By Evelyn Khor
It was after maghrib (sunset) prayers, certainly an unusual time for paying your neighbour a visit in sleepy Kampung Beserah in Pahang, and especially with the restricted movement control order in place back then.
The unexpected visitor was Pak Wan, who would sometimes do some odd jobs in the garden for Aiman’s mother. Speaking in a low voice, he asked if he could borrow some money to take his child to the clinic and, if possible, some rice, as his family had nothing to eat.
Aiman had grown up in Kampung Beserah, a fishing community in Kuantan, and was among the handful of more fortunate youths in his kampong who had left to seek better educational and career opportunities in the cities.
Although Aiman’s father was an ardent Umno supporter, he took only a passing interest in politics: he was put off by the antics of corrupt Barisan Nasional politicians and critical of people who voted for insincere politicians in return for cash handouts.
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Disturbed by the unusual request of the visitor that night, Aiman visited the communities near his kampong the next day and was shocked by what he discovered. The pandemic had taken a toll on his community – many families were barely scraping by and surviving on only one meal a day.
Most of these were daily wage earners made redundant by the movement control order and sporadic lockdowns, which had resulted in the closure of many businesses.
Even the fishing boats lay idle as fisherfolk were barred from going out to fish. To add salt to their wounds, they were fined when they were caught fishing even if the catch was for their own consumption.
Hunger, not Covid, was the visible pandemic that had hit the communities in his kampong and beyond.
Pas’ grassroots touch
Thanks to social media and the goodwill of many, Aiman raised funds to buy much-needed essentials for these stricken families. He was pleasantly surprised when the Pas youths in his kampong responded to his urgent need for volunteers to assist him in distributing these essential items.
Aiman was amazed at how quickly and efficiently these Pas volunteers networked with mosque ustazes (religious teachers), kampong chiefs and community leaders to ensure that essentials reached poor families and other marginalised communities.
Aiman’s #MutualAidBerserah efforts during the pandemic and later, during the floods that swept Kuantan caught the attention of not only the Malaysian Insight news portal, which gave his work a special mention in its Merdeka 2020 edition, but also the Pas leaders in his area.
Fast forward to 2022, a few months before the recent general elections. Some Pas members approached Aiman to ask him to consider standing as the party’s candidate for the Beserah seat in the Pahang state assembly.
Although Aiman had reiterated that his work was not funded by any political party and he was not affiliated to any, in the eyes of the Pas leaders, he was the ideal Pas candidate – a Muslim from their very own kampong, a familiar face during times of crisis, and someone who through his charitable missions had inadvertently developed the skills of engaging with the grassroots.
The green tsunami during the recent general election showed that Pas strongholds are no longer limited to the east coast states. The party has now secured a stranglehold on the northern states as well.
Had Aiman remained in Kuala Lumpur, like many urban voters, he would have concurred with the majority that the historic wins by Pas could be partly attributed to the effective use of TikTok videos laced with religious and racial slurs for political gains; the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, which had seen a rise of 1.4 million new voters, the majority of whom are ethnic Malays and are likely to have voted for Pas; and the spread of Pas ideology through Pas-sponsored schools and religious institutions.
However, Aiman’s humanitarian outreach in a green heartland revealed to him that beneath the more visible images of turbaned Pas clerics and veiled women, a less visible but well-oiled Pas machinery of grassroots engagement had existed for decades.
And unlike those Pas leaders on the national platform whose rhetoric often provoked inter-religious tensions, at the grassroots he encountered Pas members who were humble and helpful, ran free tuition classes, conducted Qur’an and Fardu Ain classes (teachings on the obligatory acts expected of Muslims) for children, organised activities for youths, and helped set up kindergartens for the poor.
Pas members also assisted in times of bereavement, listened to the grievances of the grassroots and helped settle disputes.
Unlike other political parties, Pas is interwoven into the everyday lives of the grassroots and gives ordinary people, especially the youths, something that other political parties fail to deliver – a sense of community and belonging.
As Aiman rightly pointed out, unlike the frenetic efforts to reach out to the masses by candidates from other political parties in the build-up to the general election, the organisational skills of Pas, which have been tested and refined over decades, are already in the DNA of its members. This thus gives them an overriding advantage in the battle for Malay grassroots support.
Many may be unaware that Pas is the oldest and largest opposition party, tracing its roots to the left-wing Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) of the 1940s, whose aim was to free Malaya from the colonists. Some of its founding leaders were Islamic thinkers like Dr Burhanuddin Al-Helmy.
Although the orientation of present-day Pas has changed, the mechanism of reaching out to the masses has been successfully replicated to produce the desired outcomes for the party.
And so, the road ahead for ethnic minority and Malay opposition candidates to win in the ‘green’ heartlands will be steep – but positive results are not totally unachievable, as Hannah Yeoh showed in her recent landslide victory in Segambut.
In the Segambut parliamentary constituency in Kuala Lumpur, Bukit Lanjan and Sungai Penchala are two areas where the residents are all Malays and mainly from the low-income group – demographically fairly similar to the rural ‘green’ heartlands. Even before the general election, the chiefs from both kampongs had already assured Hannah that all their votes would go to her.
A familiar face there since 2018, Hannah personally saw to the distribution of food parcels to low-income families on more than one occasion at the height of the pandemic. She was also present sometimes late at night to ensure that mattresses were distributed to families taking shelter in flood relief centres. Her centre provided financial aid to families affected by a landslide and funded repairs to mosques and religious schools.
Unlike some other politicians, she does not make cameo appearances nor does she plaster her photo on the boxes of food parcels delivered to the people (to gain recognition and later their votes).
The focus of her ceramahs (public talks) was seldom if ever on issues like climate change and sustainability – important though these issues are – but on pressing bread-and-butter issues like the rising cost of food which the masses can relate to.
(In the recent general election, Hannah retained the Segambut seat with an increased majority of 59,684 or 80% of the popular vote, compared to her majority of 45,702 in 2018 – despite a stronger opposition challenge and an influx of new and young voters this time. Her Segambut predecessor from the DAP had won and retained the seat with majorities of 7,732 in 2008 and 19,199 in 2013.)
Back in Kampung Beserah, Pak Wan still recalls the night when he had to borrow rice. (His mother had done the same, though that was during the Japanese occupation.) He had heard that the MP in his area was sending rice and had waited for it – but it only arrived a month later, after he had already secured rice for his family.
Pak Wan recalls queuing up to get one of those bags of rice with the face of his MP printed on it. But then he was told they only had 30 bags to give away. Fortunately for him, some Pas youths later brought him some rice and essentials.
He had looked forward to the changes promised by the politicians before every election, but the water that gushes from his tap is still brown and his house still gets flooded during the monsoons.
However, he is thankful for the tahfiz (Islamic religious) schools which his children attend because, besides receiving an education, they also learn to memorise and recite the Qur’an and develop good moral values.
Pak Wan remembers the ceramahs before the recent general election. Some politician had talked about ecotourism for Beserah but he couldn’t understand what it meant. He much preferred the one who allegedly promised to give him some money for his vote – for his family could then enjoy a good meal, instead of just plain rice flavoured with salt.
Dr Evelyn Khor, an Aliran member, was a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics of the University of Malaya and later served as the university’s director of international and corporate relations. A qualified microbiologist whose second love is language, she is involved in outreach programmes for refugees and the homeless as well as with a community garden at Taman Tun Dr Ismail