Opinion

On the campaign trail

FEB 6 ― The ceramahs have begun all across the country, as politicians and political parties begin campaigning for support and votes come the 13th general election.

These ceramahs require massive reserves of energy, as the long hours on the road, the meet-the-rakyat sessions, rushed prayers at nearby suraus, and critical meetings on the road can take a toll on the politician and his team of aides.

Pakatan Rakyat’s Jelajah Merdeka Rakyat road tour was launched in August last year in a bid to give meaning to Malaysia’s independence, and also to educate and meet the grassroots all around the country.

The bus Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim uses for the road tour is also literally the vehicle to garner support and gain voters. It is the mothership for meetings, camaraderie and a safehouse for the PR team as they go on the road every week.

These trips are not for the faint of heart and weak-bodied. They require stamina of the mind and body, and the tenacity of a titan. If a ceramah does not go well, the trip will test one’s spirit and strength. And it is not just the politician who is affected, his aides will also feel the pain and agony.

Anwar’s trip to Negri Sembilan on January 27, 2013 was one of many he has taken and will take this year. Gemas is crucial ― the Felda settlers are not happy, and their support must be courted.

The itinerary looked packed: It meant a solid 12 hours on the road, with ceramahs beginning at 5pm and ending at midnight.  Anwar was going to attend the “Dialog Ekonomi dan Sosial” closing ceremony at Melang, Kuala Pilah before ending the tour in Pekan Pasir Besar, Gemas. In between the two ceramahs, there’d be a few stops as well.

The mothership

The bus, which has a picture of Anwar smiling right across it and proudly touting Jelajah Merdeka Rakyat, sported ominous red paint streaks on its body.

“That happened in Johor,” a young aide explained.

Why wasn’t the bus cleaned then?

“To show proof to the rakyat. That we were attacked. Johor and Melaka Umno kuat.”

The double-decker bus is plush, and designed for the business traveller. The upper deck ― comfortable seats with ample leg room and a small kitchenette ― is for hush-hush meetings between Anwar and team. Below, an equally spacious but smaller space holds luggage and other staff and volunteers.

However, Anwar keeps the team small as he needs space to hold meetings with ADUNs he meets along the way, or friends who meet him halfway and join him for the ride.

“Datuk Seri usually travels in his own car, but before a ceramah stop, he’ll get on the bus. He also conducts meetings here too, and sometimes he just relaxes. It depends.”

They’re a lively bunch ― the political aides, interns and the events specialist. They are also joined by a videographer who travels with them on almost every trip they make.

Chan, as he is known, is a cheerful and youthful-looking man in his 50s. He runs Merdeka Rakyat. If not for them, the trips would be dull. There’s always laughter and jokes.

Do they all work for Pakatan?

No. With the exception of the events specialist, they are all volunteers, and hold down jobs outside of political work.

The intern worked for Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad before, and was a student activist. He is proud of his contribution to the party. “I do… I help the pol secs, make sure everything runs smoothly, the Wi-Fi, food...” He is also a walking encyclopaedia of Malay pop and entertainment culture.

The man

When one hears and speaks of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad,  there is respect even as he is reviled. One either loves or hates Dr Mahathir, but one cannot not recognise his achievements and vision. Dr Mahathir is living proof of actualisation.

Anwar, however, is different. Say what you will, admire or despise him if you want, but Anwar has the X-Factor. He is extremely charismatic and a shrewd reader of an audience. 

Psychology has devoted many chapters to politician personalities; to be a politician, you need the charms and mediation skills of a diplomat, and know when to bite back.

You can’t survive in politics if you’re soft-hearted. Anwar is tough, just look at what he has been through.

Many staff members (former and current) say that he is a good boss. He is jovial, approachable, though when things are rough, Anwar can be distant. This is not unusual behaviour; aren’t we all like this? And they also attest that no matter how tired he is, how depressed he gets, when he is with the rakyat, and on stage, he performs.

Yet for all the chumminess he emanates, he is also aloof. Perhaps this is a way of protecting himself. A politician has many enemies.

Age has caught up with him but he is still attractive. His hair is now salt-pepper grey, and he gets up from his seat with more care now. Politics is not kind to those who are older, but Anwar takes it in his stride.

At the Majlis Penutup Dialog Ekonomi dan Sosial in Kuala Pilah, where he addressed slightly over 200 supporters and on-lookers, he spoke of PR’s promises should they take over Putrajaya. The lowering of car taxes and prices. Free education. Releasing the rakyat of economic burdens. Making sure Felda settlers receive their dues.

Anyone else who was expecting a proper discourse on national economics and PR’s plans on managing Malaysia’s resources from Anwar would have been surprised, and disappointed.

The truth is that the grassroots aren’t interested in all that – they are concerned about bread and butter issues. And the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia has caught on to the zeitgeist. He knows what they want to hear.

The journey home

I had asked if I could speak to Anwar but he was either in a discussion with his team, in his private car, or resting. It’s not easy pinning him down even if you are on the same bus together. I spent quite a lot of time staring at the back of his head, hoping the interview would be granted.

Everyone piled into the bus, ready to head back to Kuala Lumpur. Arrival would be at 3.30 in the morning, and they had a meeting at about 10.

Anwar waved to his supporters from his seat. They waved back eagerly.

There was a short lull as the bus made its way back to the city.

He sang an old Malay song.

“Datuk Seri is happy,” Chan said. “That means everything went well. When he’s happy, he sings.”

About 20 minutes into the journey, the bus stopped at a petrol station. Anwar and his youngest daughter left the bus to go home in their car.

The journey back to Kuala Lumpur was quiet, as the aides dozed off in their seats.

“We’ll impact this GE,” one of them said sleepily. The next day was going to be another day of meetings, and with the elections very soon, sleep would be a luxury.

The writer takes her hat off to politicians of both sides. She’d like to know what vitamins they take. She hasn’t recovered from the bus ride!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist

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