BN, PAS seek prized catch in fishermen

Madam Siti Sidek says her fisherman husband makes about RM1,000 (S$400) in a good month, but there is no income during the monsoon months when he cannot go out to sea. Fishing remains one of the livelihoods where earnings have not kept up with those in other industries. In Terengganu’s Kuala Besut, many families like Madam Siti’s are poor and live in wooden stilt houses.

KUALA BESUT, Terengganu - Housewife Siti Sidek sits on a small porch outside a wooden stilt house that has been her home for 30 years.

She casts her glance towards the sea in the distance, as she waits for her fisherman husband to come home to break fast in the evening.

Subsisting on her husband's unstable and often meagre earnings has been a challenge for years now. The couple brought up their seven children, all of whom have left to work in other towns, in a house that is no bigger than a one-room HDB flat, and which has no furniture.

"In a good month, he might be able to make RM1,000 (S$400)," says the 52-year-old. "But during the monsoon months, he cannot go out to sea, so we have no income."

Madam Siti's story is typical of the life of the many fishing families in Kuala Besut. But the usually quiet seaside town has become packed with outsiders since it became the venue for Malaysia's first by-election following the May 5 General Election.

Fishermen have become a key target group for politicians in this election, as they and their families make up more than half of the voters here.

The contest was called after the local Umno assemblyman died of lung cancer last month.

Yesterday, both Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Tengku Zaihan Abdul Rahman, 37, and his opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) rival Azlan Yusof, 48, visited the Kuala Besut Fishing Complex to meet local fishermen as they unloaded their catch.

Tengku Zaihan has pledged to get the state government to upgrade the complex and provide better fishing gear for the fishermen, many of whom still live in relative poverty.

In Kampung Pachakan, near where Madam Siti lives, at least half the families still live in old stilt houses with few amenities.

"Fishing is one of those livelihoods where earnings have not kept up with those in other industries," notes PAS central election director Hatta Ramli.

And it is exactly these poor areas that the opposition party admits are the hardest to make inroads into.

In the May polls, PAS lost badly to BN in areas where fishermen reside.

Mr Mohamad Zulfazli, 19, whose family makes fried fish sticks for a living, thinks he knows why.

"If BN wins, the people can get more money from the government," he says.

The government has been handing out RM200 (S$79.29) in monthly allowances to all fishermen since last September.

Madam Siti says the extra money has helped to pay the medical bills for her husband, who has heart and knee ailments.

In this campaign, BN has rolled out new blocks of low-cost housing for Kuala Besut residents, while Tengku Zaihan presented aid totalling RM426,000 (S$168,879.18) to more than 2,000 young people, among others.

Former Terengganu Menteri Besar Idris Jusoh, a local boy who is influential here, is also lending his weight to BN's campaign.

To counter BN's influence, PAS intends to highlight the lack of development in Kuala Besut.

Its message to the 17,000 voters here is that the BN government has not done enough and that if PAS wins - which will give the party 16 seats in the state assembly, the same number that BN has - it can push the government to give more to the people.

Dr Hatta admits it is an uphill task since the government has already handed out money.

"The government gives them RM200 a month. I can't promise that we'll give them RM400 (S$158.58)."

Local residents display mixed sentiments. They are happy with the financial assistance from the government, but are also frustrated that their lot has not improved much through the years.

One of them, retired fisherman Hussein Ahmad, 67, thinks the government should be doing even more.

"BN is strong in this area, but let's see what PAS has to offer," says the grandfather of one, referring to the campaigning that will culminate in polls on July 24.

"I'll decide only when I get to the polling booth."