If there is one electoral contest that epitomises GE 2008, it has got to be the epic battle of Sungai Siput.
A titanic contest is taking place between Samy Vellu and Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj of PSM, standing under a Keadilan ticket – and so far, it’s neck-and-neck. The scenario is more akin to 1999, when Kumar lost by a 5,259 majority rather than 2004, when Samy rode on the Pak Lah bandwagon to win by a 10,235-margin as the Chinese opposition votes were split between Kumar and the DAP candidate.
If in 1999, Kumar was David against Samy the Goliath – nine years later, Kumar’s stature has risen in Sg Siput and many residents now know the “doctor” as a familiar face.
Tonight Anwar is speaking at Karai in the heart of the Malay areas. When I contacted Kumar over the phone just now, he told me some 2,000 people had turned up, about 80 per cent of them Malay.
The ethnic breakdown in Sg Siput is 31 per cent Malay, 41 per cent Chinese, 23 per cent Indian and 5 per cent others.
Yesterday, I followed Jeyakumar on the campaign trail to experience first-hand voter sentiment on the ground – in the kampongs, low-cost housing estates and markets around Sg Siput.
He received a mixed reception. A few punched their fists in the air in support, others shook hands with him warmly, some were lukewarm or apathetic while a few were plain cold. Kumar even reached out to shake hands with a few MIC party workers, a couple of whom appeared agitated, while other MIC supporters, a little taken aback, shook hands more cordially.
One of the major issues here is the Barang Naik syndrome and oil prices – the inflationary spiral which is hurting the lower-income group of all ethnic groups. Stepping down from the back of his small lorry, travelling in a convoy with half a dozen cars, Kumar explains over the mike to anyone who cares to listen that only a small group at the top have benefited most from economic growth. Many others continue to suffer hardship. “If you are satisfied with the economy and the country, then vote for BN. Otherwise, vote for the opposition,” he urges.
Sungai Siput is plastered with pictures of Samy – though Kumar’s posters are now noticeable. The Pas boys have helped to put up Keadilan flags all over the Malay kampongs though of course the BN presence is everywhere. In town, large bill boards feature Samy and Abdullah Badawi standing side by side – not too close – each with their palms held together below in front of them, almost as if they were part of a “wall” anticipating a David Beckham free kick.
It’s Kumar’s third time against Samy Vellu, who will turn 72 on polling day. The soft-spoken respiratory physician has put together an amazing support team. Their operations centre is a hive of activity: young activists checking computers, preparing the days’ schedule, others looking after the catering of food for party workers, folding pamphlets and slipping posters into plastic covering sheets.
Most of the party workers are largely from the Indian Malaysian grassroots including estate workers; others are retired folk. Also present were Chinese Malaysians lending moral support and younger activists from out of town. Even a couple of Orang Asli have turned up.
Some come from far and wide; they are all determined and motivated. The Hindraf activists and supporters are expected to converge there soon. Even last night, when there was no ceramah near the operations centre, some 200 people turned up just to soak up the excitement and mingle with the rest of Kumar’s supporters. In contrast, the MIC operations rooms I spotted (they have more than one, I gather) looked somewhat quiet.
At the last general election, Kumar polled about 35 per cent of the Indian vote. This time, they hope to receive 60 per cent of the Indian vote. I suspect they are hoping for around 35-40 per cent of the Malay vote while it is the Chinese votes that appear to be the most uncertain.
Unlike elsewhere, where many Indians have rejected Samy Vellu, many of the Indian Malaysians in Sg Siput face an internal dilemma. They may respect Kumar for his commitment and dedication but some feel Samy Vellu has been around a long time and he has given them some infrastructure and dealt with some of their problems. If Samy is dumped, will Sg Siput be punished and lose its considerable development funds, they worry?
Over the years, Samy Vellu has brought in quite a bit of development funds for Sg Siput. Obviously, money is not a problem. Wide highways, which are amazingly (for Samy) toll free(!), stretch all the way from Kuala Kangsar to Jelapang via Sg Siput.
When I arrived at Kumar’s operations centre yesterday morning, I found Kumar’s party workers removing a long row of Keadilan flags which they earlier had put up on the road divider of the high street facing their markas. “The BN or the local government in Sg Siput now wants to put up street lights or a divider barrier in the middle of the road,” one of them lamented. Nice timing, eh?
Not to be deterred, the party workers transferred their flags to the road side, this time attaching the DAP’s Rocket flag on the same bamboo pole as the Keadilan flags. A few PSM flags fluttered high above the trees facing the operations centre. Outside the centre, the BN has its own open space next to the PSM’s area. Here the BN (or is it the Information Ministry?) sometimes organises loud concerts, which drown out the proceedings in Kumar’s area. One of Kumar’s party workers told me the crowds at these concerts are much smaller than in previous elections – only about a hundred and dwindling now, compared to a couple of thousand in previous election campaigns. Another telling indicator…
Seat negotiations between the DAP and PSM/Keadilan were particularly tough, but in the end, some sort of agreement was struck.
Last night, I dropped by to find out how the DAP candidate for the Jalong state seat nearby was faring.
Now, Leong Mee Meng, a beautician, is another one of the DAP’s ‘cili padi‘ – and clearly, she is a crowd-puller. Speaking from the corridor of a row of shop-houses, right in the middle of Jalong, close to the Gerakan and MCA offices, Leong addressed a crowd of about 4,000 stretching down the road. She spoke about ‘new politics’, Chinese schools and the inequalities in Malaysian society.
A skilled orator, she switched with ease between Mandarin and Cantonese, and used sweeping dramatic hand gestures to impressive effect. She had the crowd mesmerised.
Update from Penang:
Malaysia Today’s Raja Petra has apparently been barred from speaking on Penang Island but is allowed to speak on the mainland. This is not going to go down well with islanders, who are already swinging to the opposition in many areas, determined to teach the BN a lesson.
Some 900 people turned up at an opposition ceramah in Lengkok Bangkok tonight while another 400 are now in Brown Garden attending another ceramah there.
Meanwhile, Gerakan is believed to be facing some internal turbulence over the succession brouhaha for the chief minister’s post. Koh Tsu Koon is being seen as indecisive, while Teng Hock Nan is said to be none too thrilled about what has happened.