“I have to fight my own wars and I have my community and constituents to serve. I am answerable to them.” That was Nurul Izzah Anwar some eight years ago being quoted in a New York Times article.
Back then, she made headlines after defeating Shahrizat Jalil, the Umno heavyweight and three-term incumbent, for the parliamentary seat of Lembah Pantai, a suburban Kuala Lumpur constituency.
Two elections later, and a slim victory in GE13, her grip on the seat seems shaky against the backdrop of PAS’s split with the opposition; the transfer of 7,000 postal voters from the Bukit Aman police headquarters into Lembah Pantai; claims of waning support; and rumours of abandoning the constituency for a safer seat.
As she has reiterated that she would defend her seat unless directed otherwise by the party leadership, we caught up with the two-term MP to discuss her tenure and why her party PKR deserves another term in a parliamentary seat where every vote matters.
Our conversation, edited for clarity, follows:
Let’s review GE13. You won by 1,847 votes with a reduced majority. What happened?
If you followed our statements on this particular matter, we were monitoring the transfer of Umno members from nearby constituencies, mainly in Seputeh. This was part of the plan to increase the majority of the constituency or to reduce my majority in the last election.
It's well-documented, including the inclusion of policemen from the temporary Pusat Tahanan Bukit Jalil. All these manipulation of the electoral roll were taking place.
I mean, you would assume a natural progression of voters into and outside of the constituency, whether they have passed on or whether new voters were registered.
But for Lembah Pantai, every quarter recorded a staggering increase in the transfer of voters which were above the average. So, that had a factor. There was also the fact that Raja Nong Chik Zainal Abidin was a new minister.
He was not just a minister or any minister, he was the minister of federal territories, of which patronage and assistance was disbursed freely to assist the servicing of Lembah Pantai and the rest of Kuala Lumpur, and the needs of the lower and unprivileged groups. These had a factor.
Having said that, a win is a win, especially for a member of parliament in Kuala Lumpur. And it is even much more challenging in Lembah Pantai, because it has always been a traditional Umno stronghold; for three terms it was under Shahrizat Jalil.
It was such a difficult and arduous fight. We had to fight tooth and nail to actually win.
Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE) gave an ethnic spin to this. It found that one of the reasons you won was that Barisan Nasional did not move out Chinese voters from Lembah Pantai. Your thoughts on this.
I don't like to categorise voters by race per se, but if you look at the segments and the polling streams, certainly the area which I garnered the most support was in Sri Sentosa. That particularly area wasn’t removed.
Usually every seat you’d have about 30% of the people on the fence, maybe 25%. But your supporters remain intact. But what has happened with Lembah Pantai is an influx of Umno members and sympathisers.
So, IDE is right, and I got most of the data from them, and these certainly support my argument that for Lembah Pantai, it is the issue of manipulating the electoral system.
I am guessing that will be your main problem during GE14?
Of course. We just had an inclusion of the Bukit Aman police headquarters. So you are talking about 7,000 policemen being absorbed into the system. Bukit Aman is completely outside the boundaries of Lembah Pantai.
What they did before, during the 2013 election, was to include Pusat Tahanan Bukit Jalil, which was in Bandar Tun Razak, outside Lembah Pantai.
Now, you have the police headquarters which is situated in the parliamentary seat of Segambut being put in Lembah Pantai.
Funny. How does that work?
It works under BN, and BN controls the Election Commission, and that's how it works. And, of course under the law, every police station could be designated to be servicing a particular constituency, even though the headquarters is not situated within the vicinity of that parliamentary constituency.
But it is easily abused and it has been abused. I mean, how many more police stations do I need? I have Travers, Pantai, Petaling and Brickfields.
Now, I am going to rope in Dr Mahathir Mohamad. How has his presence in the opposition been received by the people of Lembah Pantai?
It is difficult to read because sentiment analysis would tell you, sometimes people like the person or people are enamoured because the person is a nonagenarian. People generally welcome him but it could be for various reasons.
For me, it's great that they seem to be very supportive with the fact that he has joined the opposition, that he has embraced the reform agenda. But for the Malay community, it remains to be seen whether he is a divisive enough factor.
From my interaction with the people in Pantai Dalam and Kampung Kerinchi, there's enough of a ripple effect. People are angry. And because it is fused with a 92-year-old man trying to write past wrongs, the impact of the GST and the overall inflationary hike on the economy – it's powerful combination.
Coupled with the yacht that has just been taken by the FBI and the Indonesian government… My point is, 1MDB is still a factor, even though it is going to be closed down by the government.
These are all important dynamics in the scheme of things, so people then decide based on the convergence of these factors.
