What’s at stake for Malaysia Baharu in the Semenyih by-election?

Buoyed by its Cameron Highlands win, Umno-BN will be looking to see if its alliance with PAS in the parliamentary by-election can be replicated in Semenyih. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Buoyed by its Cameron Highlands win, Umno-BN will be looking to see if its alliance with PAS in the parliamentary by-election can be replicated in Semenyih. — Picture by Farhan Najib

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 4 — With Pakatan Harapan (PH) still reeling from its loss to Barisan Nasional (BN) in the Cameron Highlands by-election, eyes are turning to the March 2 Semenyih poll and what a victory would mean for either coalition.

Although the state seat was won in the 14th general election by the late Bakhtiar Mohd Nor from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), it had been held by Umno for two terms before that.

Buoyed by its Cameron Highlands win, Umno-BN will be looking to see if its alliance with PAS in the parliamentary by-election can be replicated in Semenyih. At the same time, PH is grappling with an increasingly impatient electorate demanding the ruling coalition fulfil all of their electoral pledges.

With 67.71 per cent Malay voters in Semenyih compared to 16.69 per cent Chinese and 13.73 per cent Indians there, Umno and PAS will no doubt be using a pro-Malay narrative to drive what it believes to be an increasing distrust towards PH parties (especially DAP) and win.

Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki stressed that the Semenyih by-election will showcase a more “concrete” partnership between Umno and PAS, something which many Malay voters want. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli
Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki stressed that the Semenyih by-election will showcase a more “concrete” partnership between Umno and PAS, something which many Malay voters want. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

The Malay vote

Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki believes that many Malay voters are slowly becoming aware of the message that his party has been trying to convey: that the rights of the country’s majority race are being undermined by a ruling coalition allegedly being “controlled” by the DAP.

“When we say we want to strengthen Islam, it does not mean we are mistreating other races. Malay-Muslims have been strong under BN since independence, but no single other race has been undermined or discriminated against.

“But now, with DAP in control, Malays are split,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.

This, the Umno Youth chief said, is one of the messages his party hopes to get across to voters in during the course of the upcoming campaign for the Semenyih by-election.

“As long as DAP remains chauvinistic, upholding their so-called principals of wanting all races to be equal, it indirectly sends a message that they are undermining the country’s social contract,” Asyraf claimed.

The former deputy minister says that the Cameron Highlands by-election was a boost for Umno and BN, and that they have “admitted” their mistakes in the past and had been “punished” for it in GE14.

More importantly, Asyraf stressed that the Semenyih by-election will showcase a more “concrete” partnership between Umno and PAS, something which many Malay voters want.

“Umno, PAS is still the parties in which Malays look up to. In Cameron Highlands, PAS and Umno’s machinery worked hand in hand, a formula which is close to the aspirations of the people. People are really hoping Umno and PAS can forge a strong cooperation

“Let Pakatan have their grand ceramah circuits... we will have small focus programmes and door-to-door campaigns, with our leaders who each have their own strengths,” he said.

PPBM's Datuk Rais Hussin said PH needs to stop making excuses on why some promises cannot be delivered, and instead work on a 'recalibration' of their manifesto. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
PPBM's Datuk Rais Hussin said PH needs to stop making excuses on why some promises cannot be delivered, and instead work on a 'recalibration' of their manifesto. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Lessons for PH

PPBM strategist Datuk Rais Hussin conceded that the Semenyih by-election will be a sort of “vote by the Malays” due to the percentage of voters there, but added that the by-election will also be a chance for people to share their messages and demands.

“There are lessons which have been learnt in Cameron Highlands which have been spoken by many, maybe it was the choice of candidate, or how the campaign was approached, or perhaps the strategic communications team was not able to sufficiently deliver PH’s message.

“But coming back to Semenyih...we need to address cost of living, job issues, and we need to show some very concrete items, actions, not just for Semenyih, but nationwide,” he said.

He said that while BN will undoubtedly use the issue of race and religion to garner support, PH should focus on explaining to voters on a more pressing issue: the coalition’s GE14 pledges and why some of them have yet to be fulfilled.

Rais pointed out that PH needs to stop making excuses on why some promises cannot be delivered, and instead work on a “recalibration” of their manifesto — an updated version on which promises have been delivered, which promises will be delivered, and which will be delayed.

“We need to explain why, and recalibrate the manifesto to reflect the current political landscape. Issues like food prices, and PTPTN... whoever is responsible for PTPTN must stop doing anything else and focus on that,” he said.

PTPTN is the Malay abbreviation of the loans by the National Higher Education Fund Corporation, which has become a hot potato in recent years because of the government’s ever-changing payback conditions on its graduate borrowers after entering the employment market on depressed wages.

DAP’s Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming said that the current national narrative with regards to PH is a coalition which has somehow “lost” its direction since being in federal power.

“What is at stake is whether PH can turn the larger national narrative that we have someone ‘lost’ our direction in governing since GE14. With a victory in Semenyih, this narrative can be reversed,” he said.

Ong cautioned that a loss in Semenyih for PH would be a “serious” blow in terms of an indicator for GE15.

“The stakes are much higher for PH in Semenyih compared to for BN given that Selangor is PH’s stronghold,” he said — even though Semenyih is a seat which was held by Umno in GE13 and GE12.

PSM member S. Arutchelvan said PSM needs to make a decision to contest in by-elections from time to time. — Picture by Choo Choy May
PSM member S. Arutchelvan said PSM needs to make a decision to contest in by-elections from time to time. — Picture by Choo Choy May

A crowded race

Those hoping for a straight fight between PPBM and Umno may be disappointed, as the Semenyih by-election is fast shaping up to be a possible multi-cornered race.

Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and Gerakan have both expressed interest in contesting the seat, with the former stating that a decision on the matter will be made soon.

PSM member S. Arutchelvan who contested the seat in GE14 said as a political party, PSM needs to make a decision to contest in by-elections from time to time.

“But PSM has some strict rules for standing in elections. A branch which has a service centre, and a candidate who has done work minimum two years and has units in 50 per cent of the constituency is allowed to propose a candidate.

“Now the Semenyih branch has endorsed that we stand in by-election as we fulfil these criteria. The neighbouring branches in Kajang, Bangi, Dengkil and Mantin have also have proposed that we stand. Now the matter is being discussed with the central committee,” he told Malay Mail.

PSM garnered 1,293 votes in GE14 for Semenyih. PPBM won the seat with a 8,964-vote majority (23,428) against Umno’s 14,464 votes. PAS had also contested, and managed to win 6,966 votes back then.

PPBM’s Rais says an announcement on the Semenyih seat will likely be made just before Nomination Day on February 16.

Hulu Langat Umno chief and former two-term Semenyih assemblyman Datuk Johan Abdul Aziz told Malay Mail that the party division has already sent in who they would like to see representing the party in the state by-election.

“We may get a clearer picture next week, the national BN is looking at our proposal,” he told Malay Mail.

Johan confirmed that he will not be contesting the seat, and that it was time for other “capable” people to take over.

But Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs predicts that PH will retain the seat in the by-election, despite an Umno-PAS alliance.

He said the concern would be “minor parties” like PSM splitting PH votes by throwing their hat in the Semenyih race.

“This would especially be so if other minor parties bow to political reality instead of narrowly throwing the seat to the increasingly regressive religio-racialist opposition pact by splitting PH votes,” he told Malay Mail.

Oh also said there is a danger of semi-urban voters like in Semenyih wanting to “punish” PH for not fulfilling electoral promises fast enough by voting for parties like PSM in protest.