Penang people are thrilled that the Prime Minister is from the state and they want to give him solid mandate but there is an undercurrent of sentiment for alternative voices in the government. JOCELINE TAN reports.
OUTSIDE on the fairway, a few golfers were at their game. Inside the air-conditioned country club, key Penang Barisan Nasional figures had begun arriving for a meeting on the general election.
They helped themselves to the refreshments as they waited for the Chief Minister and state Barisan chairman Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon, who was just about to wrap up his interview with The Star in another room on the second floor of the clubhouse.
When Dr Koh made his way down the stairs to the Barisan meeting, he walked smack into a group of about 70 People’s Progressive Party (PPP) members, all of them smartly dressed in their distinctive blue-patterned party uniform.
Apparently, they were upset about a newspaper report suggesting that the PPP would not be getting a seat in Penang and had come to appeal to the Chief Minister.
Dr Koh gave an impromptu speech on the stairs, assuring them that there was no decision yet about seats and how it would be distributed.
“We have not talked about it at any meeting, even among the component parties,” he said.
Election fever has already hit the political players on both sides of the fence even if the man-in-the-street still seems somewhat unconcerned.
Everyday finds fresh speculation on the date of the dissolution of Parliament.
Each and every move and word of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is scrutinised and mulled over for a hint of the polls date.
Penang has a total of 13 parliamentary and 40 state seats, including the new seats. The focus of many of these players, as evident from Dr Koh’s encounter with the PPP, has been the two new parliamentary and seven new state seats.
These seats, as well as the ones lost to the Opposition in the 1999 elections, will be the main avenues for the Barisan parties, in particular, to inject new blood given that there has been hardly any voluntary withdrawals or retirement among the incumbents.
The rare exception has been Tan Sri Dr Sak Cheng Lum, the former state MCA chairman who is retiring from his Bagan seat.
Most of the Barisan component parties have more or less decided on the incumbents they are retaining as well as the new faces they will be bringing in.
Even the DAP, which has traditionally kept their candidate list till the late hours of the eve of nomination, has introduced its new faces to the press and the constituencies they will be contesting.
“We want people to get to know them,” said Penang DAP chief Chow Kon Yeow.
Quite surprisingly, Umno is the only party where there has been least news about who is staying, going or coming in.
It is evident the Prime Minister, who is the Penang Umno chief, has kept the candidate list close to his chest for even the local Umno bigwigs in the state appeared to be in the dark.
Said a local reporter: “None of them dared ask Pak Lah although there have been so many meetings about the general election.”
Neither have any of the Umno division heads been bold enough to put forward their traditional list of candidates comprising the top division office-bearers.
For several months now, Abdullah has talked about the sort of candidates he has in mind for Umno – people who are free of political baggage, capable and able to meet the needs and aspirations of the grassroots.
Some think he will demonstrate these very ideas in his homestate of Penang. Abdullah is in a position of strength to do this.
Hence, the Umno list of candidates may spring the biggest surprise of all.
Now entering his fifth month in office, he is riding an enormous wave of goodwill that cuts across race, class and religion. And particularly in his homestate, there is a deep sense of pride that a Penang man is now in the top seat.
“Pak Lah has won the people’s hearts,” said Penang MCA chief Datuk Wong Kam Hoong.
Even the ordinary man in the street has a definite opinion about him.
“He does things properly and is clear about what is right and what is wrong. He strikes me as an upright man,” said a Chinese shopkeeper in busy Jalan Penang.
The above was to be an oft-repeated remark especially among non-Malays.
Abdullah will be Barisan’s trump card and it is likely to be most felt in Penang.
“There is a good atmosphere on the ground,” said Dr Koh.
The last two elections saw Penang voters swinging dramatically to Barisan and there is little dispute that the coalition will retain the state with another cushy majority.
Still, Dr Koh is not taking things for granted.
At 55, Dr Koh, is a veteran of sorts by now. This will be his sixth general election as a wakil rakyat and his fourth as Chief Minister.
In fact, he seemed overly cautious given that the coalition is sitting on such a massive seat majority – 30 of the 33 state seats and eight of the 13 parliamentary seats.
Penang has come to be seen as a Barisan stronghold, given the coalition’s strong showing in the last two elections.
But credit must also go to the ruling coalition that has provided a stable and conducive environment for people to live and work.
The state is expected to grow at more than 4% this year and there is a building boom in downtown George Town. The state government’s challenge lies in managing its own success.
Barisan wakil rakyat have made servicing the people a cornerstone of its policy.
“The Opposition used to laugh at us for tackling clogged drains and potholes but now they realise that small things are important to people,” said Bukit Bendera MP Chia Kwang Chye.
Dedicated people like the tall and energetic Jawi assemblywoman Tan Cheng Liang are looked up to as a role model.
The solid Barisan hold of Penang is a relatively new phenomenon because the state used to harbour alternative voices and had provided fertile ground for the DAP for much of the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1995, buoyed by its success in the 1990 polls, the DAP decided to launch its Tanjung 3 campaign for control of Penang. It was a disaster and voters reacted by giving the party only one state and three parliamentary seats.
Another backlash followed in 1999 when Penang voters, distrustful of the PAS-led opposition alliance, gave the DAP one state and four parliamentary seats.
Part of the DAP’s woes has to do with the fact that it has been unable to reinvent itself. Some in the DAP even think they might do better without once-formidable warriors like Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh.
Moreover, Penang people have always been tactical with their votes. For a great part of the 1970s and 1980s, they showed their dissatisfaction over issues like education and economic opportunities through the ballot.
These old tensions eased when the government liberalised tertiary education and the economy from 1990 onwards and the Chinese voters in Penang reciprocated positively.
Will such sentiments continue to hold sway in this election?
“We have to be alert to sympathy votes for the Opposition,” said Dr Sak who is well aware of the famous “Penang split votes” formula of voting Opposition for Parliament and Barisan for state.
For instance, when Chia won his parliamentary seat in Bukit Bendera five years ago, he found that his vote count was some 10,000 less than the total garnered by the three Barisan assemblymen in the constituency.
Despite the wave of support and goodwill for the Barisan, many have begun to sense an undercurrent of sentiment for an opposition presence. There is a sense that some voters feel they may have over-reacted to the opposition advance the last two elections.
It remains to be seen how far this undercurrent will take the opposition candidates.
The mood on the Malay-majority mainland is a little different. Abdullah’s strength among the Malays lies in his image as a God-fearing man who hails from a family of ulama and who is trying inject integrity in his administration.
As Dr Koh pointed out, the mainland has undergone a boom with the development of the North-South Expressway and container port.
Penang Malays are also much more open to outside influences and ideas than, say, their counterparts in the heartland areas. These are the households who subscribe to at least one newspaper, watch Astro and eat out.
Even a shabbily attired man selling coconut water in Penanti had an opinion about his assemblyman and spoke knowledgeably about the new Prime Minister, sprinkling his account with English phrases.
“Pak Lah’s style has attracted many Malays,” said Permatang Pauh Umno head Datuk Jalil Abdul Majid.
“At one time, we could not even enter certain parts of Permatang Pauh,” he said.
But incumbent Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail remains a well-liked figure. The womenfolk rally behind her although they may not believe in Parti Keadilan Nasional.
Permatang Pauh will be the hot seat in Penang.
A huge Barisan victory in Penang is a foregone conclusion but the Penang mood for a check-and-balance in government cannot be discounted.