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.
Interview with Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud
WHEN Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud is stressed or doesn’t have time for proper meals, she reaches for a chocolate bar - her favourite “food”. But the UiTM law graduate has no problem shedding any excess calories as she is a fitness buff who goes to the gym or a run around the neighbourhood every alternate day. A few months ago, she even took up muay thai as part of her exercise regime. Although, like most women, she loves shopping, Dyana says she is not into branded goods and wears whatever is cantik and she feels comfortable in, which can be very chic urban style one day and grungy with torn jeans and a Metallica T-shirt the next. Dyana says she feels 100% Malay and is not bothered by people calling her a traitor to her race because she knows it is not true. When told she was going to be the party candidate, Dyana shares that it took her a minute to respond because “I was stunned.” “To quote Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, ‘If you are given a seat in a rocket ship, you take it, don’t ask what seat’,” she says.
> You are a newbie, just 26, and have the DAP Supremo Lim Kit Siang sitting with you at press conferences. How intimidating is that?
Of course, it is intimidating. I admit I do feel a bit stressed but I know I am in good hands. I know that my seniors can help me. At the same time, I have been preparing for this for a very long time. I don’t mean being a candidate but being in politics. It can get overwhelming at times and I am still learning how to manage it.
> Now that you are in the forefront and a known face, how different are the brickbats coming your way?
The first time (was when) I joined DAP. I received a lot of negative comments which is fine. The second time was when I became Kit Siang’s political secretary, I received the same thing. This is the third wave and it is stronger and bigger. But the first two have already trained and prepared me for this.
> You are considered green compared to the Barisan candidate who has been an MP and has more experience. Why should people vote for you when you are untried and untested?
Because of the things I have fought for, and the things that myself, DAP and Pakatan Rakyat stand for and also to bring the message that if I win, (it’s) that the people in Teluk Intan are against the rising cost of living, racial politics, and want increased participation of women and youth in parliament and the decision-making process. I am going up against a very well-respected and experienced president of Gerakan.
> What are your political aspirations? Do you have dreams to be PM someday?
I haven’t really thought of that! If you ask any woman if she wants to be the first female PM, hold a big position somewhere or be a successful somebody (they would say) “yes”.
If you had asked me five years ago “Dyana, will you be contesting for a parliamentary seat?” I would have said “No! Are you crazy?”
Of course, I have the desire to be successful and a good leader. I want to achieve more in serving people and making a difference. It doesn’t matter what position I would be in. When I joined DAP, it was not to become a “YB”. I wanted to serve people. \
> How do you feel about people being more focused on your looks than what you have to say?
I appreciate the compliment but I am sure they are smart enough to listen or to read about what I have to say.
> Why did you choose to join DAP, and not PAS or PKR, if you wanted to join an opposition political party, ?
I was not really comparing. I just knew I wanted to join the opposition. At that time, a friend of a friend invited me out for a drink and there I met Zairil Khir Johari (the 31-year-old Bukit Bendera MP from DAP). He told me “stuff” about DAP and I got attracted. Later I met the other members and then the leaders, then I was really attracted to DAP and I joined.
> What was your mother’s reaction when you joined DAP? And how do you tackle issues with your mum who is with Umno?
She was actually very supportive because she was with (Parti Melayu) Semangat 46 before, so she understands my sentiment.
There is no issue because when I come back to Teluk Intan to see my mum and when we discuss politics and issues, my mum would state “This is Umno’s stand” and I would say “This is DAP’s stand”.
Then we would say to each other “I think you are not right”. It’s very healthy, this kind of discussion. We never really fought about it. But sometimes we have to learn to agree to disagree. Our forefathers like Tunku Abdul Rahman used to practise gentleman politics. It is very rare in Malaysia right now. I think we have to re-learn the art of agreeing to disagree agreeably.
> Is your mum going to campaign for you in Teluk Intan because if an Umno member campaigns for an opposition candidate he or she would naturally be sacked from the party?
I don’t think my mum is going around saying “Hey vote for the DAP candidate” or “Vote for Dyana”. She is not doing that! She is not campaigning for me. She is supporting me. There’s a difference.
> DAP has been labelled as a Chinese chauvinist party and here you are, a Malay, joining what is seen to be a Chinese chauvinist party. People would say you are being used by the party to change this perception that it is a Chinese chauvinist party.
The thing is DAP has never been a chauvinist party. One of our former assemblymen for Pasir Berdamar for three terms was Fadzlan Yahya and we also have Ibrahim Singgeh who was Ayer Kuning (formerly Tapah Road) assemblyman back in the 1970s. He was a Malay assemblyman in DAP and accepted by the people in Perak. People look and say “Wow, look at Dyana. She can survive. She is so happy in a supposedly Chinese chauvinist party.” But I wouldn’t have been able to survive if it was chauvinist. And I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to be Kit Siang’s political secretary if it was really a Chinese chauvinist party, don’t you think?
> But your being there works in DAP’s favour because they can use Dyana and say “Hey we have Malays.”
They are not using me! They are just practising what they are. They are multiracial. It’s so funny to me that when they are acting the way that they are that people are giving this type of comments. Of course it upsets me. But you can’t satisfy everyone.
> What do you think about the possibility of being DAP’s first Malay female MP?
Again, we shouldn’t focus on race. DAP is fielding me because of my capability and they believe I can do the work. And it is not about race.
> You have been accused of being a pengkhianat (traitor). How does that make you feel?
I am not a pengkhianat so it does not have any effect on me. I was already accused of being a pengkhianat bangsa (traitor to the Malays) last year.
> You are young, single and your life is going to be scrutinised after this. Are you engaged? Are you seeing someone?
No, I am not engaged. Whether I am dating anyone or not, or who I am dating is not for public information. I won’t disclose this.
> What do you do to relax?
I read. I am currently reading Machiavelli’s The Prince and Ooi Kee Beng’s The Reluctant Politician. I carry a book in my handbag all the time. But during this campaign period, I don’t even get to open the books.
> What worries you about Malaysia today?
That the racial sentiment is too high. We should be focusing on the similarities that we share, which is very deep, instead of the differences that are superficial.
We should focus on unity and being together. That’s very important. Most Malaysians are not able to even recite the Rukunegara. We should nurture a love for the nation especially among the young people.
I love Malaysia but more and more young people are leaving the country and it contributes to the brain drain problem that we have.
> How Malay do you feel?
100% Malay lah. I am Malaysian but I am very proud of my roots. You can see during nomination day that I was wearing a baju kurung songket. I just love them and have a collection.
I don’t think it is wrong to be proud of your heritage because it is who you are. My maternal grandmother is actually Chinese, so I am a quarter Chinese. My father has Mandailing blood and I am proud of this too.
My grandmother can’t converse in Chinese at all because she grew up in a Malay family. I studied Mandarin for three semesters at UiTM as a third language but there was no one to practise it with. But my Mandarin is improving now. I can’t give a ceramah in Mandarin just yet but I promise I will be able to do it soon.