ALOR SETAR, Kedah: It is sometimes not easy being a farmer in Kedah, the second poorest state in Malaysia.
Sobri Yaacob knows this well, as he has worked the land for almost all his life.
The 45-year-old farmer in Yan district only makes RM130 (US$33) a month from harvesting 0.3ha of paddy field, but at the same time he needs to fork out about US$90 in expenses.
It has been tough making ends meet and he has to rely on other sources of income on top of his harvesting revenue.
“Farmers face a lot of challenges, it’s really difficult because the cost of living is high, the cost of fuel is too expensive. So, after deducting all our expenses, we can only work without making any savings,” said Sobri when the Channel NewsAsia team met him weeks before the announcement of the 14th Malaysia general elections.
Paddy fields in Yan district, Kedah. The state is considered the rice bowl of Malaysia, accounting for about 30 per cent of the country’s total rice production. (Photo: Saifulbahri Ismail)
Rural residents make up a majority of the population in Kedah and, as a result, they are the state’s kingmakers in the upcoming general election on May 9.
Kedah is currently governed by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
But discontent over bread-and-butter issues has made it a battleground state, which the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition and Muslim-based party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) hope to win.
Kedah’s state government, headed by BN’s component party UMNO, says it has enough programmes to help rural residents.
The challenge now is how to reach out to those in need more effectively.
“The federal government, the state government have so many things to offer them, to the people of Kedah, but when they are in the rural areas, it’s about engaging them, informing them what is offered by even Budget 2018,” said Suraya Yaacob, UMNO’s Sungai Tiang assemblyman and Chairman of Agriculture and Agro-based industry, Entrepreneur development, Women, Family and Welfare Committee.
“We try as much as we can to get them engaged on social media, get them engaged through our public speeches and all the programmes. But of course, it is very limited, how far can we go to see them.”
A Barisan Nasional district office in the outskirts of Alor Setar, Kedah. (Photo: Saifulbahri Ismail)
Kedah is seen as vulnerable to a leadership change, evident when voters changed state governments twice – in 2008 and then in 2013 – when BN won it back from PAS – but only by a small margin.
Pakatan Harapan is banking on the presence of its prime-minister designate, Mahathir Mohamad, to win the state. Kedah is Mahathir’s home state and many are still loyal to him there.
Mahathir’s name still carries weight, with many there regarding him as the man who brought development to the state during his years as prime minister.
The former premier announced his candidature for the general election on Apr 15, contesting Langkawi in Kedah.
His son Mukhriz Mahathir is also expected to contest in Kedah for the opposition.
He was Kedah chief minister under the UMNO banner from 2013 but was forced to step down after less than three years in office, following a vote of no-confidence by the state legislature.
A few months later, UMNO sacked him for criticising its president, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Mukhriz is now with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, and he is confident of its chances at the upcoming polls.
“We come with a lot of know-how, with a lot of understanding about what the people really want; so we feel that we have a good chance of winning the state,” Mukhriz told Channel NewsAsia at the party’s Kuala Lumpur headquarters.
“The only spoiler will be PAS. We think we can win hands down if it was a two cornered fight, but when it’s three with PAS coming in, throwing the spanners, it’s another matter altogether.”
Traders selling vegetables at a market in Guar Chempedak, a rural community located midway between Alor Setar and Sungai Petani. (Photo: Saifulbahri Ismail)
More three-cornered battles are expected now, with PAS cutting ties with the opposition alliance and going it alone.
PAS, which took the state from BN in the 2008 polls, has said it will field candidates in all its 36 state seats, and 15 parliamentary seats.
The Islamic party said it wants to tackle the high cost of living by abolishing the Goods and Services Tax and replace it with the Islamic concept of tithe.
It says it can provide the people with “emotional balance” and better fulfil their religious needs.
After it lost Kedah to the BN in the 2013 polls, PAS claims it is now better prepared to rule the state a second time, and that 70 per cent of its candidates for this year’s election will be new faces.
“PAS wants to inform the people that it is not short of candidates with calibre which includes those with good education, the professionals,” said PAS Commissioner in Kedah, Ahmad Fakhruddin Sheikh Fakhrurazi, in an interview with Channel NewsAsia at the party’s Simpang Empat headquarters.
“Secondly, PAS is introducing these candidates as part of its future leadership succession plans.”
The PAS headquarters in Simpang Empat, Kedah. (Photo: Saifulbahri Ismail)
Political parties will be fighting for 15 parliamentary seats and 36 state seats in Kedah.
A lot will be at stake, as voters decide to go for change, or continue with more of the same.
The ruling BN coalition believes voters will look at what it has achieved as the current state government, and opt for continuity.
“That’s why I’ve said, do not repeat the mistake that we’ve made in the past. In the end, those who suffer are the people of Kedah themselves,” said Kedah’s Chief Minister and State UMNO Liaison Chairman, Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah in an interview with Channel NewsAsia at his Wisma Darul Aman office in Alor Setar.
“So, we must believe in what we have experienced before, we have seen it, and I always remind that the election will decide our future, and the future of our generations to come.”
Political parties in Kedah are going all out to win the hearts and minds of voters – with promises to do more for the people.
For farmers like Sobri, he hopes that whoever comes into power will be able to improve his livelihood, at least for the next five years.
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