COMMENT Leaving the safe seat of Bukit Bendera in Penang for which he had been member of parliament since 2008, Liew Chin Tong, who grew up playing on the streets of Subang Jaya, decided to run this year for the parliamentary seat of Kluang, Johor.
Kluang is certainly not a safe seat for a DAP leader. The constituency is a stronghold of the MCA, and Dr Hou Kok Chung is defending it against Liew.
An early proponent for a DAP thrust into Johor, Liew, who is acknowledged a key strategist in the party, has had time to think about how the DAP was to win the targeted 10 parliamentary seats in Johor, and how he was to run his own campaign.
I interviewed him early at Starz Hotel in Kluang on 27 April, the morning after Pakatan Rakyat managed to draw a crowd of at least 15,000 to its ceramah. Election day was still a week away. He was clearly tired, but certainly buoyant.
I know how exhausted you must be. I shall try to be efficient with my questions. First, can you quickly compare the campaigning this year with 2008, and second, can you reveal some of the thinking behind Pakatan Rakyat’s electoral strategy so far?
Liew: One should be clear that this is Pakatan Rakyat’s first general election. In 2008, the three parties were just agreeing on electoral strategy. But much has happened since.
Perhaps your first question can be answered adequately through what I say in reply to your second question.
For starters, we have to project ourselves as much as possible as a coalition with a clear purpose. With that in mind, we came up with the idea to put the three party logos together in a definite recognisable pattern. This was started in Penang, and that is what you see on our campaign shirts, and on many of our banners. It is very visible, it suggests unity and it suggests organisation.
And then, the hard work of the campaigning itself has to be done by the people, by local volunteers and supporters. I am just a facilitator. I was advised that I should campaign strongly in Malay areas. But I can’t really do that. That is in fact best done by local supporters.
I run a people’s campaign, and I think that is both right and strategic at the same time.
Listening to you last night, am I right in saying that you see the campaign as offering you a chance to push for a mindset change in voters. You talk a lot about Malays voting for the DAP and the Chinese voting for PAS. To the extent that it actually happens, that is a breaking down of many years of distrust among Malaysians.
Well, to show how united Pakatan Rakyat is, we had a picture taken of me with the two state seat candidates under Kluang, Zairul Faizi and Tan Hong Pin. That picture is used a lot, alongside the three party logos.
When Lim Guan Eng (right) announced my candidacy here on March 30, he made it a point to show the world that we are talking about two coalitions, and voters are simply choosing between two possible governments. This is the new situation voters in Malaysia are actually facing. You have an old government, and you have the possibility of a new government. And you have a fight between two sets of policy ideas – one for the cronies and one for the people.
That set the tone for my campaign really. He also told the audience that if they voted me in, they were voting in someone who would be a deputy minister at least. That kind of talk takes things to a higher plane, making people realise how important these elections are. It also styled me as Lim Guan Eng’s representative in Kluang.
We are also fighting an opponent that has never fought a proper campaign before. They are basically too spoiled to fight. Personally, I have been involved in campaigns since 1999, in every election and by-election. In truth, the DAP is a more than well-tested party when it comes to campaigning.
Apart from doing walkabouts, I have private lunches with many here in Kluang, without the press being present. One must build up relationships. A key principle of my campaign is what I call peer-to-peer. We meet all sorts of associations; we visit temples; we visit chambers of commerce.
We come as the future government. We come offering ideas, and we are not a lowly oppositional group. We start by breaking old perceptions.
Where Kluang is concerned, the eclipsing of railway transport by automobiles and highways is a major cause of Kluang’s backwardness. That is a direct result of federal policy. Now, why rail transport did not develop in Malaysia, as it did so successfully in so many Asian countries is because of corruption. Federal problem again, requiring police reform, etc.
We argue for our policies as a government-in-waiting. For example, I keep telling Chinese and Indians that they must vote for PAS when they can because there is no point for DAP to win alone. And the Malays should also vote for DAP. We must all win together. That goes down well with most people.
When the Registrar of Societies recently tried to stop DAP from using its logo, and we immediately countered that we would in that case use PAS and PKR logos instead, I think, a mental barrier broke in many Chinese and even more so among Malays.
This is a time when we are crossing – and should cross – barriers. As its response, we see Umno becoming more conservative, and more right-wing to the extent of embracing the Perkasa group.
In Kluang, we are actually running a Pakatan campaign. We have really taken the middle ground. We have a wonderful team here in Kluang. I chose to come here and not to go to Kulai because our opponent here is a strong one, with a good reputation. But I felt I could match him. He has scholar friends, I have scholar friends; but he represents the old, and I represent the new. I am convinced now that I was right.
To get back to your first question about the difference between 2008 and 2013; we are now dealing with a coalition that has been governing at state level for five years. We are experienced now, and all the rest that comes with it.
Another innovation are the Ubah shops where we sell paraphernalia and books. These have become very popular, and are a way for people to show us support. The cool factor plays a part as well. All this adds to the carnival sense, which counteracts the sense of fear that the BN is trying to spread.
As I mentioned, this is a people’s campaign. You come, you enjoy yourself, you buy a few things, you go back and you spread the word. I have asked that everyone wear coloured T-shirts and wear them on the streets and in the coffee shops. This is demoralising for the BN; they run out of space where they can campaign. They see coloured T-shirts everywhere they go. I have just ordered another 10,000 yellow T-shirts actually.
This is also what I would call a Facebook election. I had always wanted printed advertisements but others have convinced me that I should go for Facebook. So we are doing that, quite successfully.
You once told me years ago that when a political party is in an expansive phase, its leaders must leave their comfort zone and stay on the frontline. Is that what you are doing, coming to Kluang?
Yes, I suppose. That is one of the main reasons. I am a national politician, and the change I want is for the whole country. So that struggle continues and we must increase our momentum for the good of the whole country.
Another notion that we have is to think in clusters where seats are concerned. Unlike Najib Razak who forgets that seats are artificially created, we group our seats when we strategise, along sociological lines or whatever is relevant.
In that sense, it made more sense for me to come to Kluang, to central Johor, to open up another front here, as it were. I had for a long time seen Johor as the point from which the BN could be toppled.
What Johor has given me so far, is that it is making me a more rounded politician. Leaving the comfort of Penang has given great dividends to me already. My Malay has definitely become better in speeches.
OOI KEE BENG is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). His latest book is ‘Done Making Do: 1party Rule Ends in Malaysia’ (Genta Media & ISEAS 2013).
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