The rural Malay heartlands have become key battlegrounds in the upcoming state elections.
The unity government has been courting voters living under the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) resettlement schemes with promises of further debt reduction, cluster housing and leadership training for its second generation.
Analysts said paying up the Felda settlers’ debts could help shore up support for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s ruling alliance.
THE FELDA SCHEME
Mr Nasir Ibrahim belongs to the first generation of settlers under the state-owned land plantation scheme Felda.
The Kampung Pasoh resident said the Felda community is no longer a vote bank for the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, led by the once-dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
“Previously, Barisan Nasional had total support. I was formerly an UMNO leader myself. But now, that support has waned,” said the father of eight.
He added that the cost of replanting is pricey and commodity prices are not stable. Despite the debt reduction, bank interests are high and he sees no end to servicing them.
There are about eight so-called Felda seats with huge settlements for thousands of planters and their families in Malaysia’s southwest state of Negeri Sembilan.
The scheme began in the 1960s and was meant to lift rural Malays out of poverty and provide them with a stable source of income.
But today, settlers and their children complain that their welfare is not taken care of and some lament that they will always be indebted under the scheme.
Part of the debts were accumulated when the Felda farmers borrowed heavily to participate in the listing of the Felda Global Ventures in 2012.
Most of the investments resulted in losses, despite the government – led by UMNO at that time – promising good returns.
“The way I look at it, they are just helping the bank. I will die indebted. My children and their children will also be the same,” said Mr Nasir.
WOOING FELDA VOTERS
About 30 per cent of the around 800,000 registered voters in Negeri Sembilan are from the Felda community. However, almost half now live outside the settlements in major cities.
Many have switched their support to the opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN).
“Most of (the voters are from) our stronghold, our fixed deposit in Barisan Nasional before. But lately, some of these Felda areas have been influenced by the opposition party,” said Mr Jalaluddin Alias, BN’s Negeri Sembilan chief.
“Now, we try our level best to serve them, to make sure that every settler, whether it is the first generation, second or third generation … are all under the government’s radar.”
In a recent bid to garner the support of rural Malays, Prime Minister Anwar’s administration claimed to have helped write off US$1.8 billion worth of debts held by Felda land settlers.
The opposition PN also claimed credit for the move, with the coalition’s chairman Muhyiddin Yassin insisting he had already resolved the waiver in 2021 when he was the prime minister.
“Felda voters understand how our chairman Muhyddin has helped them before. We can see that UMNO voters are now with Perikatan Nasional,” said Mr Ahmad Faizal Azumu, the deputy president of Bersatu leading the PN campaign in Negeri Sembilan.
The politicians’ claims and counterclaims regarding who is responsible for helping the Felda settlers reflect the importance of the settlers’ votes, said observers.
CAN PH & BN HOLD ON TO POWER?
“I hope that Felda voters will come back to Barisan Nasional and also to the unity government,” said Mr Anthony Loke, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of four component parties in the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
“We are just aiming to protect our own turf, to defend our own constituencies. If we can defend each of our own constituencies, then it will be a clean sweep of (all the) seats.”
Mr Loke is defending his rural state seat in Chennah, an area with predominantly Malay voters.
The unity government currently holds all 36 seats in Negeri Sembilan’s legislative assembly. PH occupies 20 seats while BN holds 16.
However, the opposition PN is claiming that chances are still 50-50 in the state, citing strong support from former-UMNO members and supporters who are angry with the party’s top leadership.
“We are serious about forming the government here, we are hoping for a 80 per cent voters turnout. Most UMNO supporters are now with us (PN),” said Mr Ahmad Faizal.
While it is defensive play for Mr Loke as the incumbent, he is not taking it for granted and has put in huge efforts to build rapport among UMNO, BN and PH grassroots – a move which he hopes will pay off on polling day.
“I have been here for two terms for 10 years. Never before did we get the UMNO crowds to come to our programme. But today, the UMNO machinery came and we have created a lot of synergy,” he said during a campaign event that saw UMNO supporters in attendance and sharing teh tarik (milk tea) and goreng pisang (fried banana fritters) with DAP politicians.
With campaigning nearly done and dusted, analysts said a united PH and BN machinery may just be what the new alliance needs to bring out their voters in order to win Saturday’s elections.