It is still early days in the Tanjung Piai by-election campaign, but the signs are that the Chinese mood is at its most unsettled since the 14th General Election.
The by-election could not have come at a more inopportune time for Pakatan Harapan.
A Johor Baru-based journalist who has been on the campaign trail noted that “DAP is going through what MCA used to experience with the Chinese”.
For instance, the first major Pakatan ceramah in the Chinese-dominated town centre of Pekan Nenas saw Johor DAP chief Liew Chin Tong, who is also Deputy Defence Minister, and his Defence Minister boss Mohamed Sabu talking to an embarrassingly thin crowd. It was a stark contrast from the good old days.
On the other hand, the ceramah on the MCA side managed to draw good crowds, something which has stunned MCA campaigners, who are more used to being abused by the Chinese.
During a Sunday morning MCA ceramah at the Pekan Nenas market, people stopped to listen while passing cars honked and drivers gave the V-sign and thumbs-up.
In the past, the drivers would probably have shouted something rude and flashed the thumbs down.
The tables have turned and the Chinese ground has become rather problematic for Pakatan and especially DAP, which has to deliver the Chinese votes.
DAP is at the height of its success and power, but its party leaders seem unable to command the Chinese support like before.
The by-election is a six-horse race, but the real contest is between Pakatan’s Karmaine Sardini and Barisan Nasional’s Datuk Seri Dr Wee Jeck Seng.
Karmaine, who is known for his pleasant demeanour and down-to-earth style, is relying heavily on DAP to bring in the Chinese support.Tanjung Piai, with some 42% of Chinese voters, would have been a breeze for Pakatan up to a year ago.
This kind of seat used to be a Chinese vote bank that Pakatan politicians would lobby to contest in.
Pakatan had reportedly secured 71% of the Chinese votes in the constituency in the general election.
There are eight Chinese “peti undi” or voting centres in Tanjung Piai and Barisan lost in all of them. It also won in only two out of 18 Malay “peti undi”.
The overall margin of loss – 524 votes – was quite narrow because Wee, the then incumbent, had a good track record. But the anti-Barisan sentiment was too great.
But intelligence sources say that this time around, the ruling coalition would be fortunate to get 60% of the Chinese vote.
“The mood is softer now. When we go around, some people apologise for not supporting us.
“They said they were told that the country was going to be bankrupt and they wanted to save the country. They tell us their eyes are open now,” said Pagoh MCA chief Datuk Lim Peh Hen.
What has happened to cause the shift in Chinese sentiment?
National issues affecting the Chinese have accumulated like layers of an onion, each one causing more discomfit to the community.
In Chinese, DAP is known as “Xin Dong Dang” (action party) but many Chinese now joke that it has become “jing jing dang” (quiet party).
The community likes the party to be in power as well as the fact that after so many decades, there is now a Chinese finance minister.
They do not understand that coalition politics is about give-and-take and they still expect DAP to behave like when it was in the opposition – to shout and bang the table.
The ultra-Malay sentiments aired at the Malay Dignity Congress was a defining moment for many Chinese who, until then, believed they had voted in a new Malaysia.
But it was the government’s inability to meet Chinese expectations on education issues that seems to have pierced the hearts of many Chinese.These include the United Examination Certificate, which is still awaiting recognition, the Jawi calligraphy issue and the cutback on government funding for Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC).
Many Chinese still remember a DAP MP telling the ceramah crowd that “we win today, we recognise the UEC tomorrow”.
But the surprise hot potato has been the TAR UC funding issue. It has brought out the emotions of many Chinese who appreciated it for the affordable and quality education.On nomination day, a media crew from the Barisan side was worried when a middle-aged Chinese man marched up to their camera and started shouting.
But the crew was both relieved and amused when they found that the man only wanted his frustrations over the TAR UC issue to be recorded on camera.
The fact that ordinary people in this rustic constituency are so open about their sentiments is a signal that the Chinese ground is unsettled.Barisan’s Wee was born and bred in Pekan Nenas, where he is known by all and sundry as “Ah Seng”, and he also knows almost everyone by name.
Some of those who are planning to vote for “Ah Seng” are quite frank about the fact that they are voting for the man and not the party – “xuan ren pu xuan dang”.
Others want to send one more Chinese opposition figure to Parliament for check and balance.
The Chinese had basically put all their eggs in one basket by giving 95% of their support to Pakatan.
Only a few of the eggs have hatched while some eggs, such as their hopes for a new Malaysia, have been broken.
But there is still a good three years to go and a large number of them are still hopeful that the government will be able to fulfil its election promises.
In the meantime, it is quite clear that there are Chinese in Tanjung Piai who plan to use their ballot to send a message to the government.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.
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