On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Machap by-election: A warm-up to the elections

But the focal point of Machap has always been its new village. This will be where the MCA, which is holding the fort for the Barisan, would want to keep its strength.  

For the DAP, its leaders have privately admitted that the results for the by-election on April 12 would be a foregone conclusion; the DAP would lose to the Barisan but a reduction in the majority would be enough for them. 

In the 2004 general election, MCA's Datuk Poh Ah Tiam defeated DAP's Lio Chen Kuang with a majority of 4,562 votes. This by-election has been called following Poh's death on March 15. 

But there is a point to prove in this by-election for both sides. The DAP is not likely to hand the seat to the Barisan without a good fight and the campaign is expected to be a heated one. Never mind the fact that the new state assemblyman for Machap could well be the shortest serving elected representative in the country's history as an early general election is expected. 

The DAP is almost certain to harp on national issues and exploit the anti-establishment sentiments among sections of the Chinese voters. The opposition party, according to party insiders, wants to remind the voters of the racist remarks made by certain Umno politicians at its general assembly last year.  

The by-election would be regarded by the DAP and MCA as a gauge of the current mood of Chinese voters. It will be a test of sorts as this is the first by-election in a Chinese majority constituency since the Barisan's thumping win in the 2004 polls. 

In the absence of strong local issues, the DAP has little choice but to use issues like corruption, the lack of support for the small and medium businesses and education to woo the voters. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and other Parti Keadilan Rakyat leaders are expected to campaign for the DAP.  

The former deputy prime minister is expected to pull in the crowd at his ceramahs. Since his return to politics after he was released from jail, he has called for the end of the New Economic Policy. 

But he remains an enigma and he still needs to work hard to regain his credibility. His readiness to work with PAS, whose policy is unacceptable to non-Muslims, is treated with suspicion by non-Malays.  

The DAP is also likely to play the under-dog card by urging the voters to vote for them because the Barisan already has a strong majority in the Malacca state assembly. But the odds against the DAP is that Machap has traditionally backed the Barisan and that trend is unlikely to change. The late Poh had served the constituency well, the increasing number of goodies announced by the Prime Minister, the strong stock market sentiments, the good prices for commodities and the solidarity among Barisan parties are factors that serve to deliver the votes to the ruling coalition. 

Machap, which is located about 30km from Malacca city, is often regarded as an agricultural-based area. Since it is not far from the Durian Tunggal dam, the state government does not allow the setting up of factories in the area for environment concerns. 

The Machap voters are mostly farmers and smallholders while the younger ones are contractors and traders. The town is also popular among the Chinese community as it serves exotic meats. 

In some ways, Machap may not be the right barometer for the mood of Chinese voters, who are said to be unhappy with issues ranging from race and religion to the economy. 

While urban Chinese voters complain that the trickle down effects of economic policies have not been felt despite attempts to hype up the feel-good factors, the Machap smallholders have benefited, in many ways, from the good commodity prices such as rubber and palm oil. 

The anti-establishment national issues, expected to be used by the DAP in the Machap campaign, may get a sympathetic hearing from the new villagers but when it comes to the crunch, the votes are likely to be for the Barisan. 

Many Machap new village leaders are card-carrying MCA members or linked to the MCA, which would allow them personal access to the voters. It would not be wrong to say that they know almost every voter in Machap. 

But that aside, the number of liberal announcements over the last week such as the incentives for investors in the Iskandar Development Region and the scrapping of the real property gains tax is surely welcomed by the Chinese community. Such announcements will certainly stimulate the economy further as it would further increase foreign investments.  

During the campaign, the DAP is expected to use Umno Youth chief Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein Onn’s waving of the keris at Umno's general assembly, but this incident may have been offset by plans for the Chinese educationists and him to meet. His recent statement that he was committed to Chinese education has certainly placed him in a positive light. 

Despite ignorant statements by some politicians on the press and bloggers, it cannot be denied that Malaysia has never been more open and tolerant. For that we must credit Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.  

But for sure, the Machap by-election is a good time for the Barisan and the Opposition to kick-start their campaign machinery ahead of the next general election.