On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Taking on PAS in its own game

In last year's polls, the Barisan won the Sanggang state
seat by beating PAS with a 1,038 vote majority.

According to Barisan campaigners, the slim margin was a result of backing from
Chinese voters.

Although the Chinese voters made up only 32.3% of the 15,000 electorate, their
decision was crucial in determining the outcome.

Based on the results of past elections, it has never been easy for the Barisan
in Sanggang.

In the 1986 polls, the Barisan won the seat with only a 910 vote majority in a
three-way tussle with PAS and DAP.

The majority for the Barisan slipped further in the 1990 general election, when
it won with only a 340 vote majority in a three-cornered fight with an
independent and DAP.

But in the 1995 general election, the Barisan improved its performance by
increasing its majority to 4,089 votes in a fight with PAS and DAP.

Sanggang, which comes under the Mentakab parliamentary seat, may seem like an
obscure place but its voters have shown they are to be taken seriously if any
party wants their votes.

A victory on April 1 for the Barisan, particularly Umno, is crucial. It will be
a boost to Umno which holds its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur on May 11,
and, especially, when it is in the midst of searching for directions to win
back the support of the Malays.

It is a by-election the party needs to win well as Umno is said to have 5,000
members in the constituency.

The indication so far is that the Barisan is taking on PAS in its own game. It
has picked an Islamic scholar Redzwan Harun, 49, to contest the seat.

The Al-Azhar University graduate and former mosque official has a clean image
and strong religious credentials.

By picking a religious figure instead of a businessman or civil servant, the
Barisan hopes to stop criticism from PAS that it has neglected theologians and
the spiritual aspects.

Beside banking on the right candidate, Umno has directed its campaigners to
make personal contact with every voter to win their hearts and minds.

The idea is to counter the opposition, which is likely to hold ceramahs all
over the constituency.

Meanwhile, the MCAis sending 1,000 campaigners to the area, with the order of
one campaigner for every five Chinese voters.

Instead of the aggressive Gerak Gempur approach, a more low-key style, to be
known as Gerak Mesra, is expected to be adopted by Umno.

PAS has openly stated its ambition to capture Pahang following its victories in
Kelantan and Terengganu.

The Islamist party obviously realises the importance of winning the Chinese

Since January, PAS and DAP have held forums to convince the community that
criminals will not have their limbs chopped off under the hudud if PAS comes to

In Kelantan, the party appointed a Chinese Muslim as a state exco member while
in Terengganu, Mentri Besar Abdul Hadi Awang lifted the ban on pig

He also ordered a tax imposed on an arch in the state's Chinatown to be
abolished after his earlier fiasco of wanting to impose the kharaj tax on

PAS also cleverly kept their silence when some Umno MPs joined in the criticism
against Chinese and Indian programmes on Astro.

In fact, Pokok Sena MP and PAS Youth chief Mahfuz Omar questioned the motive by
some quarters in picking on only Chinese and Indian programmes.

The fight in Sanggang is not just a barometer as to whether Umno has improved
its standing among the rural Malays but also whether PAS has been successful in
winning over the Chinese.

It is obvious that PAS, comfortably confident with Malay support, will, in its
by-election campaign, emphasise its purported fair treatment of non-Muslims in
Kelantan and Terengganu. But for many Chinese voters, the question is not so
much whether they can eat pork or gamble under PAS rule but the consequences of
an Islamic state.

It is whether non-Muslims can take part in a democratic elections under a PAS
federal government and whether they would be relegated to a minor role.

The community must also be assured, beyond rhetoric, that their liberal
lifestyles would not be taken away.

These are fundamental questions raised by even some Parti Keadilan Nasional
leaders who were academicians. Suddenly in the name of political expediency,
the principles of these academicians changed overnight.

PAS will have to convince the non-Muslims that it is prepared to be more
liberal and secular if it wants their votes.

No one can deny that even critics of Umno are uncomfortable with the mix of
politics and religion being preached by PAS.

But national issues may not be enough to win votes in Sanggang. The Barisan
component parties have the advantage of having an impressive local

The Pahang MCA, for example, has strong grassroots support while Mentakab MP Fu
Ah Kiow has an excellent constituency service record.

Local issues would be important for the constituents comprising mainly farmers,
traders and civil servants.

Barisan campaigners from the cities in their flashy cars or opposition leaders
with their thunder and lightning approach won't score points in Sanggang.

Besides the town areas, the constituency also covers villages which border the
Maran parliamentary constituency.

In some areas, campaigners will have to take boat rides to win the votes of
riverine folks.

For many of these folks, development still does matter and the Barisan is
likely to impress among them the need to support the dacing.