One is a veteran politician and two-term MP who is banking on his service record to pull in the votes while the other is a political novice who has drawn much attention for her youthful ideals, not least because of her telegenic looks and ability to fend off controversial questions. SHAHANAAZ HABIB catches up with Gerakan president Datuk Mah Siew Keong and DAP's young candidate Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud during their campaign trails in Teluk Intan and finds that political differences aside, they share the same concern for Malaysians to break racial barriers and come together as one.
Interview with GERAKAN president Datuk Mah Siew Keong
GERAKAN president Datuk Mah Siew Keong admits it is a risk for him to contest the Teluk Intan parliamentary seat because, if he loses, it might cost him the party presidency. A UK law graduate, Mah served as Teluk Intan MP for two terms before he was defeated in the seat in the last two general elections. The 53-year-old, who comes from a well-known family in Teluk Intan, is joining the race again, saying he cannot “run away”. “If I don’t go in and fight today, the criticism against me will be 10 times more,” the full-time politician says. He admits that he would have preferred to take on a DAP heavyweight rather than 26-year old Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud who has youth and young voters on her side. “I am not the favourite in this by-election,” he asserts, while admitting that he is facing a lot of pressure standing against a young and attractive candidate who can garner a lot of young votes.
> How do see your chances of winning this time?
It’s going to be tough. We are the underdog. I rate my chances as 45% against 55% (for DAP). The margin of defeat in the last round (general election 2013) was quite high with more than 7,000 votes.
And (DAP’s) YB Seah (Leong Peng) was a very good MP who tragically died at 48, a very young age. So there is a lot of sympathy for him which would be translated to DAP votes.
We are working hard. The feeling on the ground is there is a slight improvement compared to last year but it is still not enough because we lost quite badly in the last round. So a lot more effort is needed to turn it around.
We need to explain more to the voters on a lot of issues such as GST and corruption. I think that is better than having a 1,000-people dinner and lucky draw as things like that don’t work anymore.
You must remember too that in the last general election, the number of outstation voters in Teluk Intan really shot up. Normally we have a 70% voting rate in Teluk Intan but last year’s voter turnout went over 80%. Many people came back from Singapore, KL, Selangor and Penang to vote. The thing with outstation voters is, how do you explain local issues to them? So sometimes (in our assessment) we don’t get a balanced view. When we moved around then, we thought the support rate for us among the locals was quite good. But on voting day, the whole town was congested with Penang, Johor, KL, and Selangor car number plates. There was a tsunami of outstation voters. It was so unexpected and we lost.
> Previously, a high voter turnout was seen as an indication that Barisan Nasional’s chance of winning is good, but now it looks otherwise?
These days, a high voter turnout is mostly because of outstation voters. They do not depend on the services we provide as they do not stay here. The floods here do not bother them, the low water pressure doesn’t bother them, so they vote based on a different consideration altogether.
I was initially reluctant to stand for the seat but the party felt that its president cannot run away, and that the party president should not gain a backdoor entry by becoming a senator. The party president should face the people, win or lose.
> You won the seat in two earlier (1999 and 2004) elections and then lost in two subsequent (2008 and 2013) ones, yet Barisan is fielding you again for the seat. Don’t they have another candidate?
We have. We have actually been grooming people for the 2018 election. But this by-election happened so fast.
> But you lost in this Teluk Intan seat about a year ago, so why try the same formula?
Yes, we lost during the (general) election. There are two things here. As a party president, it is not just about local issues. A party president came here, stayed here and fought in Teluk Intan in the general election recently. If I don’t contest, it will be seen as my running away.
> If you lose, then it might be the end of your Gerakan presidency.
Yes. Of course. That is a risk I have to take.
> Why were you reluctant to contest in the first place?
The party feels that some of the people we prepared are not ready. So the party president has to go in. If I don’t go in and fight today, I can tell you the criticism will be 10 times more than now.
> That argument would have been understandable if you were taking on some DAP bigwig but their candidate, Dyana Sofya, is a first timer.
We didn’t know who their candidate was going to be. There were a few other names from DAP but they decided on her (Dyana). I think DAP is very smart. They made a good strategic decision because I think it would be easier if I was just facing a Chinese DAP candidate.
Dyana is not a weak candidate. In fact, she is a strong candidate.
> But how can she be a strong candidate when she is new compared to you, who are twice her age and far more experienced?
The thing is that she would appeal to youngsters of all races better. I am just saying “Do not say that she is a weak candidate.” I think she is a strong candidate because of her age.
> So you would have preferred to take on a DAP heavyweight rather than Dyana?
Yes! Because everyone is saying that I am taking on a weak, young person. That is putting a lot of pressure on me. She is a strong candidate. She is young, attractive and able to garner a lot of young votes.
In the last round, DAP won by over 7,000 votes, and then there’s sympathy for the late YB – these are factors working in her favour.
It is going to be tough for me. So do not try to portray this by-election as a 40%:60% for them. I read in the papers that she is the underdog but I would rate it as 45%:55% in my favour. I am not the favourite in this by-election. Also, the polling day weekend is during the Dumpling Festival and outstation Chinese are going to come back to Teluk Intan to celebrate with their parents and, of course, it will affect the votes.
I do hope that we can do better for Teluk Intan in terms of investment, infrastructure, the flood situation and work opportunities. Now young people are migrating elsewhere to work. These are the things that a local MP must do as well as tackle national issues. I am a Gerakan president so I already have the platform for national issues. I hope to continue serving Teluk Intan.
> You are equated with wealth and come from a rich family. How would you be able to identify with the concerns of the rakyat who are struggling to make ends meet and with rising prices?
The first thing is, the Mah family is very big. There are rich members and not so rich members. And I am not rich!
The second thing is that it is easy to tell you how I can identify with the rakyat. It’s based on track record. Last year, we helped 3,000 poor families. We collected donations and gave out 20,000 bags of rice for the poor. We have been doing so much charity work. I set up a dialysis centre in Teluk Intan and a fund for the poor. So see from action lah and not whether you identify or don’t identify with them. Look at the track record.
> What worries you most about Malaysia today?
We should stop identifying problems by race. To me, a Malay kampung problem is a Malaysian problem. An estate problem is a Malaysian problem. A Chinese problem is a Malaysian problem.
Increasing polarisation by politicians and using religion and race are bad for the country.
> What has shaped your political thinking all these years?
For Malaysia to really succeed as a country, we should reduce (issues of ) race. We have to work together as 1Malaysia. That is only way forward for the country.
> What do you do to relax?
(Long pause.) I have been so busy (pauses as he thinks). I relax by Viber-ing with my children who are studying in Australia.
> What keeps you awake at night?
Problems. Every time I read about racist statements, I cannot sleep. It is really tearing the fabric of society.
> But people accuse Barisan itself of being racist because its major component parties are race-based.
We are trying to change it. We should have a one-race Barisan party. When I was Gerakan Youth chief and I suggested that Barisan should be a multi-racial party, everyone laughed and scolded me. But last year when I suggested it again, the leaders said it was feasible but it would take time. So there is a trend towards that.
The STAR Home News Nation May 25 2014