But here’s what I am thinking. PAS “betrayed” you when it was part of Pakatan and there was nothing that could be done about it. Dr Mahathir on the other hand has a reputation for U-turning. So what’s one more U-turn for him?
There are a few configurations that we have placed. No. 1, is the fact that you have effective distribution of seats, meaning the coalition not giving him complete control over the seats contested. It's a coalition of equal partnership.
No. 2, it is the issue of clear cut reform agenda and pledges that we have outlined in the manifesto. Any prime minister designate would be forced to implement these pledges and these have been made public, so we do rely on the public as well to keep him on his toes.
On PAS, how will it split your support in Lembah Pantai?
For Lembah Pantai, I’m very lucky because majority of my previous PAS members have shifted and joined Amanah. But for me, the issue is how much can they resonate with the Malay-Muslim community?
Because in terms of membership, it's negligible but in terms of representation? That's why we have to be very careful in articulating our viewpoints, so that we are not going to be susceptible to any attacks of being seen as anti-Malay, or not going to respect and preserve the Malay position adequately in the political and economic spheres.
I would say it means that we just have to increase our support base much more. We have to fight that much harder.
Do you think time is on your side though? Given that the general election can be called at any time. You only have a short window?
I think we are in play. It is not easy, but we are still in play.
Now, I am going to bring out some criticism about your tenure as MP. These come from your former rival, Raja Nong Chik. In an interview, he said that you tend to use that fact that you are not with the ruling government as an excuse for not being able to address the woes of Lembah Pantai. I have visited areas in your constituency and I am getting mixed feedback. Some say you are absent; others say you are present and that you are blocked from entering certain areas. Level with me, how is an MP blocked from entering parts of her own constituency?
Umno has been very, and if you know the conduct of the last elections, ruthless. Until today, I would have my banner torn by Umno troopers. Also it has been a pain because in certain areas we've been blocked.
Of course, it has improved tremendously. But the last elections, for example in Abdullah Hukum, we gave away free wheelchairs thanks to some supporters who want to help the underprivileged group. Our wheelchairs, however, were rejected by some of the recipients.
We've worked hard and now we continue our food stamp program and our wheelchair distribution effectively.
This has improved but that’s the reality in Lembah Pantai, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Because the seat was an Umno stronghold, so they will block you and at the end of the day, during GE13, I was up against the minister of federal territories – DBKL is answerable to him.
For example, we have had to lodge complains on issues of drainage and that the market in Sri Sentosa needed fixing, and you often find there will be blockings from Umno politicians to ensure that we don’t get any commitment or effective collaboration from DBKL.
Even the officers have been threatened. Those who have helped me in the past to service my constituency have been transferred. So this is the reality. Because they always want to make sure they have the only right to influence and control the service providers, in which case, City Hall.
Then, I can’t have access to any halls. From the twenty times we've requested, maybe two requests were approved. Even having townhall sessions, or my open house, I can't hold it in a DBKL hall.
Even going into mosques, I used to be able to give a short taskirah (discourse), and again all the committee members in the previous mosque have been changed and replaced by Raja Nong Chik. So you have political appointees; it is a challenge.
But we still continue to try and engage. We managed to bring up some of the concerns raised by Pantai Hillpark residents, on the illegal hawkers and traffic woes. But we need that collaboration with City Hall, even in terms of traffic control, everything depends on City Hall.
Help us understand the administrative configuration in the federal territories. How does it work?
In terms of structural makeup, MPs are completely alone because they are not part of the Wilayah structure. Wilayah would have the minister, the mayor and all the city hall officers answerable to the mayor. So you have to understand the structure because this was done after Kuala Lumpur was annexed to the federal territories and, on top of that, you have a clear cut attempt of trying to remove the powers or influence of the MP.
We won 67% of the popular support in Wilayah. Even then we don’t have any room to play or any influence in the conduct of city hall itself, save for our requests. We have no state assemblyman, so all complaints go directly to the MP and in terms of disbursements and assistance, certainly whatever money I have from my own allowance, whatever money we raised, we give directly to the constituency.
So, I have a working office and I have had the office active since 2008. I do certainly my best but the office is powered purely by from my pay cheque and the RM5 million allocation goes directly to Raja Nong Chik as the BN representative chosen to disburse the funds.
But is this still the case given that Raja Nong Chik is no longer FT minister?
Yes. He is the BN coordinator or penyelaras. The announcement of RM5 million was three years ago. It used to be RM1.2 million, then increased to RM2 million and eventually the latest was RM5 million in the last general election. So, who knows what the amount is now? It’s like a black hole and it’s not going to me.
