SIGNS that the Semenyih by-election was not going well for Pakatan Harapan were visible within days of campaigning.
The ruling coalition was clearly suffering a trust deficit among Malay voters over unfulfilled general election promises.
Pakatan leaders could sense the lukewarm response on the Malay ground, and their fears were confirmed when the seat, held by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, fell to Umno.
It was a big Malay swing back to Umno and a blow to Bersatu because incumbents rarely lose in by-elections and the last time it happened was in Teluk Intan, Perak, in 2014.
But more than that, the defeat confirmed what many already knew – Pakatan is facing an erosion of Malay support.
“It’s not a good sign to be seen as losing hold of the Malay ground in Selangor, which is their stronghold state,” said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.
The Cameron Highlands polls showed that when Umno and PAS joined forces, they did not need the support of non-Malays to win in a mixed seat.
But the Semenyih polls was a Malay battle and the results meant that the combined might of Umno and PAS is more formidable than that of Bersatu and Parti Amanah Negara.
It was quite unfortunate for Pakatan’s Muhammad Aiman Zainali because he had much more to offer Semenyih than Umno’s Zakaria Hanafi.
Aside from the glitch over a fake CV, Aiman is young, well-educated and has a likeable personality.
He had presented his personal manifesto two nights before polling while sharing the same stage as Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Aiman had lost weight and looked stressed out but he spoke well.
Everything in his manifesto, including his proposal for a mobile health clinic and free SMART bus service, would have been of use to the local folk and could be easily implemented with the backing of the Selangor government.
As Dr Mahathir put it, the people would be voting for a candidate from a coalition that is in power and can deliver.
However, the Malay mood has shifted since May 9, 2018.
Neither Aiman nor his party had an immediate solution to what the voters were demanding, that is to bring down the cost of living and tackle issues like prices of basic goods, jobs and wages, and highway tolls.
Underlying all that were issues of race and religion that had crept in over the last few months – incidents seen as disrespectful to Islam, the death of fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim and the perception that the government is controlled by non-Malays.
The sophisticated cafe society equates change with political reforms but change for the ordinary people means measures that can make their everyday life better.
The ordinary folk are not interested in arguments that petrol prices are tied to global oil prices or that highway tolls cannot be removed overnight.
As such, Pakatan’s unfulfilled election manifesto has become a sort of albatross around the neck of the government and the coalition is being thrashed daily on social media, with netizens using the Malay slang, kencing rakyat (pissing on the people), which loosely translates as lying to or misleading the electorate.
Umno’s Zakaria started out as the underdog. There was little excitement about him, he was seen as rather too old for the job and did not stand out in a crowd.
But Zakaria’s nervousness evaporated as the days went by. He found that he only had to smile and shake hands because the locals were more interested in meeting the Umno big guns who came down to campaign.
For instance, the morning market and pasar malam crowd would ignore Zakaria as they rushed to greet Bossku aka Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
When Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein turned up at the open-air market one morning, the ladies abandoned their stalls and some stopped cooking to make a beeline for him.
Hishammuddin’s people skills are quite unrivalled. When he saw an elderly gentleman, hunched with age, wave at him, he stopped his car and jumped out to greet and plant a kiss on the man’s forehead.
Selangor PAS election director Roslan Shahir had been sceptical of the Bossku phenomenon until he saw the way an entire kampung waited to greet Najib who had earlier performed Friday prayers at a nearby mosque.
“I saw some of them apologising to him for not supporting Umno in the general election,” said Roslan.
The Umno-PAS cooperation meant that there was a cohesive campaign machinery that was superior to that of Pakatan.
The women’s wings went house-to-house, Umno did the pasar malam rounds while PAS took care of the mosques and surau.
Bersatu did not have the ground machinery. It was depending on PKR which, although in control of Selangor for the last 10 years, could not match the network that Umno and PAS had on the ground.
Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali were the chief flag-bearers for Pakatan but the wind was not with them. Azmin tried to take on Najib by labelling him as a pencuri (thief) and making fun of the former first lady.
It did not have the same impact as before. Those in power need to understand that when you are on top and mock those down there, you can come across as arrogant and a bully.
The ruling coalition is still using the same playbook as when it was in the opposition while the other side is fast becoming a real opposition force.
The question on everyone’s lips is how Bersatu’s defeat in Semenyih will affect Dr Mahathir’s standing in the coalition.
Will it weaken his hold over Pakatan? Does it mean that his tenure as Prime Minister will end sooner rather than later?
On the contrary, said Khaw, the Semenyih outcome may further empower Dr Mahathir.
“For sure, Pakatan is in trouble with Malay support but it also means that Pakatan now needs Mahathir more than ever.
“Who else in Pakatan can reach out to the Malays? Without him, Pakatan would be very shaky,” said Khaw.
Dr Mahathir is still the glue holding together the coalition going by the massive crowd that turned out for his campaign ceramah.
Knowing Dr Mahathir, he will likely use the Semenyih outcome to justify Pakatan’s need to reinforce its ranks with more Malay leaders and strengthen the Malay agenda.
Malays who abandoned Umno for Bersatu in the general election were persuaded by the simple slogan – tukar baju, that it was only a change of shirt.
It worked beautifully but it looks like many have tukar baju again.
But the game changer in Semenyih is without a doubt the increasingly cosy ties between PAS and Umno. For years, the two parties have tried but failed to destroy each other because each had something the other did not.
But together, they are stronger because they can ride on the strength of the other.
The Semenyih outcome is bad news for Pakatan. It needs to stop the mini Malay tsunami from becoming a full-blown tsunami.
Pakatan is skating on thin ice where Malay support is concerned, and more challenges lie ahead in Rantau, Negri Sembilan, where another by-election is due soon.