KUALA LUMPUR – Although their votes do count, the Orang Asli, living in the rural areas, have neither held the trump card nor been the pawns in the country’s political landscape.
However, the upcoming Cameron Highlands by-election appears to be a game changer for the community, for they are being closely courted by both sides of the political divide.
It appears that the highland’s fragmented political landscape is helping the Orang Asli emerge as the kingmakers in the by-election set for Jan 26. Hence, the Barisan Nasional (BN) has found it fit to field a retired senior police officer from the community with the hope of defending the seat.
Representing 22 per cent of the 32,009 voters, the Orang Asli – the majority of whom are Temiar – are certainly a force to be reckoned with in Cameron Highlands. The others in the electorate comprise Malays (34 per cent), Chinese (about 30 per cent), and Indians (about 15 per cent).
The Orang Asli, all this while, have been inclined towards the BN which still rules the state of Pahang where Cameron Highlands is located. The other voters are divided among Pakatan Harapan (PH), PAS and smaller parties like PSM and Berjasa which also have a footprint in the highlands.
The DAP, which will lead the PH assault on Cameron Highlands, is fully aware that it is going to be a tough fight looking at the fact that in the last two elections, the BN won the seat through MIC with a slim majority, including the 597-vote majority in a five-cornered fight during the watershed 14th general election (GE14).
Hence, it is not surprising that long before the nomination and election dates were set, the campaign to win over the Orang Asli had begun. Even DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang spent new year’s eve ‘trapped’ in the Semoi Lama Orang Asli village in Jelai when mud prevented the 10 four-wheel-drive vehicle convoy from getting to the main road.
“Happy New Year, there is a reason why we ended up celebrating the new year here. There are no proper roads; this is the fate of the Orang Asli after more than 60 years of independence,” said Lim on the plight of the Orang Asli.
The Orang Asli too are aware that they are being wooed but winning them over is not going to be easy. It took years for BN to win their trust and, hence, it may not be an easy road for newcomer PH in penetrating the Orang Asli bastion.
The “no vote-buying” election could well be a culture shock for the Orang Asli who have become so used to the “in return for your vote” political culture of the past. Candidates too will think twice before buying votes as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is to station its personnel in ‘hot areas’ to combat vote-buying.
Furthermore, candidates who think the Orang Asli will be a pushover should think again because since GE14 there appears to be a sense of awakening in some segments of the community, especially regarding their rights.
The by-election is expected to see a multi-cornered fight with DAP fielding M. Manogaran, who also contested the seat in GE14. The by-election is being held after the Election Court declared the seat vacant after establishing that vote-buying had led to Datuk C. Sivarraajh’s win in GE14.
For the first time, after four general elections, BN will no longer be represented by MIC in Cameron Highlands after party president Tan Sri S. A. Vigneswaran admitted the party’s chances of winning were slim, especially looking at the public sentiment in the aftermath of the Seafield temple episode. Hence, UMNO is taking up the challenge for BN by fielding Ramli Mohd Noor, who is also from the Orang Asli community.
UMNO acting president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan feels that the by-election could well serve as the barometer of the people’s acceptance of the BN and give the much-needed rejuvenation for UMNO and the coalition that had ruled for more than six decades.
DAP, though it is part of the government now, remains cautious and, as party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng stated, the by-election would be intense as the seat has never been won by PH. What more, Pahang is still the stronghold of the BN.
However, only the outcome on Jan 26 will tell whether the Orang Asli are finally a force to be reckoned with in Malaysia’s post-GE14 political landscape.