October 7, 2022

Looking back at Tanjung Piai: What exactly did the people say with their votes?

5 min read

Before the Tanjung Piai by-election in Johor on Nov 16, I was asked who would win. My answer was: “More Malays to vote for Barisan Nasional and fewer Chinese to vote for Pakatan Harapan. Barisan will win.”

My prediction was derived from chats with locals during the first week of campaigning in the Parliamentary constituency with 57% Malays, 42% Chinese and 1% Indians and others. On the ground in the Johor seat, the sentiment was against the ruling coalition.

Closer to polling, I quoted the forecast of Ilham Centre and the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap). The two think tanks predicted that Barisan would retain Tanjung Piai which it lost by 524 votes in GE14 in 2018.

On election night, Barisan’s Datuk Seri Dr Wee Jeck Seng, as expected, won. The shocker was the MCA candidate’s 15,086 majority.

Last week I received an invitation from Senator Khairul Azwan Harun, who founded the Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS), to attend a discussion about the Tanjung Piai by-election. I accepted, as the panellists were pollsters who got their forecasts right.

“The forum was a showcase of grounded facts. We had pollsters, some of the best in Malaysia, to share the stage because we wanted to ensure that moving forward, everyone would leave with key learning points, ones derived from actual empirical backing,” Khairul Azwan, who is popularly known as Azwan Bro, told me later.

Two days before polling, the Ilham Centre stated that Barisan would win comfortably and the Chinese votes would go to it. What it didn’t tell the public was it predicted a 16,000 vote majority. On the eve of polling, Insap forecasted a 7,000 majority win for Barisan.

During the Cent-GPS forum, Insap director Johnny Yuen told me that the think tank’s prediction was higher. However, it decided to project a more conservative forecast. “Insap’s initial forecast was an 11,000 plus majority but this was reduced to 7,000 arising from internal conservatism. Insap also reduced its forecast turnout from 75% to 70%, and trimmed its forecast support rate for Chinese and Malay voters,” he said.

What insight have you gleaned from the forum, I asked Khairul Azwan of Umno later.

“The biggest theme I saw was the discussion of whether the MCA candidate was the biggest factor or whether it was really a frustration and protest vote against the federal government,” he said.

“Some argued that the voters were mad about unfulfilled promises, another audience member and panellist argued that it was simply the familiarity of the candidate that won over the voters.”

All in all, Khairul Azwan said, for Pakatan, it was a huge wake-up call. Issues of the economy, frustration with the cost of living need to be addressed fast, he said. “The economy needs to feel strong to the common man,” he said.

For Barisan, Khairul Azwan said the win should be taken with a grain of salt. The candidate was well known, he argued and by-elections are not an indicator of how general elections could go. “If anything, people’s focus during by-elections could be more local, more interest-based while general elections, as GE14 showed, are more focused on the national image and who the people wanted to represent them internationally,” he said.

Insap head of research Dr Choong Pui Yee said Wee was well known among Tanjung Piai voters not merely because he served two terms as an MP previously but also because he was a candidate who “turun padang” (went to the ground) and has done his job well.

Pakatan’s Karmaine Sardini of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, according to Choong, paled in comparison. “There was also a lack of effort to truly explain why the voters should vote for Karmaine,” she said.

The mood was also not favourable to Pakatan, according Choong. In general, she said, the coalition of hope failed to enchant voters enough to garner support. “There was simply a lot of frustration over Pakatan’s unfulfilled promises and people are not receptive to their message,” she said.

Choong said the ruling coalition’s constant appealing for more time did not resonate with voters who were struggling with their livelihood. “People are hungry and angry and they are reluctant to give more time,” she said.

Conversely, she said Barisan capitalised on Wee’s track record and it went well with the voters. “The voters may not like Barisan but they like Wee Jeck Seng, so this helped the campaign,” she said.

If politicians were to ask me how to win an election, I’d tell them what I learnt from her points: Have a clear message to tell the voters; and in a close fight, make sure your candidate has a good track record and is known to the constituents.

The significant insight Ilham Centre’s Prof Hamidin Abdul Hamid gave about the by-election is that there’s a place for moderation and centralism in Malaysian politics.

“It is not that we want to deny the politics of accommodation in Malaysia. The issue is how are you going to put the discourse right. Umno and PAS, which are siding to the right with penyatuan ummah (Muslim unity), put up an MCA candidate,” he pointed out.

Barisan’s victory is a reality bite that said moderation works, Hamidin said. “You need everyone to win. Even if the Malay voters are united, you need the other races to win,” he said.

Just say PAS and Umno got 90% of the Malay votes in GE15, it could only win about 87 seats out of 222, he said. The Muafakat Nasional would be the main block but it would need others to form the government.

Was “Bossku” Datuk Seri Najib Razak a factor in Tanjung Piai? The former prime minister had made an appearance there during the campaign period.

According to Hamidin, Najib was not a plus factor for Barisan or a minus factor that Pakatan could use.

“When we did the survey, for the Malays, they have already erased Najib Razak politically. He’s popular but popularity-wise, it is different,” he said.

“But for Pakatan, when they keep on barking about Najib, people say move on and do your work. Najib is no longer a good model for Pakatan to use against Barisan.”

Hamidin said Bossku is a liability for Barisan leading up to GE15. “It can be a big leadership weapon against Umno. They have to think twice about Najib and (Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi) in the dock. Umno needs fresh blood,” he said.

There’ll be more by-elections before GE15. The results will give an indication of political trends in Malaysia.

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