Another Country, Another Election

by Farish A. Noor

[Updated with correction at 9.02pm, March 6, 2008]

The 4,000-strong crowd at the PAS ceramah in Kota Bharu on March 3 night. Photos by Danny Lim.


TUAN Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat looked a little grey and fuzzy on the videocam screen of the Special Branch (SB) officer who stood watching the spectacle before him with an air of bored disinterest. The officer himself was not all that inconspicuous, standing as he was in the middle of the crowd with a jacket which had the word “Polis” spelled out in bold.

Around him sat and stood more than 4,000 of the faithful; PAS members and supporters who had come from out of Kota Bharu to listen to the Tok Guru speak. Apparently a rather large and visible contingent of the police and intelligence community were there as well, their close-cropped hair and rather muscular build making them stand out in bold contrast to the elderly men, grandmothers and kids who were sitting in the Dataran Stadium Sultan Muhammad car park on one of the hotter evenings of the new month.

The cop was not too pleased with me peering over his shoulder to look at who and what he was filming during the March 3 ceramah [rally], puffing smoke into my face so that I would stand further away.

The Special Branch and intelligence community were also at the ceramah.The mood was reminiscent of the glory days of 1999, when the air was thick and pregnant with anticipation. This is Kelantan, and politics in this state is rather different from what passes as politics in ever-so-genteel Klang Valley.

While what’s known as the mainstream media repeats the chorus of the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s imminent victory in this northeastern state, the reality on the ground is somewhat different. PAS has retained its grip on Kelantan because PAS understands the sentiments of the Kelantanese better than anyone else; a trait they have cultivated since the days of its leader Asri Muda, who practically made the state his personal fiefdom, and who embedded PAS into Kelantan deeper and stronger than anyone else.

Rebel Yell
Up to the microphone came the PAS candidate for Kota Bharu (P21), Datuk Wan Abdul Rahim Wan Abdullah, known locally as Cikgu Harun Rahim. The Cikgu is going up against Umno’s Datuk Mohd Fatmi Che Salleh for the parliamentary seat. Tapping into the rich vein of provincial pride and local loyalties that the Kelantanese have more of than the rest of Malaysia put together, Cikgu Harun Rahim cried out to the throng:

“Are we going to let them get Kelantan, and take away our right to govern for ourselves? Every other state in Malaysia has fallen to the BN, and look what has happened to them! We are Kelantanese! We are the only ones left standing! It’s us against the world, us against BN, us against the whole country!” The rebel yell rises, and hoots of defiance punch the sky. “No way!” the boys perched on their bikes yell. “No way will we let them take over us!”

PAS has held sway in Kelantan for the past 18 years but Umno is determined to wrest the state away from the opposition party.

In Kelantan where PAS holds sway, the rules of the election game are different. No time or place for the urbane sensibilities of the Bangsar crowd here: One after the other, the venerable Ustazs [religious teachers] and Tok Gurus [respected teachers] on stage rise up, ponderously walk to the podium, and in their steady voices shout defiance to Umno, the BN, Kuala Lumpur, the lot. Nik Aziz comes on and the crowd reciprocates every word with approving murmurs. This is his turf; his turban alone is worth 100,000 supporters on the ground.

Then comes a rather unlikely figure who cuts a contrast to the Guru Agamas [religious teachers] and Imams [person who leads in prayer]: Kelantanese through and through, but for some a figure that also embodies all that is bad, distasteful and downright freaky in Kelantan’s own brand of feudal politics: Datuk Ibrahim Ali.

The crowd of PAS supporters and members respond approvingly to the speakers at the ceramah.Former Umno and also former Semangat 46 member Ibrahim Ali ran as an independent in Pasir Mas (P22) in the 2004 elections, and succeeded in splitting the votes so that Umno’s Datuk Abd Rahim Ab Rahman was denied a victory by PAS’s Ismail Noh who won by 1,251 votes. Ibrahim Ali himself managed to secure 6,198 votes.

In this 2008 elections, he is running as an independent under the PAS banner against Umno’s Ahmed Rasdi Mahmed. It will be a straight fight unlike in 2004.