There will always going to be room for us to service more but at the end of the day, the service providers remain DBKL. So, if I got to a particular area, I always have such a difficult time forcing the DBKL officer to come.
The role of the MP is threefold. First, being part of the legislature. You are in parliament and you discuss laws and issues that are being deliberated. Second, an ombudsman. I make sure I keep watch on what DBKL has done and what services they failed to provide. Third, to be an extension of the people's voice.
We run tuition centres targeted to the lower income group. So we make sure those who have failed SPM and PT3 are the ones we guide, and it is a small scale program, but we have managed to service hundred students per year, for the past seven to six years, because education is a clear-cut solution to social mobility.
The second is, whenever you publish a Facebook post, you tend to tag the GST to 1MDB.
I am happy he is following my Facebook. But 1MDB has arrested the national psyche, so we are taking pains it to attach to GST. Why? Because if we didn’t have such a problem, to plug our coffers, we wouldn’t have to implement a regressive tax regime.
And, at the end of the day, the money generated from collecting taxes is not being pumped back to the constituents. And we had to service the 1MDB loans.
So these are concerns that are likely to be shared with the people, and where else would you read it? Sarawak Report has already been blocked. The Star? Berita Harian?
I am thinking about whether the poor people get it? I mean, is it even relevant to them?
It depends on how you explain it. You have to be very clear. That's why I keep tying it to the issue of good governance. How are Penang and Selangor able to manage their funds effectively so that they have additional, extra allocations, despite having planned to spend a particular amount during that year?
For me, it's a testament of good governance and of being efficient in managing the people's coffers. And this can easily be done if we are not tied into this ridiculous ponzi scheme or any ponzi scheme. Give me a break. We are giving rent seekers a great name in the world today.
We are already saying any investment per se, especially when it bears the government's name has to be sound and you have Irwan Serigar Abdullah on record saying that after 1MDB has recouped its debt, it’s going to close down? Of course, I have the right to explain. So, it's how you articulate it.
And ordinary people are facing such an onslaught with regard to the reduction of subsidies, and the rationalisation of previously enjoyed subsidies. So, it’s how you articulate and explain to the people. They are not stupid. They are very discerning, that the cost of goods are going up.
I always call it the “ikan kembong theory” because if you come to the pasar tani in Kampung Kerinchi, the ikan kembong ranges from RM19/kg to RM21/kg. From there, you can gage, and this is only for ikan kembong. It's not even tenggiri or siakap. So how can people afford this? And I’m not going to be touching sardines.
I think he should take a look at the ordinary people's woes and visit the pasar pagi and not just visit for the sake of visiting but actually understand that these are the basket of goods that people are enjoying day to day, or people are losing out from by virtue of the increasing economic hike.
Since we are in GE14 mood, what are the core issues that you or your party will be homing in this time round?
From our own visits, we realised that among the things people are looking at are daily economic concerns, and employment opportunities. You need to articulate not only criticism of the current government, but also offer something, and you always try to link the offering with the success and prosperity in Selangor and Penang, especially the social security programmes that have been disbursed.
My often used line would be, like in Selangor, from the word go, when you are born in the state, you will get savings automatically deducted on your behalf by the state government. When you grow up and enter university, again assistance from the state government.
Then, as you grow older, and you get sick, you get disbursements under Peduli Sihat, where the state government assists you in terms of subsidising your healthcare costs. And eventually when you pass away, your family receives RM2,500 by virtue of being a Selangor resident.
Because it’s the subsidies and the enjoyment of the social safety nets that's important to people. Also, I think having a clear-cut cogent messaging helps, and it’s not just something that is restricted to urban areas.
If you look at the flood mitigation programme introduced by Penang government, within the first month after the floods took place, they managed to disburse the first wave and second wave of funds. So there is a comparison for people to see how state governments performed.
Lastly, make your pitch: why should Lembah Pantai vote and keep you or your party for a third term?
As an MP, for these two terms, the best testament of the people's voice is that they chose an opposition MP despite all the developmental assistance that have been disbursed by the federal government in an effort to woo back the voters.
But, by the same token, they've also introduced an oppressive economic ecosystem through the reduction and removal of subsidies. Also through the introduction of the GST, which has been clearly extrapolated by Fatimah Kari from the Faculty of Poverty Studies and Development in Universiti Malaya.
All these factors showcase that at the fundamental level the reasons for the price hike is, again, the federal government. Yet, the people of Lembah Pantai are not being sidelined for choosing an opposition MP.
They are getting the best of both worlds because they are getting an effective, critical voice checking the excesses of the government. And this people's power should be carried on for the third term and I do believe even Bukit Aman policemen understand how crucial it is to denounce and reject this corrupt government from holding any sway in Lembah Pantai.
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