Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (right) with MCA’s Tanjung Piai by-election candidate Datuk Seri Dr Wee Jeck Seng on Nomination Day in Pontian on Nov 2. PIC BY MOHD AZREN JAMALUDIN

PONTIAN: IT may sound like a broken record, but it remains undeniable that the change in national politics on May 9 last year saw the people rally for change.

The nation proved that it can be united upon a moment of their choosing.

However, the celebration of unity is marred by trepidations of racialist tendencies in the race for votes in subsequent by-elections through campaigns by hardline politicians.

And now, such troubling narratives and overtures have found their way into the ongoing campaign for the Tanjung Piai by-election.

As Barisan Nasional moved to ensure a collective win, the coalition’s chairman, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has, perhaps, in his excitement of treading on campaign trail, made a remark that did not sit well with Chinese voters.

A few days into the campaign, Zahid, during a BN-Pas ceramah, questioned the Johor Baru magistrate’s court’s decision to acquit a car driver over an accident which killed eight teenage cyclists two years ago.

Prior to his comments, the judgment was already utilised and known as fodder for right-wing advocates, especially on social media.

“When eight children playing on their bicycles in Johor were hit by a woman (driver), that woman was released as though there was no evidence. Those children have died, they have become arwah (deceased).”

The response from the crowd was disturbing. A person even shouted that the woman should be hanged.

The distressing mood was palpable that a number from the crowd, mostly Chinese, decided to leave the ceramah in droves.

Zahid did not mention the woman’s race, but criticisms against the ruling were focused on the driver’s Chinese ethnicity.

A local voter, Vincent Liu, 38, who heard of Zahid’s comments from his father who attended the ceramah, said he felt disturbed.

“It is strange to hear this from a former home minister. How could he have such an opinion on the matter? Does this mean that this was what the BN government did before?

“As a Chinese, I don’t like this (racialist) narrative. We have to move on from all these (racial sentiments),” he told the New Straits Times yesterday.

What was Zahid’s intention in uttering those words?

To prodding by DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang, Zahid denied he was insulting the court, but had simply questioned the technical grounds behind the acquittal, which leads to another question on the necessity of releasing such a statement during a by-election campaign.

One may not be off the mark to say that he was dribbling to shore up Malay support by employing an issue sensitive enough to provoke a reaction from conservatives.

Zahid’s chess play has received a round of criticism, as well as landing BN’s candidate for the Tanjung Piai by-election, Datuk Seri Dr Wee Jeck Seng, in hot water.

Lim’s demand for Wee to state his stand on the matter saw MCA forced to play ball between Zahid and the people’s sentiment.

MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong said the court’s decision must be respected.

Wee, however, said he respected Zahid’s statement.

Zahid’s remark can be a costly stratagem.

While it was likely used to stir sentiments among Malay voters, the Chinese, who make up 42 per cent of the voters in the constituency, would be stirred adversely against BN.

Up until the second week of the campaign, Zahid was explaining to Malay voters, especially Umno members, the reason why BN chose to field Wee instead of a Malay candidate. This reflects a dire situation for BN.

Earlier, during the coalition’s run into the polls, most bets were in favour of Wee. But Zahid’s statement might have thrown a spanner into the works.

Already, there is talk within BN circles about sidelining Zahid from the campaign trail to keep matters “civil”.

To some, that might be the best move to regain votes that were lost prematurely before polling, as well as staving off BN or Umno’s image as a hardliner movement.

With six days left until polling day, a large segment in BN has realised that the coalition cannot win simply by banking on Wee’s ethnicity and track record, as well as Pas’ machinery.

Political observers said they were wary that Zahid’s approach could shape a confrontational mentality among the masses.

They added that racial polarisation should not be a means to justify the end.