OVER the past month, I have been receiving a steady stream of visitors who want to hear my views on the upcoming general election.
I offer the same advice to all of them – don’t listen to me. Talk to voters and by that, I mean a cross section of Malaysians who live in the urban and rural heartland of the country, to get a fairly accurate assessment of the sentiments on the ground.
To foreign reporters, I tell them that they will be wasting their time and money if their only source of information is taxi drivers, bartenders, fellow journalists and the crowds at rallies.
It’s even worse if their idea of criss-crossing the country is confined to Bangsar, George Town, Johor Baru, Kota Kinabalu and Kota Baru. And from these visits, they confidently assume they have tapped into the pulse of the nation.
But this will not draw them apart from the average Malaysian, who has likely never ventured out of his or her neighbourhood or circle of friends and colleagues, yet conspires to make political judgments.
The key to winning the Malaysian general election is to secure the rural parliamentary seats. Some Malaysians draw blank when asked if they have ever set foot in Kudat, Silam, Stampin, Kota Marudu, Sepanggar, Putatan, Batang Lupar or Selangau, or even know of their existence since they are part of the 222 parliamentary seats in the nation.
And there are urbanites who aren’t even aware of the numerous ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak or the names they go by.
Semporna, for example, which Parti Warisan Sabah chief Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal regards his fortress, has a strong influence because of the Suluk ethnic factor – and it’s safe to say many urbanites in “Semenanjung” have little knowledge of this group.
In Kota Belud, Sabah, the Bajau call the shots. Umno leader Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak is most powerful here.
In the 2013 general election, 108 out of 133 seats won by Barisan Nasional came from rural seats. A total of 72 out of 89 seats won by Pakatan Rakyat came from urban and semi-urban seats – with plenty of help from Chinese voters.
The DAP, in particular, encouraged every Chinese voter returning to their hometown to vote against Barisan, conjuring the belief that the community could determine the electoral outcome, including even giving PAS votes.
There are only about 30-odd Chinese majority seats in the country. As expected, the DAP won all of them, but the huge turnout of Chinese voters could not knock Umno out.
What was worse, they helped vote in PAS, including hardliners like Nasrudin Hassan (PAS information chief) in Temerloh, despite his open contempt against concerts and Valentine’s Day celebrations.
The Opposition, particularly the PKR, did well in Malay-majority seats in semi-urban and urban categories because of the support of other ethnic groups.
But it was clear that Barisan firmly held the rural seats because in terms of the popular vote, the coalition obtained 57% in rural seats, 47% in semi-urban seats and 36% in urban seats.
Of the 108 rural seats won by Barisan involving more than 4.5 million voters, 66 were Malay-majority seats, 15 bumiputra Sabah-majority seats, 18 bumiputra Sarawak-majority seats and nine mixed, according to research group Politweet.
The 2018 general election won’t be any different. It will be fought in the rural Malay villages.
The Opposition has grudgingly nominated Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to lead the pact because they know that only the former prime minister can reach the Malay villages. They are fully aware of their weakness in the rural areas.
In this context, rural areas refer not just to the seats in the peninsula, but the bumiputra Sabah-majority and bumiputra Sarawak-majority seats as well, which are even more complicated.
The interior seats in these two states are difficult to reach, with some constituencies bigger than certain states in the peninsula and the voters scattered. Reaching these rough terrains means spending days of trekking or commuting via helicopter and boat.
Voters in Sarawak are often perturbed when Semenanjung folks tell them condescendingly that they should not have an MP to represent such a small number of electorate, compared to the huge number of constituents in Cheras or Kepong, for example.
Some urban folks are simply ignorant – they have no idea where Banggi is, for instance, and they just can’t fathom that these villagers have to travel four hours in choppy sea conditions to reach the nearest town of Kudat to get groceries.
For city dwellers, it would probably take them nothing more than a couple of hours to brave snarling traffic conditions to get where they want to.
The Barisan machinery excels beyond the fringes of the city because it is fully entrenched in the network of support in the villages, whether it’s via farmers’ or fishermen’s cooperative or village security committee. And it knows the political allegiance of every voter, too.
The test this time around will be the 54 parliamentary seats in Felda areas, almost all of which are rural in nature, and they involve the settlers and their children, who are likely working in urban areas now.
I politely told an American journalist that he should not get too excited by the size of our rallies, whether Opposition or Barisan, but to open his ears and listen to the voices of the rural folk instead.
One grievous error the American press committed during the US presidential election, where they failed to see the advancement of Donald Trump, was how out of sync New York-based media establishments were with the largely rural population that voted for Trump, “the disenfranchised voters who looked past his cheesy exterior and his penchant for half-truths and heard a message of hope, however twisted”.
Washington DC and Los Angeles urbanites, for example, were loudly against Trump, but no one bothered to seek the views of rural folk, which was probably deemed unimportant to the media houses. Perhaps they thought they knew better.
As David Farenthold of the Washington Post wrote: “One of the downsides of the fractured media landscape is that it’s easier than ever to sit in an echo chamber or filter bubble and preach to the converted. Newspaper readers believe what they want to believe, and so do those on Facebook – and never the twain shall meet.”
One way or another, most of us are guilty. Our friends who send us messages in chat groups or social media automatically assume that we share the same political enthusiasm as them, though that’s not necessarily the case.
Malaysia is much more complex than meets the eye. It is vast and the rural-urban political divide persists.