Passion and purchasing in Permatang Pauh

Passion and purchasing in Permatang Pauh
3 Sept 08 : 9.00am

By Wong Chin Huat

editor@thenutgraph.com

Passion and purchasing in Permatang Pauh
Political VCDs sell like hotcakes at Pakatan Rakyat stalls (All pics by Wong Chin Huat)

SHUKRI, a hawker in his forties, set up his stall at about 7am, assisted by his sons. By 11am, he had sold nearly 900 cups of drinks, cashing in RM900 in revenue. On any other day in Permatang Pauh, he has to run the stall from 11am to 3pm to sell 200 to 300 cups.

There were at least 20 stalls like Shukri’s selling food and beverage, VCDs and political merchandise near the Institute Perguruan Tuanku Bainon on 16 Aug 2008. Assuming the 20,000-strong crowd that turned up on nomination day of the Permatang Pauh by-election spent an average of RM5 per person, this worked out to some RM100,000 for the local economy.

If you think there is nothing abnormal about party workers and activists needing to eat and drink, here’s the catch: all 20 stalls were on the Pakatan Rakyat’s side. There was not even one to cater for Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters, even though they numbered about 1,000.

How did the ruling coalition’s supporters ease their hunger and thirst? Simple: BN machinery. About 100 boxes of mineral water were stacked for party workers and supporters. I was told that a packed lunch could be obtained from the nearby primary school.

Passion and purchasing in Permatang Pauh
Nomination day at Permatang Pauh tripled the profits for stall owners like Shukri
To market, to market

The 20:1 ratio between the Pakatan Rakyat and BN supporters was, to many, an early sign of a paralysed BN campaign. To me, that even hawkers favoured the Pakatan Rakyat was more telling of what different animals the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat are.

It still does not mean that one political coalition was necessarily better behaved than the other. I was not surprised by news reports the next day that two photographers were attacked by alleged Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) supporters.

For supporters of the Pakatan Rakyat, politics is consumption. They are willing to take leave and drive long-distance to attend rallies. Most of them don’t get paid. There, they frequent the stalls set up by fellow party members or supporters.

Go to any big PAS rally and you will find the mobile pasar malam that follows. In fact, Tok Guru Nik Aziz is a popular brand name that sells coffee. Whether or not the top spiritual leader receives any royalties for his brand name, there is no doubt that he stimulates a “PAS economy”, or “Malay opposition economy”. (For some reason, few, if any, non-Malays sell their wares at these travelling bazaars.)

This is a vibrant free-market economy that encourages opposition supporters to buy and sell among themselves and enrich one another. More importantly, these buyers and sellers trade in a competitive and voluntary manner. You don’t expect these “petty” businessmen and businesswomen to stoop to sycophancy or bribes to obtain a stall lot.

In contrast, Umno’s is a centrally planned economy. Think about the 100 boxes of bottled water — surely there would only be one supplier, not 20. Who might that lucky supplier be? Do we expect open tendering?

Passion and purchasing in Permatang Pauh
A volunteer sits on the single mineral water source for BN party workers and supporters
You can safely presume the same for the whole election machinery: job assignments with payment. You get into politics to make money, not to spend — which is why the BN men and women at the nomination centre were not prepared to buy their own food and drink.

Hence, in the BN way of doing things, there is no competition to please ordinary people, even in the supply of provisions. The only competition is to please the right persons who dish out big contracts or outsource them to sub-contractors. In other words, there is a material root to Umno’s ethnic politics.

Finding that balance

Are the Pakatan Rakyat’s self-funded passionate supporters then the hope of Malaysian politics?

Not if you had seen how they booed the outnumbered BN supporters or anyone perceived to support the BN who walked through the Pakatan Rakyat crowd.

“Rasuah!” ”Bodoh!” they yelled. Some even took to displaying RM100 and RM50 notes in bottles to humiliate their opponents. And you might have found your own mineral water bottle being wrestled from your hand and thrown onto the ground, simply because it bore the BN brand.

I complained to a friend from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) who is now a Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader, and she explained that Umno had been rougher towards opposition supporters in Ijok and Machap. Fair enough, but shouldn’t PKR be different from Umno?

Cue my lack of surprise when the two photographers were attacked by alleged PKR supporters.

BN candidate Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah’s humiliating defeat to PKR’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has been blamed by many on infighting in Umno. However, can a political party maintain its electoral hegemony in the long run — without resorting to electoral fraud and bribery — when its own members are lacking enthusiasm?

Politics will always need a bit of esprit de corps driven by some common goals, whether real or imagined. You can’t win a battle if all your soldiers care for is their own spoils regardless of the troop’s victory.

Passion and purchasing in Permatang Pauh
PAS spiritual advisor Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat’s likeness graces a brand of caffeinated beverage
So, how does Umno stir up passions to motivate its members and supporters to campaign beyond thinking of monetary gain? What else, but playing on the same old ethnic fears? What else, but invoking the hatred of the dreaded babi?

The differences between the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat are as stark in their modus operandi as in their ideological position. For the Pakatan Rakyat, not only do the leaders advocate the abolition of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the grassroots members buy and sell in a free market economy. In contrast, the BN, which defends the perpetuation of the NEP, runs its election machinery fuelled by patronage and bureaucracy.

And yet, both sides exhibit unsettling behaviour among their supporters.

Like sports, politics needs a healthy dose of passion. Without that, genuine political participation and democracy are not possible.

Like sports, your passion, however, must not make you too extreme and view your opponents as evil incarnate, not even when you think the game has been greatly unfair.

In Permatang Pauh, the BN had too little passion and the Pakatan Rakyat too much. We’re still a long way from a healthy bipartisanism, where both sides just have the right amount. End of Article


A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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