This was one of the big ones.
It was one of those evenings where you just had to be there to experience the growing sentiment among Penangites seeking change and reforms. Indeed, those were the rallying cries tonight – change, reforms, Makkal Sakthi, perubahan!
Some 10,000 Penangites converged at the indoor stadium of the private Han Chiang High School in Penang. Though the stadium is said to have a seating capacity of only about a 1,000, a couple of thousand more sat on the basketball court and crowded the entrances. It was standing room only and people were still trying to enter the stadium long after the ceramah began at 7.45pm. Outside, thousands more followed the proceedings on large screens.
What struck me most was watching the people around me as I walked to the stadium. These were ordinary Penangites on a mission. There was something in their stride – of course, they didn’t want to be late or to be left outside, but it was something more. A sense of purpose and determination, a sense that they could make a difference.
It was a crowd largely made up of Chinese and Indian Malaysians who were relishing the arrival of Anwar Ibrahim and Guan Eng as well as Karpal Singh, Jeff Ooi and Chow Kon Yeow.
Karpal and Guan Eng in particular received rousing receptions.
But it was Anwar who received a rock star’s welcome, as the crowd rose to their feet and cheered his arrival.
As he spoke, photographers jostled around the rostrum, blocking the view of a section of the crowd on the sides. The crowd hooted in dismay until the photographers stepped aside and allowed them to see Anwar.
They hung on to his every word. The mere mention of Samy Vellu’s name provoked jeering from the floor. Khairy’s name too drew similar derision. It was clear who the two most unpopular BN politicians were as far as the people in the stadium were concerned.
Anwar spoke about making use of Petronas’ profits for the benefit of the people and how he had kept oil prices at RM1.10 for the eight years when he was finance minister. Using different intonations, a sudden switch in tempo into fiery mode, expressive gestures and pregnant pauses, the man really knows how to work a crowd.
Despite the DAP’s call to deny the Barisan its two third’s majority, Anwar couldn’t resist taking the call a step further: “This is a defining moment and the people of Penang must take the lead to topple the BN government.” Thunderous applause greeted his statement.
I was more interested in the issues raised: it was clear that corruption and the “BN” (Barang Naik) syndrome touched a chord among the crowd; the Lingam scandal, which Karpal raised, also drew widespread disgust as well as the obligatory response of “Correct, Correct, Correct!” from someone in the crowd, sparking laughter from the rest.
Guan Eng spoke about the PGCC and how Abdullah Badawi had given the green light for this project. He said the government had completely misread the people’s desire. Instead of having dozens of 40-storey towers that would lead to more traffic congestion and pollution, “the people of Penang want more green lungs and public parks”. The crowd applauded in approval, indicating that quality of life issues including the preservation of the environment were uppermost in their minds.
He also mocked the choice of Gerakan’s Teng Chang Yeow as the reported chief minister designate to replace Koh Tsu Koon, who is now standing in the Batu Kawan parliamentary seat. “T-e-n-g C-h-a-n-g Y-e-o-w,” he drawled, as if to suggest “of all people”.
Even after the big guns like Anwar, Guan Eng and Karpal had spoken and left the stadium, thousands remained to listen to newbies such as Jeff Ooi say their piece.
As I left the stadium I was squashed as a sea of people surged out only to have our paths blocked by hundreds still standing outside, with their umbrellas open in the rain, intently following the proceedings on the screen. They were not going anywhere until the last speaker had spoken the last word.
I bumped into a journalist who told me he had heard the BN was going to pump in more resources and money in the week ahead to counter the growing pro-Opposition sentiment.
But the key to unlocking the door to power in Penang is how the Malays will vote, especially in the Umno strongholds. There may be a small swing among the Malays to the Opposition, but will it be enough to achieve the gains the Opposition is looking for? Anwar left early, informing the crowd that he still had work to do: he was visiting three largely Malay areas tonight.
Earlier in the day, while I was having lunch in a hawker centre and had filled my plate with “economy rice”, I walked up to the Chinese Malaysian cashier to pay.
He stuck out his fore-finger.
I looked at him, puzzled.
“Know what this is?” he asked.
“Rocket?” I hazarded a guess.
“Correct!” he roared in delight.
I asked him what the sentiment was like among the stall-owners.
He replied that the BN candidate had been around to put up some air-vents in the hawker centre recently, so some of those running the various food-stalls might be voting for the BN in appreciation. (Umm, isn’t that vote buying?) But this cashier was not from the same constituency and he was thus voting for the Rocket.
The fever is on. And only a week to go.