#FZ Exclusive* Can BN erase the stigma of defeat in Penang?

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GEORGE TOWN (Feb 7): After a crushing defeat in 2008, Penang Barisan Nasional (BN) knew it had to build up the team spirit before they can persuade voters to support the coalition again.

With the swing in its political fortunes to a meagre 11 state seats in the 40-seat assembly, morale was dented among the faithful in the BN component parties.

What's more, BN's component parties were wiped out in the 2008 general election as all the 11 seats the BN won were secured by Umno.

Penang BN chairman Teng Chang Yeow admits that many members of BN component parties were hesitant even to wear the BN uniform or its t-shirts after the embarrassing defeat.

"They were cautious and worried that they will be teased or laughed at. The tide was so great, so bad against us," Teng told fz.com in a recent interview.

Teng, who was appointed to head Penang BN last April, had a clear task to build up morale and the election machinery to face the general election.

"The issue confronting us now is we must go into the battlefield with the mindset to win. Then everyone will put in their effort and push for it," said Teng, who is 48.

One of the first things Teng did was to roll out a series of programmes to rebuild the confidence and allegiance of BN component party members.

He hoped this could help remove the mental barrier of being associated with "Brand Barisan" so they can "just wear the Barisan logo and get on with the job".

The initiatives, says Teng, also involved empowering BN youth members to champion issues as well as re-establishing ties with BN veteran members.

Next, Teng sought to re-establish ties with Penang's vibrant pool of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), guilds and associations.

Like BN's own members, these groups were previously hesitant to be associated with BN after the tide turned against the coalition.

Teng reckons that the fighting spirit is returning and the morale of the BN team is now higher.

"They are not worried that they will be scolded anymore. It's different. The mood is completely different from say, 2011 and 2010.

"I feel that there is some change in the feelings towards us but whether that change will be translated into votes is another question," Teng concedes.

Telling BN's story

Penang BN's major loss in 2008 was largely blamed on the problem of weak leadership under Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon.

When he was Penang chief minister, Koh was criticised for giving in too much to the wishes of the federal government.

As Penang BN chairman, Koh, who was Gerakan president, was attacked for being subservient to Umno.

Ultimately, that popular opinion cost Penang BN many votes and demoralised the BN troops.

To mitigate that, Teng has repeatedly stressed that it was untrue to say that BN had no achievements in the last 18 years that Koh was chief minister.

The problem was Koh never "trumpeted" his achievements, Teng says.

Koh's failure to talk up his own contributions to the state and the perception that his leadership was weak proved quite damaging, Teng concedes.  

Defending BN's track record in the state, Teng rattles off a long list of infrastructure projects, affordable housing schemes and green initiatives driven by Koh.

"From scratch, (former Penang chief minister Tun Lim) Chong Eu built a very strong industrial base. You mean Koh Tsu Koon did nothing? When Chong Eu left, there were about 500 factories in the free trade zone but when Tsu Koon left there were 2,000 over factories. Isn't that a record?

"Even if they say Koh Tsu Koon has no plan of his own and just carried through what Chong Eu did, you think it's easy? To create an empire is not easy but to maintain that empire is a greater task," Teng says.

But now, Penang BN is taking a two-prong strategy in their campaign messaging: explain and attack.

When asked, Teng says he does not know if people have forgiven BN. The answer to that question will be found at the ballot box, he adds.

"Hardly anyone disagreed with the policies of the previous administration, (be it) economic or social policy.

"The issue was the perceived weak leadership and submissive leadership to other component parties. Basically that was what the non-Malays felt," Teng says.

Penang BN's main election campaign pledges will focus on resolving traffic woes, providing sufficient affordable housing and restructuring the state economy toward services instead of relying mainly on manufacturing.

Another lesson from the 2008 defeat was to use the power of social media, particularly to get to the young voters whom Teng admits is a challenging group to reach.

Teng said after rolling out a social media campaign, he was startled to discover that Penang BN's Facebook page could harness a pool of 2.12 million friends of fans.

Plans are underway to organise a gathering for Penang BN's online supporters on Feb 17.

Teng reckons that if a Facebook user is willing to view Penang BN's Facebook page, in all likelihood they are open to hearing what the coalition has to say.

Between group strategy and interference

Though Teng has been attempting to improve cooperation among BN component parties, the sticky part comes when discussing seat allocations and candidate choice.

At risk of being attacked for interfering, Teng said he has no option but to give his honest feedback on the choice of candidates put up by BN component parties.

For Teng, all BN component parties need to get behind one overarching strategy to ensure success.

"Whether they take it as a sincere comment from me or they take it as interference on their candidate list, I don't bother! To me I'm telling you this is the situation," said Teng, who is Gerakan secretary-general.  

Giving an example, Teng describes how he recently chaired the  Permatang Pauh Umno division's election machinery meeting, a move that is quite unheard of in coalition politics.

"All I said is I'm not here to intervene in your party affairs. That is none of my business. My business is to ask you: Are you prepared for the battle? How well are you prepared for the battle? I think there is no issue with Umno and me," Teng said.

"I chaired the meeting. Just tell me what is the problem. Those (issues) that I can decide and move, we just decide and move!

"My business is to ensure that the machinery must be there to shake (opposition leader Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim, that's all," said Teng.

Permatang Pauh has been Anwar's stronghold but BN is hoping to reduce his majority in the Malay-majority mainland parliamentary constituency.

While Anwar was serving his jail term and afterwards, under a prohibition from standing for election, his wife Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail had contested and won the Permatang Pauh seat.

Wan Azizah subsequently resigned to pave way for a by-election in August 2008.

Anwar made his parliamentary comeback after he won back his seat in a by-election in 2008.

The former prime minister won by a 15,671-vote majority against a BN candidate Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah and Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia (AKIM) candidate Hanafi Mamat.

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