at his critics. He said his tweet was a question rather than an opinion and claimed to be on the side of Muslims in condemning the video.

He was clearly still in self-denial then and the VIP guests at the main table, who included the powerful father-and-son pair of Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng, listened on, looking rather uncomfortable. When he returned to his seat, people could see Guan Eng, who is DAP secretary-general, in an intense conversation with Ngeh.

The consensus at the table was that the tweet was out of line and he should apologise.

His apology finally came the next day – four days after the posting and a day before the nationwide protests by the two Malay political parties. But the apology did not stop the plastering of his face on banners and posters at the protests held by Umno, which criticised him as “biadap” or disrespectful.

There were apparently hurried moves behind the scenes to dissuade PAS Youth from a joint protest with Umno Youth. A united Muslim front would have sent a chilling message to DAP’s supporters.

“I don’t think it was a deliberate intention to insult, but the comment was made at the wrong time. I would advise him to be more careful in future. It’s better that DAP does not interfere in Islamic matters,” said Datuk Nik Amar Nik Abdullah, the Kelantan PAS deputy commissioner.

Whatever the motivation for Ngeh’s action, it is evident that DAP is still a long way from understanding the Malay sentiment. They have been encouraged by Malays standing alongside them against Umno, hoisting DAP flags and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the rocket symbol.

They think that Malays are easy-going people and they are not wrong. The average Malay is very easy to get along with and their religion teaches them to be forgiving and compassionate.

But there is no compromise when it comes to the issue of their faith and practice. Islam is non-negotiable for the Muslims, the Prophet is revered and, as recent history has shown, Muslims are prepared to die for their religion.

When it comes to Islam, PAS and Umno have more in common than PAS and DAP. Blood is thicker than water but the Islamic bond runs thicker than blood. DAP leaders have under-estimated the Malays and Muslims.

DAP is still struggling to shed the image that it is a Chinese chauvinist party that is critical about everything that has a Malay connection – the police, civil service, Umno, MACC and the NEP.

Alienation of Malay voters

What happened is unlikely to improve the party’s image among the Malays. The worst-case scenario is that DAP might have alienated the Malay vote in Perak.

But the real casualty of such insensitivities will be PAS and, to a lesser extent, PKR. These two parties have been struggling to hold on to the Malay votes in Perak and remarks like that will send the Malays running in the opposite direction.

However, top PAS leaders have stood by Ngeh. For instance, Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat when asked about the tweet, said: “Oh, I have not read it.”

Only the dear old Tok Guru could have got away with such a disingenuous remark. But he compensated for not reprimanding Ngeh with a strong condemnation of the United States, urging Muslims to boycott American goods.

Even Nik Amar said he has put aside what happened and continued to work with Ngeh.

Nevertheless, the PAS seats in Perak have never looked shakier and sources say that former mentri besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin is trying to move away from his Pasir Panjang state seat and to Changkat Jering, which has more Chinese voters and which falls within his Bukit Gantang parliamentary seat.

But during a Pakatan meeting to discuss seats in Perak, PKR deputy president Azmin Ali stood firm; he told the PAS leader that he should not try to take PKR’s seats and suggested he do a switch with DAP.

During last Sunday’s Perak DAP convention, a Malay delegate took to the mike to say that Ngeh had undone the good things previous leaders did to attract other races into DAP.

Many people at the convention were stunned at the number of delegates who criticised Ngeh’s handling of a variety of issues. Such open criticism is quite unprecedented because the cousins run Perak DAP with an iron glove. It is possible the delegates were emboldened because they sensed that Ngeh has been weakened.

At one stage, the convention chairman Ng Wei Aik, who is also Guan Eng’s political secretary, cautioned the delegates: “Please be reminded that there are reporters around. If anything happens to the party, would you be happy?”

Guan Eng, who opened the convention, left immediately after his opening speech. He did not want to face the press because if he defended Ngeh, he would offend his friends in PAS but if he criticised Ngeh, he would offend the cousins.

The tweet episode will probably send DAP back to the drawing board in its attempt to rebrand itself as a multi-racial party, and particularly after the stormy departure of its biggest Malay star Tunku Aziz Ibrahim.

“The DAP was serious about wanting to win the Malay votes but it seemed less serious about being genuinely multi-racial. It is hard to convince people you are a multi-racial party when you also want to be the Chinese champion,” said a political insider.

Token Malay

The wow-effect over Zairil Khir Johari has also petered off. Apparently, he has no impact on the Malay ground and his famous family name had impressed the Chinese rather than the Malays.

He has also acquired the unfortunate reputation as a yes-man for his boss Guan Eng and talk that they want to put him in a safe seat – read: Chinese-majority seat – will only add to the perception that he is a token Malay in a Chinese party.

According to political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, the DAP’s handling of Datuk Mansor Ismail for referring to Guan Eng as sombong (cocky) and angkuh (arrogant) did not win them new Malay fans.

“He had to read out a prepared text before an army of pressmen as the Chief Minister looked on. Mansor was made to look weak and meek over something so trivial. DAP seems to forget that he is the Deputy Chief Minister and leader of the Malays in Penang,” he said.

Mansor had uttered those words at a PKR meeting but the transcripts of the meeting were leaked and on Monday night, TV3 aired the taped recording of what Mansor said.

There was no running from it and an irritated and cornered Mansor shot back: “How much did TV3 pay for the tape?”

Attempts to weaken Mansor, said Khoo, will be perceived as marginalising the community under the DAP-led government and pushing the Malays towards Umno.

“Their effort to win over the Malays is not a complete failure but it’s nowhere near being successful,” said Khoo.

Ngeh is the second big-name casualty of the tricky art of tweeting.

His colleague Nizar went through an equally horrible time when he tweeted about the Sultan of Johor’s “WWW1” vehicle number plate.

And last year, Nga was accused of being racist when he referred to Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir as “hitam metallic”.

Pakatan politicians and supporters were ahead in using the social media against Barisan. But they are quite evenly matched in the run-up to a general election that will be fought on the ground and in cyberspace.

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