Three things we learnt from: The Cameron Highlands by-election

Barisan Nasional (BN) retained the Cameron Highlands parliamentary seat as Ramli Mohd Nor (centre) wins the by-election with a 3,238-vote majority January 26, 2019. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Barisan Nasional (BN) retained the Cameron Highlands parliamentary seat as Ramli Mohd Nor (centre) wins the by-election with a 3,238-vote majority January 26, 2019. — Picture by Farhan Najib

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KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 27 — Federal Opposition Barisan Nasional (BN) finally broke away from its losing streak in the past four by-elections since GE14 when its Orang Asli candidate Ramli Mohd Nor won the Cameron Highlands parliamentary seat last night.

With Ramli’s 12,038 votes sweeping 56.18 per cent, BN comfortably retained its uninterrupted grip on Cameron Highlands from the last four elections since its creation in 2003.

That too in practically a straight fight against Pakatan Harapan (PH) candidate M. Manogaran who won 8,800 votes or 41.07 per cent of the votes, if the two independent candidates Sallehudin Ab Talib and Wong Seng Yee are not taken into account with their combined tally of 590 votes, or just below 3 per cent.

Malay Mail spoke to three political analysts, all who said the biggest takeaway from this by-election was the success in having two of the country’s biggest Malay Muslim parties working hand-in-hand with each other.

1. The Umno-PAS 'charm' works

Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang speaks during launch of the PAS History Seminar at Kolej Universiti Islam Zulkifli Muhammad (KUIZM) in Batu Caves January 19, 2019. ― Picture by Hari Anggara
Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang speaks during launch of the PAS History Seminar at Kolej Universiti Islam Zulkifli Muhammad (KUIZM) in Batu Caves January 19, 2019. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

BN is already known to hold the upperhand in rural constituencies, as is PAS. When both join forces, their potential increases.

“It confirms the observation that Umno remains overwhelmingly strong in rural constituencies and if they could somehow work even closer with PAS such that only one candidate is sent from either party in a rural constituency, their winning chances remain high,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

In the GE14 last year, a five-cornered fight in Cameron Highlands saw BN winning narrowly by only 597 votes in a stiff fight against PH while PAS took almost 15 per cent of the votes cast.

Independent pollster Merdeka Centre's Ibrahim Suffian said yesterday’s BN victory was a “significant win” as it showed the former federal-ruling coalition was organised in its defence of the Cameron Highlands while making the most of its advantage as the past victor and maximising its potential to retain support.

BN is the state ruling coalition, not to mention the Pahang mentri besar is Jelai assemblyman, one of the two state seats within the Cameron Highlands parliamentary seat. The other state seat is Tanah Rata.

“The win, however, couldn’t have been achieved without the support and cooperation of PAS. From the raw results, it appears that at least two-thirds of PAS supporters turned out in favour of BN,” Ibrahim said.

He noted that PH’s “small inroads” in winning Orang Asli support was insufficient for it to wrest the seat.

Ibrahim also said BN's victory yesterday “shows that a PAS-Umno alliance is potentially effective in mobilising Malay support, especially when it is rooted in nativist, sectarian and identity politics. Particularly in a rural setting.”

The federal Opposition’s strategy in using race and religion to bombard PH works.

Azlan Zainal from research firm Ilham Centre said that to the largely Malay-Muslim rural voters, the Umno-PAS combo’s persistent hammering on PH’s unfulfilled GE14 promises on top of bread and butter issues, and the coalition’s handling of religious matters worked in BN’s favour.

“PH’s weakness such as being defensive in Malay-Muslim issues caused the Umno-PAS pact to be effective,” Azlan said.

While he said it is still too early to draw conclusions on the Malay voting trend, he does not discount that PH could lose states and even federal power by the next GE.

“The moral victory for BN is a justification that it is not impossible that the Malay voting trends will return to the opposition in GE15. If it is consistent and PH fails to defend Malay-Muslims, possibly it can result in defeat especially in Malay-majority areas,” he said.

2. Complacency, delay in putting money in pockets will cost PH dearly

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Cameron Highlands candidate from DAP M. Manogaran during a press conference at Yayasan Al Bukhary in Kuala Lumpur January 4, 2019. ― Picture by Firdaus Latif
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Cameron Highlands candidate from DAP M. Manogaran during a press conference at Yayasan Al Bukhary in Kuala Lumpur January 4, 2019. ― Picture by Firdaus Latif

To Ibrahim, an Umno-PAS pact has the potential to tilt between two-thirds to 70 per cent of the Malay vote away from PH.

