By Hwang Zheng Ming

Handouts over honesty in Lembah Pantai?

As campaigning in Malaysia's 13th general elections gets under way in earnest, the Lembah Pantai parliamentary constituency has become one of the frontlines in the quest to form the government.

This electorate of 72,533 voters is urban. Yet in many senses, Lembah Pantai is a microcosm of  larger issues being contested throughout the rest of Malaysia. More than half its constituents (55.3 percent) are Malays, with Chinese and Indians more or less equally balanced at 22.8 percent and 20 percent respectively.

The constituency spans the super-rich of Pantai Hills and Taman SEA, a large and comfortable middle-class in Bangsar and Lucky Gardens, and is teeming with working class families crammed into much of Kampung Kerinci, Pantai Dalam, Bangsar Utama and Brickfields.

It is here that BN candidate Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin, caretaker minister of federal territories and urban well-being, is fighting a close-quarters battle against Nurul Izzah Anwar, eldest daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Like his colleagues in Umno, Raja Nong Chik is fabulously wealthy and not afraid to use both personal and government resources to dispense largesse, all with his Cheshire cat-like grin.

With his scandal-ridden predecessor, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, now out of the way, Raja Nong Chik holds BN’s hope of winning not just Lembah Pantai but Kuala Lumpur's other 10 federal seats, after almost being completely wiped out five years earlier.

Although she is the incumbent, Nurul Izzah has none of the advantages and privileges that come with it. Her party is still the minority in Parliament and she enjoys none of the executive power and support that her opposite number has. Also, and like other opposition MPs, she is denied access to the RM2 million that BN MPs have for their constituents.

Her complaints at discrepancies in the electoral roll of her constituency have fallen on the deaf ears of the Election Commission. Efforts undertaken to verify its accuracy have even led to her volunteers being detained by the police. Such is the current state of democracy in Malaysia.

Her immensely popular night meetings have attracted hooligans bent on intimidating attendees and supporters. There have been very ugly scenes but thankfully no lives have been lost and her audiences have been larger than they ever were.

Despite these significant handicaps, the popular Nurul Izzah has chosen to defend her seat and run the risk of being steam-rolled rather than to opt for a safe seat somewhere else. A smart and fierce orator, something that her opponent lacks, her philosophy seems best summed up in her sole billboard, which says 'Berani Kerana Benar' or ‘Courageous Because of the Truth’.

The main line of the BN attack is that Nurul Izzah has 'done nothing' for her constituency, accusations that diehard supporters gleefully launch without knowing or caring about its flawed logic.

Nonetheless, with the help of sponsors and volunteers, she has set up community development projects in the poorer sections of her constituency.

For all the stinging attacks, Nurul Izzah remains upbeat about her chances of fending off her challenger. She is unfazed by the massive manipulation of the electoral roll and state resources arrayed against her because she believes that there are those in her electorate who care deeply about principled actions, rather than just what is handed out to them.

Of course, if she is wrong in this regard, she will have to sit out the next five years. But the theme of handouts over honesty is being played out in every single one of the 222 federal constituencies to some degree. GE13 will, among things, determine whether Malaysians allow greed and self-interests to get the better of them or whether they really believe and want a better Malaysia.