GEORGE TOWN (Feb 5): Back in 2008, few foresaw that the wave of anger in Penang against the Barisan Nasional (BN) would deliver the northern economic powerhouse into the grasp of Pakatan Rakyat.
As the next general election looms, Penang BN chairman Teng Chang Yeow has his work cut out for him in crafting a strategy for BN to win back lost ground and reduce public resentment.
"We know it is not easy to go against the big wave that is ahead of us but we still have to face it," Teng tells fz.com in a recent interview in Penang.
"It is a matter of how you manoeuvre yourself against this strong current that is coming," he says.
In fact, Teng's appointment last April to lead the BN charge in Penang was part of the larger strategy to give the coalition a new lease of life.
After all, the 48-year-old is described as a straight-talking, bold and relatively fresh face in the political landscape. (see biodata)
Four years after BN's great defeat, Teng reckons that the coalition has recovered at least 15% to 20% of the support it lost to Pakatan.
Most of them, Teng says, are members of BN component parties who previously voted for Pakatan out of anger with the then BN leadership.
BN's loss in Penang was largely blamed on the perceived weak leadership of the then BN Penang chairman and Penang chief minister Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon.
Political observers say that with Koh out of the picture, public anger against his leadership appears to have subsided in the state.
Teng believes party members are now slowly returning to the fold.
According to Teng, BN members told him: "We voted for them (Pakatan) in the last round because we were angry with you (BN), but after that, when they became the government, they ran us down. We cannot take it."
In the past few months, BN has been stepping up efforts to win back its members, who Teng says form a substantial voting bloc in the state.
"This is where the mood is slowly shifting. The direction is very clear. Get your own members. If you lose the non-members, you still have members' votes backing you.
"You must do something to let members know you care for them as well, besides telling voters you care for them. This is a group of people who are already yours," Teng said.
The other voter group that Penang BN has its eyes on are Chinese voters in the 40 to 60 age group.
"We are trying our best to let them see that we are different from in the past. We have policies which the present Pakatan-led state government has not been able to produce," Teng said.
The policy focus for BN will be on increasing the availability of affordable housing, addressing traffic congestion and promoting a services-led economy.
Chinese voters are a significant force in Penang, with Chinese-majority constituencies forming over half of Penang's 40 state seats.
There are 23 Chinese-majority state seats, mostly on the island, compared with the 15 Malay-majority seats that are mostly on the mainland.
Winning all the Chinese-majority seats alone is enough for any political coalition to form the Penang government but political observers say a government elected merely on Chinese votes could lack legitimacy.
For now, Chinese voters are said to be largely with Pakatan, which could prove to be challenging for BN. This means that Penang's 15 Malay-majority seats are likely to be fiercely contested in the upcoming general election.
Teng reckons that middle-aged Chinese voters are more likely to warm up to BN again even as young voters remain a wild card.
"The young ones are a big concern to all of us … The young ones, we are still trying hard. Social media is part of the strategy," Teng said.
Finding safe ground?
Teng has prepared Penang BN's candidate list for BN chairman Datuk Seri Najib Razak's consideration but Teng himself remains notoriously secretive about where he will stand.
Speculation is rife that Teng would return to his Padang Kota state seat which he lost to DAP's Chow Kon Yeow in 2008.
Teng has also been associated with the Sungai Pinang and Datuk Keramat seats but Teng laughs at the mention of any guesses.
The dilemma for Teng is whether he should go to a safe seat: a safe seat could signal a lack of courage on his part but standing in an unsafe seat is a high risk proposition.
Teng's candidly points out that there is really no safe seat for Gerakan and MCA in Penang.
"Which is a safe seat? They are all Chinese seats," Teng says of the constituencies that MCA and Gerakan traditionally contest in.
Indeed, it was the Chinese voters' swing that led to BN's fall in Penang in 2008.
From controlling 38 of the 40 state seats, BN's share was cut to 11 seats, gained through Umno taking the spoils in Malay majority-constituencies.
BN's other component parties – Gerakan, MCA and MIC – were wiped out from the state assembly.
As for where he will ultimately contest, Teng cryptically says that it depends on BN's overall strategy.
When he first took the helm of Penang BN, there were strong views amongst the component parties that Teng must remain in his Padang Kota constituency.
But these views have been replaced by a new consensus that the Penang BN chairman must win a seat, any seat, to retain his credibility.
"We realise that we cannot have that kind of game. That is the old game, old mind frame. You have to have a new mind frame and you need to put your general in to carry through to the next few battles.
"The first criterion is your general must make it in," said Teng.
As Penang BN chief, Teng is tipped to be chief minister should BN wrest back the state. But this also means Teng is often measured up against incumbent chief minister Lim Guan Eng.
Lim's leadership has been credited for making the state more attractive for investment and liveable as well as protecting Penang's heritage.
Penang under the first-term Pakatan government has won praise for improved standards of governance and financial management, as the annual Auditor-General's report has noted.
But Teng is quick to point out that Penang has been well-governed all along, even under BN's administration under Koh, and the latter's predecessor Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.
The 'wow' list
The new mind frame that Teng talks about is also likely to translate into the Penang BN candidate list, as Teng moves away from the old formula of seat division amongst component parties.
Teng insists that there must be fresh faces among BN's candidate offerings comprising young professionals and grassroots leaders, if they are to convince voters that they have something fresh to offer.
"If we want to win and we want to make a breakthrough, it has to be a bold move. It has to be a different move. There has to be a 'wow' factor. It has to be unthinkable!" Teng says, striking the table to drive home his point.
But to achieve that "wow" factor, Teng needs to get BN component parties on the same page when it comes to proposing their own candidates.
"I've been giving feedback and comments to MCA, Umno and MIC. Whether they take it as sincere comments from me or they take it as interference with their candidate list, I don't bother! I'm just telling you the situation," Teng said.
|Teng's biodata for easy reading and a quick reference of things you may not have known
Teng however is not worried about whether BN has enough "big name" candidates in Penang to take on Pakatan leaders including opposition personalities like Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng, DAP chairman Karpal Singh, Bukit Mertajam MP Chong Eng and even Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
"There is a Chinese saying, 'Use a small knife to chop off a big tree'. At times, we have to find small knives … The candidate must excite the imagination of voters," says Teng.
At the end of the day, will Teng's strategy help BN recapture Penang? Teng doesn't hazard an answer for now.
"I am a general. I don't go into a battle to not win. Every general who leads a team wants to win.
"I told my members very clearly, it's not whether we will capture the state now or later. The issue confronting us now is we must go into the battlefield with the mindset to win," Teng said.