By-election to test Chinese voter support for Abdullah

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am

A by-election is shaping into a litmus test of ethnic Chinese voter support for Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi after opinion polls last month showed nearly 60 per cent of Chinese were unhappy with his government.

Attention is focused on the 5,000 registered Chinese voters who form 48 per cent of the voters in Machap, a semi-rural constituency in Malacca state about 250km south of the capital. The seat became vacant after the incumbent, Poh Ah Tiam, a government backbencher, died of cancer last week.

With Machap's 3,500 Malay voters split between Mr Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation, or Umno, and rivals Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, Chinese voter support is crucial for victory.

Ethnic Chinese voters - who comprise 35 per cent of the 11 million registered voters nationally - had overwhelmingly backed Mr Abdullah's 13-party National Front coalition in the 2004 general election, but that support has eroded.

'This is the first by-election since 2004 in a Chinese majority area and is therefore a litmus test of Chinese voter support for the government,' said James Wong, chief political analyst with Malaysiakini, an independent online news magazine.

'I expect to see erosion of Chinese voter support for Abdullah. The question is how much.'

Veteran newspaper editor Syed Nadzri, writing in the New Straits Times daily yesterday, agreed.

'The battle is likely to be rip-roaring ... and [the results] used as a dipstick on the current mood of the Chinese,' he said.

The seat has been traditionally contested and won by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the biggest Chinese party allied with the Abdullah-led government.

However, the party has been weakened by internal leadership squabbles and recent criticism from Chinese community leaders and guilds for 'failing' to defend Chinese rights from attacks by Umno leaders, who July warned that Chinese 'blood will flow' if they continued demanding an end to the 'Malays-first' affirmative action policies that began in 1970.

Concerns about the economy, corruption, rampant property crime and Islam 'intruding' into secular rights have unsettled non-Muslims.

The Malaysian Chinese Association has acknowledged the poll's findings saying Chinese are unsettled, but rejected its conclusion that 60 per cent would vote for the opposition.