“With a slowing economy on the horizon, PH’s hold on power will be tenuous if it can’t win over the majority segment of voters,” he said.

Ibrahim said the possibility of PH losing GE15 — if Umno-PAS continue their cooperation and the economy slows further — cannot be ruled out. As such, he noted that the PH administration urgently needs to improve the financial capabilities of the bottom 40 per cent of workers (B40).

“They better figure out a way to put money in the pockets of the the B40. Fast.

“They also need to build a grassroots machinery in the rural areas to engage voters,” he said.

Apart from the PAS-Umno cooperation and low Chinese voter turnout being key factors, Ibrahim noted the PH federal government has been rather reticent in actively wooing rural voters through policy, especially at a time of low commodity prices.

Could Cameron Highlands possibly be a protest vote against PH too?

Ibrahim think it is likely, pointing out that since taking Putrajaya nine months ago, PH has reintroduced the Sales and Services Tax and reduced subsidies — measures the public sees as adding on to their financial burden.

“I don’t think the public can wait three years for reforms to bear fruit,” Ibrahim said.

Azlan said the youths living in rural areas, especially in Jelai and partly in Tanah Rata and also Felda second-generation settlers, threw their vote behind BN as they felt affected by Malay-Muslim issues, living costs and PH’s unfulfilled election manifesto.

“For Malay and PAS voters, it is issues related to Malay-Muslim; for Felda voters, it is related to the issue of cost of living and the declining commodity prices for palm oil,” he said.

Workers load palm fruits onto a truck at a plantation. – Reuters pic
Workers load palm fruits onto a truck at a plantation. – Reuters pic

As for Oh, he said the results showed “what a disunited and half hearted campaign could do even to a newly victorious ruling coalition,” observing that PKR and other parties did not “go all out” to campaign this time.

Oh said the results also showed PH “still could not penetrate into rural constituencies,” agreeing that PH would have to worry about its GE15 prospects if the Umno-PAS alliance continues on.

“Yes certainly, as that alliance is likely to still dominate rural constituencies as PH doesn’t believe in generous handouts to win over the voters there,” he said, noting that roughly 60 per cent of federal seats in Malaysia are rural seats and the remaining estimated 40 per cent are urban seats.

He said PH's concerns would be "very, very likely" to the extent of possibly losing federal power in the next national polls, adding that little can be done to avoid such a situation as rural voters tend to look at "goodies".

Oh said PH's GE14 win was due to Umno and PAS sending out separate candidates, noting: "If only they sent out one candidate from either party in each constituencies, they would have won handsomely."

3. Najib still has influence, though he may take more credit than due

Datuk Seri Najib Razak take photos with members of the public upon his arrival at the Masjid Kampung Raja in Cameron Highlands January 17, 2019. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Datuk Seri Najib Razak take photos with members of the public upon his arrival at the Masjid Kampung Raja in Cameron Highlands January 17, 2019. — Picture by Farhan Najib

Former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, now infamous for his alleged role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, had been a very active campaigner in Cameron Highlands.

Azlan said Najib's campaigning had some impact, especially in the Felda and Orang Asli settlement areas.

“The factor as a Pahang local, Tun Razak's legacy is close to (the hearts of) voters in Felda areas. For the Orang Asli, some still consider Najib as PM,” he said of the Pekan MP.

Ibrahim said Najib still has a following among Umno supporters, but noted that it cannot be really said if it extends to the rest of the country.

“Najib’s campaign served a purpose of galvanising his supporters. It also showed focus on areas where his influence could make an impact. It probably mobilised people to come out to vote, hence the contrast in turnout rates between Jelai and Tanah Rata,” he said.

Oh noted that Najib wishes to “remain relevant and visible until the political tide turns,” but played down the idea of Najib's contribution to the results.

“Claims of Najib being responsible for the crushing defeat is much exaggerated. It is due more to PAS’ active canvassing for BN and also the candidate being a local favorite son.

“BN was gonna win anyway, he hitched a convenient ride to fame,” he said, noting that PAS votes going to BN already guaranteed the latter's win while the native son factor increased the winning margin.

Bonus: Amid intense scrutiny as the resource-rich ruling coalition now, the PH coalition suffered from some early missteps in its election campaign that at best were perceived as blunders or at worst election offences.

“I don't think the election offences were critical, it just showed that despite being in government, PH remained uncoordinated and unsophisticated in their approach,” Ibrahim said.

He added that the mistakes appeared more glaring to those outside Cameron Highlands as the actual impact within the constituency was probably from “identity politics” involving distrust of DAP and PH as well as PAS-Umno's coordinated efforts.

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