On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Outskirts hold the key

The island is actually the largest island in Malaysia followed by Pulau Bruit (in Sarawak) and Pulau Langkawi. My hometown island, Penang, is fourth. With an area of 440.7 sq km, its unique location off the northern coast of Sabah in the district of Kudat makes it the furthest tip of Malaysia.

Banggi is home to the Bonggi people, an estimated 2,000 of them. Most of these self-sufficient fishermen and farmers are influenced by animistic beliefs and lead a lifestyle that many in the peninsula would not be able to imagine. It would not be wrong to assume that many of us do not even know the existence of this group of Malaysians who, like us, will be voting in the coming general election.

Welcome to Malaysia. Malaysia isn’t just Petaling Jaya, Kepong, Cheras, George Town, Ipoh, Lembah Pantai, Kota Baru and Johor Baru.

At Banggi Island, one needs to travel by boat for three hours from Kudat, the nearest town, to reach this isolated state constituency. By air, from the capital of Kota Kinabalu, it means flying through a seemingly endless mass of sea.

This state constituency is under the control of Barisan Nasional’s Datuk Abdul Mijul Unaini, who beat his opponent with a 2,074 vote majority and, at the parliamentary level, the elected representative is Datuk Abdul Rahim, who is also from the BN. He polled 17,634 votes against PKR’s 7,739 votes.

There are 222 parliamentary seats and 576 state seats. With the exception of the 71 seats in Sarawak, where state polls were held in 2011, the general election will see contests at both parliamentary and state levels.

While most peninsular folks are familiar with the infamous Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin, the MP for Kinabatangan, it won’t be wrong for me to suggest that many of us have no idea where to pinpoint his kawasan, which is slightly bigger than Pahang, on the map. He won with a 8,507 vote majority.

There are probably more animals than voters in Kinabatangan. The Kinabatangan river is the longest in Sabah, second only to the mighty Rajang river in Sarawak.

In both these constituencies I have highlighted, the kind of huge crowd ceramahs that one sees in urban areas would be impossible, and also useless and ineffective. Reaching these two areas itself is a massive challenge.

But there are plenty of such rural and isolated constituencies all over Malaysia and it is in these heartland seats, where Umno and its BN component parties, with their extensive network of support organisations and personnel, have the edge.

So when we discuss politics, and especially when we attempt to predict the outcome of the general election, we have to concede that our opinion can sometimes be distorted and most of the time it is often shaped by our personal sentiments and limited worldview.

Someone who sips coffee in Bangsar and has never stepped into a rural constituency, where one needs to wait for days, if not weeks, for a tin of kerosene, would sometimes erroneously assume that the same set of perspectives are to be used.

A political discourse over the death penalty would mean little to a farmer whose priority is to secure his fertiliser and a bag of rice from the cooperative in his village.

Even in the urban areas, we have to take note that there are only 45 seats that are predominantly Chinese while there is not even a single seat with an Indian majority. For the two communities, their numbers are declining fast, which would have serious implications on their political clout, or the lack of it, in the years to come. More than ever, the need to be politically strategic, rather than emotive, has never been so vital.

In the coming general election, almost certain to be held by March, it will be the Malay voters, in both urban and rural areas, who will determine the outcome.

The reality is that both Umno and PAS have to win the support of the majority Malay voters. Umno has emphasised that it is the protector and patron of the Malays while PAS plays up the Malay-Islamic card again to regain its lost votes among its hardcore supporters, after its disastrous flirting with DAP.

For the Chinese voters, many are still in anti-establishment mood, and the question arises whether it could lead to a Sarawak scenario. This was when Tan Sri Taib Mahmud’s party, the Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu, won all the 38 seats it contested while the DAP walloped the Chinese-based Sarawak United People’s Party to almost make a clean slate.

The harsh reality is seen in Kuching, where the city is divided by the majestic river, and its politics are even more divided. The Melanau-Malay voters in Kuching North backed the BN while in Kuching South, it remains a DAP stronghold. The final outcome of the 2011 state polls – the Chinese were left out of the state cabinet.

The test would now be put to the Chinese voters on the peninsula this time, where the MCA still has 15 parliamentary seats.

This year-end article may seem like an odd way to end 2012 but beginning from tomorrow, the countdown to the 13th general election would have started. For the next three months, there will be nothing else except politics, politics and politics.

Hang on to your seats, get ready for the roller coaster, because the ride is going to be rough in the toughest elections ever.