As Ibrahim Ali reaches the microphone, forgotten are the Peoples’ Declaration, the social contract, the values of human rights, democracy and transparency. Sidelined too is the all-important pact among the opposition parties of the Barisan Rakyat. Ibrahim Ali is here to do what he does best, which is to talk about himself and what ails him. As his shrill voice tears across the open dataran [square], I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prick in terrible anticipation of what will come next:

“Under the BN, Malaysia has been sold to the foreigners. Look at what they have done to Johor; they have let the Singaporeans buy more land than the size of Singapore itself! They have sold the country to foreigners! Malaysia is being sold to the Chinese of Singapore, who are working with the Americans and the Jews!”

I cringe at the simplistic binary logic that seems to be the only sort of logic that can be accommodated in the man’s legendary mind; and brace myself for the other gems to follow. “Under BN, the country is full of foreign workers and immigrants! Many of them are criminals, and that’s why the crime rate is so high in the BN-controlled states! Do we want that to happen to Kelantan? Do we want foreign criminals here?”

Obviously, Ibrahim Ali has not spent enough time perusing the various studies and reports done of Malaysia’s urban crime rates; for once again, every trite stereotype and cliché from the tabloid press is regurgitated for the crowd’s benefit. I look around me to gauge the reaction to Ibrahim Ali’s momentary spate of immigrant-bashing, only to notice a mother changing her baby’s nappy under a tree by the car park instead. The SB officer has left, but his videocam is still tripod-mounted and running. Further in the distance, I see him joking with his friends and sharing a cigarette instead.

Preaching Democracy at Kg Slow
Two days on, and I am burning rubber in the Kelantanese interior, riding shotgun at the head of a convoy of boys on bikes carrying PAS flags and streamers. Plying the highway towards Gua Musang, we are roaming around the parliamentary constituency of Kuala Krai (P31) where Dr Mohd Hatta Mat Ramli is the PAS candidate contesting against Umno’s Prof Datuk Dr Che Musa Che Omar. All along the roads children come out to wave at us as the motorbikes rev to full speed and the flags flutter in the fading light.

Following Hatta Ramli around Kuala Krai was a necessary antidote to Ibrahim Ali’s bile and venom. Hatta, a medical doctor, is PAS’s man and is traveling around the countryside to spread the news of PAS, but more importantly the new PAS that he and others like him are keen to foreground.

We shuttle from village to village, moving from house to house. Hatta is dressed in his white short-sleeved shirt with a stethoscope around his neck. During breaks in between the ceramahs and campaigning, he checks people’s blood pressure. We end up in the house of an elderly man who was formerly with PAS, but who then turned to Umno and who may yet swing back to PAS. As Hatta dispenses with medical advice, he obviously cannot resist taking yet another jibe (the latest of many) at me and my smoking habit.

“Don’t smoke anymore, uncle. You’ve had a stroke and cigarettes will kill you. I know you will listen to me, unlike some hard-headed addicts who never listen to good advice…” He laughs, the pakcik [uncle] laughs. Hatta is dispensing pastoral care with a little bit of religion thrown in, PAS-style.

By the end of the day, we meander towards Kg Slow. Kg Slow is so slow that even the biawaks [monitor lizards] cross the road slowly. In a tiny surau [house of worship] made of rickety wood with only one light bulb in the corner, Hatta stands to greet the kampung [village] folk and reminds them to support PAS.

“We pray that you will support us still, and remember that there is still so much else to do. PAS has been in Kelantan now for eighteen years, and if someone was eighteen, he would still be young.

“So we are still young, still at our prime. So this is why we want PAS to retain Kelantan, we want to develop all the things we have started, we want to build upon the welfare state we have promised you, we want you to understand your rights, your entitlements. You should never be poor, nor should you not have even basic healthcare and education. But for us to get all this, we must start with our rights, our human rights, our democratic rights.”

Preaching democracy in Kg Slow is going to take a long, long time. And perhaps by then even the biawaks will be dead and gone. But in his quiet corner, Dr. Hatta carries on his modest jihad [struggle] for democracy and Islam in a state that is quite a world in itself. Kelantan may be just on the other side of the peninsula, but here it is a different country and a different election altogether.

[Note: Kota Bharu total voters: 68,261; Malay (79.1%), Chinese (19.1%), Indian (1.3%), Others (0.5%). Pasir Mas total voters: 59,640; Malay (96.0%), Chinese (3.7%), Indian (0.1%), Others (0.2%). Kuala Krai total voters: 52,250; Malay (92.4%), Chinese (5.5%), Indian (1.9%), Others (0.2%).]

Dr. Farish A. Noor is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and one of the founders of the research site.

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