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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Trio battle for hearts and minds of Batu Kitang voters


S'WAK POLLS "It was like seeing your ex-girlfriend with a new man," said Elantirayan Ganesan, a DAP volunteer, on being informed that the party had to give up Batu Kitang as part of an agreement with PKR two weeks ago.
Elantirayan was one of several loyal university friends of DAP's candidate Abdul Aziz Isa, 27, a social science graduate of Unimas, who had invested time campaigning the area daily since last year.
Carved out of Batu Kawah and Kota Sentosa, both DAP-controlled, the newly delineated Batu Kitang is located in the sub-district of Padawan, which is located to the south of Kuching.
It is the target of three key contenders - candidates from DAP, PKR and the Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP), which is fielding a long-serving bureaucrat.
Abdul Aziz (photo) is a gamble on DAP's part, and reflects the party's wish to break out of its ethnocentric image. All 12 seats the opposition currently controlled are Chinese-majority.
And as part of its drive to broaden its base, and with a more multi-ethnic appeal, the party has also fielded 15 Dayak candidates. Including Abdul Aziz, there are now more non-Chinese candidates in the May 7 election.
Batu Kitang, which has 17,494 voters, is mostly Chinese.
The seat's importance to DAP was made all the more apparent when state DAP leader Chong Chieng Jen went through his threat to contest this single seat in retaliation against its coalition partner PKR fielding its candidates in five rural seats.
However, even if local constituents may be familiar with Abdul Aziz, there were some questions on the wisdom of fielding a Malay candidate in a Chinese-majority seat.
"He is the way of the future. People are now becoming less interested in what race you are from and more on how you can contribute," said Abdul Aziz's father Marindo Taha, 53, who helps with the party's campaign.
Taib’s grand-nephew
Abdul Aziz is the grand-nephew of Sarawak governor Abdul Taib Mahmud. After DAP decided to give up Batu Kitang, Abdul Aziz was to contest in another new seat Stakan, against Ali Mahmud who is Taib's brother.
But with nearly half of the votes going the way of army postal voters, who tend to vote BN, and with no prior time invested in campaigning in the constituency, morale at DAP's Stakan team was understandably low.
"It was true. We cried half a day when we got the news to give up Batu Kitang," said Marindo, a retired travel agent.
Marindo also said the family also faced some pressure from relatives who were affiliated with Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the state's dominant BN component.
"But I support him the whole way. He has his ways. He's a bookworm. And he's made some mistakes along the way, but that is the passion of being young. I've told him that even if he loses, the fight itself is worthwhile," said Marindo.
Chinese audiences were usually floored when first encountering Abdul Aziz's speeches. With a mix of Mandarin greetings, a few insults in the local Hokkien thrown in, it was obvious Abdul Aziz could help patch DAP's need for more able Malay speakers.
When the novelty wears off, however, audiences would quickly note the candidate's stance is traditional DAP: Vote against state BN because it is corrupt and it is associated by choice with its federal counterpart.
Neighbourhood watches
The 1MDB and the GST (goods and services tax) issues are also fodder for PKR's candidate for Batu Kitang, Voon Shiak Ni.
Passed on for the Stampin MP candidacy in 2013, Voon, 46, said she's gunning for the seat this time round and brought more to the table than fiery rhetoric.
"I am not new to this area. It may be a new constituency, but I have been working here since 2000," said Voon, a mother of two children.
Voon, a lawyer by profession, specialises in civil rights and land issues. Community workers spoke of over a dozen neighbourhood watches set up by Voon in the Stampin area.
"She also helps out in women's welfare issues,” said state PKR deputy Youth chief Simon Siah, who is also a lawyer.
"She's helped abused women when they have no one else to turn to. These type of things do not get publicity," he said.
A PKR party worker, who declined to be named, said the press has ignored Voon's record in assisting the marginalised because "it is not sensational enough".
Most party work involved dealing with complaints ignored by the local council, or the Public Works Department, or perhaps just fixing broken lighting fixtures.
Voon admits to an amicable working relationship with SUPP's candidate for Batu Kitang, Padawan municipal chairman Lo Khere Chiang, but said Lo is hindered by his closeness to the ruling government.
"I think one of the reasons we are in the opposition is that we have the freedom to speak out. We don't have red tape or limitations. When you are embedded in the system, there are certain things you cannot speak of, even if you are against GST, for example.
"Even if you are against the wrongdoings of (Prime Minister) Najib Abdul Razak, you still have to keep quiet.
“Lo may be a person of principles and as a chairman, he was very co-operative with me, but because he is part of the system, there are a lot of limitations for him. We believe we can do more," said Voon.
Coffeeshop forums
Lo, 56, said the opposition has given state BN too much credit for passing the GST bill in 2014, and that state assembly lawmakers have little control over the 1MDB issue.
"The 25 BN lawmakers from Sarawak who had voted yes to GST are not the only MPs involved; in fact, the majority of the votes came from Peninsular Malaysia. This government cannot shoulder the blame for every single thing," a soft-spoken Lo said.
Lo runs an engineering firm and has served in the municipal council since 1987. He was appointed by the state government as the municipal council chairman in 2010. He takes no salary from the council post.
Party workers described Lo as a mild-mannered patrician who dislikes confrontation.
Campaign walkabouts are performed at sunrise without informing the party of his whereabouts.
Instead of speeches, Lo preferred to engage voters in what he called "coffeeshop forums" at nights, where he answers the questions fielded.
Most questions involved municipal issues, and the more pointed ones are about SUPP's role in the rise of living costs. Forums end invariably with Lo calling on voters to work with the state BN rather than combat it.
“Even critics have to admit that (Chief Minister) Adenan Satem has taken concrete steps to alleviate costs that can be felt by the average person," said Lo, referring to the lowering of electricity tariffs, the reduction of assessments rates, and the removal of all tolls in Sarawak, which was carried out in the past two years.

Lo said he preferred solving "real world problems".
"As a technical person, I am very much aware of the problems that threaten Batu Kitang. Like flash floods for example, which do tremendous damage to property and need to be better addressed,” he said.
"Being a civil engineer and through my experience in the council, I believe I am better equipped to get programmes funded to fix these problems.
“It always gives me great joy and peace in my heart when we are able to fix problems, even if no one knows about it except for those you helped," said Lo.
Sarawak goes to the polls on May 7. -Mkini

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