New voters add mystery to Perak contest

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FOR the very first time, Abri Yok Chopil, 34, wants to cast his vote in the general election.

Abri, an Orang Asli from the Semai community who lives in Kampung Chang, Bidor, Perak, registered as a voter last year.

Previously, he had not taken his vote seriously because he was not aware of the importance of voting, Abri told in a phone interview.

Abri, who is an activist for Orang Asli rights, says no one from the government, especially the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa) that is in charge of the community's affairs, had briefed the villagers on their rights as citizens and their role as voters.

Instead, programmes like karaoke singing competitions are organised or handouts distributed to the families to keep them happy, he says.

The Orang Asli in the kampung, which is about 5km from Bidor, rely on subsistence agriculture and collect forest produce to earn a meagre living, says Abri. When the elections come around, the politicians come around to distribute provisions and pay for a community feast, he said.

However, Abri and many of his friends had a gradual awakening to the importance of their votes after going through an empowerment process organised by a group of activists. They believe there is a need to have a change.

"The people can choose the leaders they want," he said, expressing confidence in the power of democracy.

Abri belongs to a growing number of young people who are shedding a long-standing Malaysian trait of staying on the sidelines of political developments. A series of public rallies in recent years have drawn tens and hundreds of thousands of people, showing that there is a mood of popular empowerment afoot.

These rallies would strike a chord with many young Perak voters, who turned out in droves to protest when the  Pakatan Rakyat state government was ousted in a dramatic political crisis in 2009.

In that event, the Barisan Nasional took control of the Perak administration after three state assembly members quit the Pakatan coalition just one year after it unseated the BN state government in the 12th general election in March 2008.

Straw polls suggest that many young Perak voters are waiting for the 13th general election to make a stand on the issue at the ballot.

The  question on many minds is whether this young tide of support for change is strong enough to decide the outcome of the upcoming general election.

According to the Election Commission, there will be three million new voters in the next election, out of an electorate of some 13 million.

Merdeka Centre Research Manager Tan Seng Keat said that out of these new voters, half of them fall under the age group of 21-25 years old.

However, he pointed out that new voters are not necessarily young voters or first-time voters; they could be voters who have moved into a constituency due to labour or social mobility.

As political parties from both sides had been working very hard to register new voters since the 2008 general election, it is normal to have an increase of new voters in a constituency.

However, political analyst Ong Kian Ming pointed out that the surge of new voters is above the average rate of increase in several closely contested seats in Perak.

Ong, who recently became a DAP member and is the party's election strategist, has been compiling the data of new voters in Perak. The number of new voters in the electoral roll up to the fourth quarter of 2012 shows an increase of 217,796 (18%) new voters in Perak, compared with 2008.

He also noted a surge in certain marginal constituencies, namely Gopeng (31.1%), Bukit Gantang (29.9%) and found it "troubling".

"I would say that the surge in the number of voters in Pasir Panjang, Bukit Gantang and Gopeng is very troubling because these are not areas with large numbers of new housing developments and new voters moving in.

"There is good reason to believe that these are strategic registrations, probably done by the BN and also government agencies like Department of Special Affairs (JASA) to register new voters and to move old voters into these marginal seats in order to defeat the incumbent PR representatives," Ong told in an email interview.

Both Pasir Panjang state seat and Bukit Gantang parliamentary seat were won by Datuk Nizar Jamaluddin, the former Pakatan Rakyat menteri besar. While Gopeng was won by PKR's Dr Lee Boon Chye and the MCA believed that it has great chance to wrestle the seat back from PKR.

The question is what proportion of the new voters are young voters eager for change, and what proportion are voters who are part of a strategic registration exercise.

The answer could be the decisive factor in the battle for the control of Perak.

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