Political rallies take centre stage in battle for urban Malaysia

Political rallies take centre stage in battle for urban Malaysia

Malaysia election: Ceramahs
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (C) waves to his supporters after a campaign rally on May 6, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

KUALA LUMPUR: In the middle of his national campaign trail, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, told his daughter he was amazed at what he was seeing. 

Ahead of May 9 polls, the opposition's candidate for prime minister has been speaking across the country at nighttime political rallies known as "ceramah" - a first for the 92-year-old.

"He was saying to me, 'It's so amazing. All these people come out and they come out on their own, in the rain or shine, whatever, they come and they donate money'," Marina Mahathir told Channel NewsAsia.

"And I said to him, 'You know, that's what it's like on this side. You've always been on that side, so you didn't get a chance to see this.'"

Sumisha Naidu interviews Marina Mahathir
Channel NewsAsia reporter Sumisha Naidu speaks to Marina Mahathir ahead of polls for Malaysia's 14th General Election. (Photo: Lee Chao Wee)

Dr Mahathir was Malaysia's prime minister for 22 years when he was with the coalition that has led the country since independence, Barisan Nasional (BN). 

This time, however, he has jumped ship - forming his own party after losing faith in current prime minister Najib Razak.

With the switch, has come adapting to the ways the opposition has been campaigning - setting up stages and loudspeakers anywhere from the middle of fields to spaces between apartment blocks.

It is a style of canvassing votes that analysts say grew in popularity out of necessity during, ironically, Dr Mahathir's time in office. 

"It started gaining traction in the 80s - due to the tight media controls imposed then under his premiership especially after 1987," said political risk analyst Amir Fareed Rahim from KRA Group.

"It was the best outlet or platform to get their messages out to the masses".

In contrast, political rallies were not BN's "strong domain".

"The ruling coalition has a tight grip of the mainstream media platforms and BN has always favoured the ground game approach - door to door campaigning and small voter engagement sessions called 'ceramah kelompok' in the voting districts," he said.

Najib Razak on the campaign trail Malaysia general election 2018
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) shakes hands with supporters during a campaign event in Pekan, Pahang on May 8, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

Associate Professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi from University Malaya's Academy of Malay Studies agreed.

"BN has more varied strategies like going house to house," he said.

"The opposition does not have this ability as they don't have strong enough machinery at the grassroots-level".

During these polls, however, the "ceramah" has taken centre stage in a battle of perception. After each rally - with hundreds to thousands of people in attendance - the opposition has uploaded images showing their "success". 

The number of viewers via Facebook live streams are also triumphantly announced as proof that the tide is changing from the dark blue of BN to the light blue of Pakatan Harapan.

BN leaders, however, have dismissed the idea that these numbers mean anything. BN deputy director of strategic communications Eric See-To said Facebook viewers can be bought.

Najib accused the opposition of bringing in outsiders to rallies by bus too.

“For us over here, I don’t see any buses, but look at the support we receive. Everyone here today is a genuine supporter (of BN)," he reportedly told a crowd of supporters clad in BN colours, at a daytime "meet-your-leaders" session in Penang.


Malaysia election: ceramah 2
Supporters wave flashlights from their smartphones as former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad arrives to address a campaign rally on May 6, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

All the same, ceramahs have proven to be popular with the urban crowd - the voters BN needs to win over to regain its supermajority in parliament.

The bulk of the 133 seats it won in the last polls were rural or semi-rural while 70 out of 89 seats won by the opposition came from urban and semi-urban seats. 

BN ministers themselves have not headlined many ceramah, but the CEO of scandal-plagued state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) has. Arul Kanda is on a nationwide tour addressing concerns he believes are being instigated by the opposition. 

Arul Kanda Ceramah 2
A man asks 1MDB President Arul Kanda a question at a "ceramah" ahead of the Malaysia general election. (Photo: 1MDB)

He told Channel NewsAsia last month that the sessions with members of the public had gone well. But on Monday night, he faced a tough crowd in Lucky Gardens, situated in an urban hub in Kuala Lumpur.

Booed and accused of spewing "bulls**t" by the audience, Arul Kanda's event may well reflect the inherent cynicism that has made wooing this largely middle-class, multiethnic voter group increasingly difficult.

The opposition has not sailed through campaigning either. 

Online, there is still cynicism about Dr Mahathir taking the helm of the country again. During his time, he earned a reputation for being "authoritarian" and was blamed for sending his then deputy, now defacto opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim to jail on "politically motivated" charges in the 1990s. The two have since set aside their years-long feud to oust Najib. 

Dr Mahathir has pledged to hand over power to Anwar once he is out from his second stint in prison, this time on a sodomy conviction he alleged was brought on by the current prime minister.

"I do know there is some level of distrust, some people have been outspoken about it," said Marina, famously critical of her father's administration herself for years.

Now, however, she is doing something she has never done before: helping him campaign by speaking at ceramah too.

"One - he apologised for some of the things he's done. if you see the video with the little kids, he says, 'I've made some mistakes and I want to make good'", she explained.

"He's not perfect but who else are we going to support?"


The idea of a "lesser evil" was the prevailing view among urban voters Channel NewsAsia spoke to as well.

"Well look at the prime minister now, look what he's done with 1MDB," says 23-year-old Solshana Anandarajah from Lembah Pantai.

"Everyone has their positive side and their negative side ... so let's see, it's just five years."

Another long-time supporter of Anwar said he too was reserving his judgement.

"If the People's Justice Party trust him, then I do too," he said.

There are a group of people, however, who are not convinced and will not be voting at all.

The  #UndiRosak or "spoilt vote" movement is backed by young urbanites disenchanted with their choices: an ageing politician with a heavy-handed reputation or a prime minister tainted by allegations of corruption.


Politicians now have until midnight on May 9 to reach out to voters sitting on the fence.

BN leaders will spend that time meeting voters in their respective constituencies. Najib, for instance, will be in Pekan, where he will address the nation in a broadcast to be shown on all major television stations as well as via his Facebook page. 

His speech will happen at the same time as Dr Mahathir's earlier-announced address from Langkawi, where he is contesting. 

But unlike Najib, he will have to rely on channels he never had to before to be heard: the Internet and ceramah.

Source: CNA/aa(hm)