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March 2008
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“David vs Goliath” in Penang’s Rat Island

By Tikki Gee

[Updated with correction at 3.30pm, March 3, 2008]

PENANG: Touted to be a closely-fought state, Penang is the focus of a united Opposition, where the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) are determined to wrest control of the state from Gerakan, a Barisan National (BN) component party.

Recent events at the national level, and the local Umno youth division’s demands, in 2006, for more Malay economic rights has touched a raw nerve in a state where the majority of voters are Chinese.

Since independence in 1957, Penang is among the few states in Malaysia that has demonstrated it can swing towards the Opposition. Gerakan itself was formerly an Opposition party before it joined the BN soon after the racial clashes of May 13, 1969.

Election pundits are predicting that in this 2008 elections, the Opposition will win substantially in Penang. The DAP is targeting 14 19 out of 40 state and seven out of 13 parliamentary seats in Penang in this elections.

Rat Race
One of the key constituencies in Penang that is being hotly contested is Pulau Tikus [translated from Bahasa Malaysia to mean Rat Island]. Located northeast of Penang Island, Pulau Tikus (N25) is an old and established district. In many ways, the state constituency is a microcosm of Penang with well-established residential, commercial and tourist areas. With an area stretching from Gurney, Penang’s famous tourist spot, down to the Penang General Hospital off Jalan Datuk Keramat, Pulau Tikus is a constituency of about 16,700 eligible voters.

What makes Pulau Tikus interesting is the possibility of BN candidate, Dr. Teng Hock Nan, becoming the new Penang chief minister although the latest buzz in town is that the post will go to incumbent Padang Kota assemblyman Teng Chang Yeow instead. Gerakan fielded 62-year-old Dr Teng – a party stalwart who is also party vice-president – to defend his state seat of Pulau Tikus, and talk was that he was likely to replace incumbent chief minister Dr Koh Tsu Koon, who will likely move to a federal ministerial position if he wins the Batu Kawan parliamentary seat in this elections.

Dr Teng’s operation centre in Pulau Tikus. Photos by Tikki Gee.
Dr Teng’s operation centre in Pulau Tikus. Photos by Tikki Gee.

Pulau Tikus residents said Dr Teng was a local favourite, and the chances of the DAP winning was slim. In the 2004 elections, Dr Teng won with a 6,106 majority against PKR’s Ong Khan Lee.

Still, some think the Opposition should be given a chance in the BN stronghold. “We should teach them (BN) a lesson! And vote the Opposition,” a hawker said. He lamented about the price increase of raw materials that have affected his business, and was disappointed that the government had done little to help. Another trader said he heard that an entire street was likely to vote for the opposition, though he finally conceded that “it’s hard to tell who will win.”

The writer contacted both the incumbent and the DAP candidate for their insights on the Pulau Tikus constituency. DAP candidate Koay Teng Hai granted an interview at his operations centre in Jalan Lengkuk Burma but BN candidate Dr Teng declined the request for an interview.

David vs Goliath
Koay, 35, is a former Penang DAP Youth chairman and holds a Masters in Business Administration. Previously, he contested as a candidate in the Ayer Itam state seat during the 2004 elections where he lost to Gerakan’s Cheang Chee Gooi by 2,824 votes. Koay is one of many young candidates fielded by the DAP in Penang.

Asked about the chances of winning against his more established and older competitor, he thinks there is a “60:40” chance that the DAP will win in Pulau Tikus. He said voters were unhappy with the Gerakan state government’s performance and traders were complaining about inflation and the increased cost of doing business.

“If Dr Teng wins and eventually becomes chief minister, the people of Penang (will face) a hard time,” he said, opining that Dr Teng had not contributed much to Penang in the past 12 years. Koay added that Dr Teng had a poor record even as the state traffic management committee chairman and a state executive councillor, failing several times to resolve Penang’s public transportation woes. Dr Teng was therefore unfit to become chief minister, Koay said.

On his own ability as a young candidate, Koay said: “Dr Teng says I am young and I can wait (to become a state assemblyman). Yes, I can wait but can the people?”

Battle Royale

DAP candidate for the Pulau Tikus state seat, Koay Teng Hai.
DAP candidate for the Pulau Tikus state seat, Koay Teng Hai.
Koay said that few people realise the importance of the Pulau Tikus constituency. “It is not just about Pulau Tikus but what happens here will have an impact on the nation.”

Koay said that if Dr Teng wins and ultimately becomes the chief minister, it could portend the end of the state having a Chinese chief minister. Koay claimed that Dr Teng, like Koh, would not be able to stand up to Umno. In August 2006, Penang Umno Youth proposed to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that the Penang chief ministership should rotate amongst the BN component parties. “If we deny them (the BN) a two-third majority, we can prevent this from happening,” Koay said.

Koay believes that if the Opposition does not strengthen its presence, the next time the Election Commission is allowed to redraw the country’s electoral constituencies (the earliest will be in 2010), there will be fewer Chinese-dominant seats in Penang, hence paving the way for Umno to demand for a Malay chief minister.

On what he would do if he was elected, Koay said he would focus on Chinese education and improve the traffic condition plaguing Pulau Tikus by presenting alternative traffic plans. He also has a plan to link the tourist businesses in Gurney with other businesses in Pulau Tikus by identifying a product or service which the area can call its own. He said something similar has already been done in Hong Kong but did not elaborate.

Struggle
Koay admitted that the campaigning was “tough going at the moment due to the small number of volunteers though we hope to recruit more soon”. Unlike the BN’s well-oiled machinery, Koay’s election operations room is a makeshift setup in a residential terrace house that has been converted for his use.

Koay’s election operations room in Lengkuk Burmah.
Koay’s election operations room in Lengkuk Burmah.
The difference with Dr Teng’s operations centre, located a street away, is very apparent. Dr Teng’s centre is housed in a Chinese clan association building where many volunteers run the centre, some equipped with laptops.

 

On funding, Koay said: “Surprisingly, it’s much better than it was in 2004. We have individuals who have come to our Penang DAP operations centre to pledge their support. As long as it helps to defeat Dr Teng, they are willing to donate!” Be that as it may, Koay conceded that he does not have enough. “I have printed only 2,000 posters and have limited resources to put them up.” With such limitations, Koay is relying on door-to-door visits to get his message across.

Whatever happens on polling day on March 8, democracy is alive and well in Pulau Tikus. The question is whether there will be an upset in the state constituency. If there is, it would indeed be a shock defeat for an incumbent who is well supported and favoured to win. This battle in Pulau Tikus will be played out throughout Penang to varying degrees as the race to win the hearts and minds of the people of this northern state, and of Malaysia, continues.

[Note: Breakdown of voters in Pulau Tikus: Malay (12.5%), Chinese (77.1%), Indian (8.9%), Others (1.5%). For more information on Dr Teng Hock Nan, visit www.tenghn.blogspot.com and on Koay Teng Hai www.tenghai.blogspot.com.]

Tikki Gee is a contributing writer who travelled north to check out the issues that would affect the people’s vote.