THE Fire Monkey arch on the fringe of Sungai Besar town looks faded and also rather sad.
The arch, at the entrance to the fishermen enclave known as Bagan, bore Chinese New Year greetings from the late Sungai Besar MP Datuk Noriah Kasnon.
Deep-sea fishing is a multi-million ringgit industry in these parts and the Chinese wordings on the arch were to wish the fishermen safe journey at sea with the words, “A golden Monkey Year brings happiness, venture out and return safely”.
The irony of those words must have hit home when Noriah died in a helicopter crash in Sarawak last month. It was big news in Sungai Besar and, for days, it was all that the local residents could talk about.
Noriah was not a natural politician nor controversial like her Umno division chief Datuk Jamal Md Yunos. She was a modern and moderate Umno politician who moved easily among all races.
But the three-term MP had the shock of her life when she retained the seat by only 399 votes in the 2013 general election. She was shaken to the core that the Chinese voted for the PAS candidate, an ustaz, against her.
It crushed her spirit and many locals at the tallying centre that night could recall how a stunned Noriah came out of the building and stood by the drain outside, tears streaming down her face. It was said that she went home and did not emerge for three days.
Her relationship with the Chinese was never quite the same after “505”, the Chinese reference for the May 5 general election, and she began grooming one of her aides.
All that is now water under the bridge and Sungai Besar will elect a new MP soon.
The Sungai Besar parliamentary seat is made up of the state seats of Sungai Panjang and Sekinchan.
Umno’s Budiman Mohd Zohdi won in Sungai Panjang while DAP’s Ng Suee Lim won in Sekinchan.
The seat was a Barisan stronghold, held together by former Mentri Besar Dr Khir Toyo who used to be the assemblyman for Sungai Panjang.
That all changed in 2013 when DAP convinced the Chinese that “PAS is for all”, resulting in an unprecedented swing of Chinese votes to PAS. A few enthusiastic locals had even hoisted PAS flags back then.
Some of them now laugh it off as a mistake, a few blame DAP for misleading them while others prefer to pretend it never happened.
This time around, DAP is asking them to vote for Amanah, the splinter party of PAS.
Attempts by Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali to persuade PAS to stay out of Sungai Besar has failed, and all signs point to a three-way contest involving PAS, Amanah and Barisan.
Banners of Azmin looking dashing in a red shirt and wishing people “Happy Wesak” can be seen along all the main roads but the PKR leader is said to be so disappointed over the failed seat negotiation that he left for an overseas appointment.
“Amanah is aware of its shortcomings, but this is the last chance to test its strength before the general election. They want to stake their claim on seats in Selangor,” said Unisel vice-chancellor Datuk Prof Dr Redzuan Othman.
A three-way contest means that Barisan could easily retain the seat.
Besides, the general trend of by-elections so far is that the incumbent always retains the seat. The only exception was in Teluk Intan where incumbent DAP lost the seat to Barisan.
“Amanah will do better than PAS. It will get the Chinese vote,” said Selangor state executive councillor Datuk Teng Chang Khim.
But Barisan has begun making a play for the Chinese vote.
Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has hit the ground running in Sungai Besar, huddling for meetings with the local party machinery and hosting a dinner in Pekan Sungai Besar, the main town centre in the constituency.
During the dinner attended by Chinese residents from the wharf or Bagan area, the Deputy Prime Minister said that fishermen who owned “B-licence” boats would be allowed to recruit foreign workers.
The announcement caused quite a stir because the fishing industry in Sungai Besar is among the three biggest in the country.
The fishing towkays are very dependent on foreign workers for their boats because deep-sea fishing, despite the big returns, is not glamorous and does not appeal to the town’s young people.
Dr Ahmad Zahid’s offer was the hot topic at coffeeshops the next morning.
“It has a big impact but some people were asking whether they could believe it,” said businessman Andy Lim who lives in Pekan Sungai Besar.
Others wondered if it would only be implemented if Barisan wins the by-election.
Incidentally, almost every local millionaire in this town is likely to be a fishing towkay.
“An average-sized trawler costs about RM1.5mil. You own one, you are a millionaire. The person riding a motorcycle in town is probably a millionaire. People here are rich but they also like to complain about everything,” said Lim.
The annual income for those owning an average-sized boat can range from RM200,000 to RM700,000. And that is the legal income because there are all sorts of stories about the “side incomes” of those in the fishing business.
Also, unlike the spoilt folk in the Klang Valley, people here do not complain about the hot weather because it means being able to go out to sea.
New and grand-looking houses with modern automatic gates are starting to replace the humble abodes in the Bagan area. However, money cannot buy taste and the most lavishly renovated house near the river mouth sticks out like a sore thumb. One has to blink a few times to take it all in.
But the folk here do not really care about taste and style. The local towkays still go about town dressed in baggy shorts, faded t-shirts and slippers.
“This is how we dress. If you dress nicely, they will ask, what happened to you,” said Lim.
The Teowchew and Hakka dominate in this town. About 70% of the townfolk have the surname Chia so it is best not to ask foolish questions like, “Do you know Mr Chia?”
There is also no point trying to converse in English over here because the Chinese school system has produced a generation of Chinese who cannot speak English.
Dr Khir was very accommodating to the Chinese during his time as Sungai Panjang assemblyman. He used his clout as Mentri Besar to allocate funds for Chinese schools and community projects.
Budiman Mohd Zohdi who took over the seat is also known as the sort who has no qualms about stepping into a bak kut teh shop or attending the funerals of his Chinese constituents.
Dr Redzuan rightly pointed out that the Chinese in Sungai Besar are not typical of their counterparts elsewhere. For instance, Sekinchan, at the southern half of the constituency, is possibly the only place in the country where the Chinese are big on padi farming.
Sekinchan is famous for its high-tech and high-yield padi fields which became a tourist attraction after a Hong Kong TV drama was filmed there in 2012. It is nothing like Ubud in Bali but it is quite scenic and has become popular for bridal photography.
Budget hotels have sprung up and the latest landmark is a condominium development overlooking the sea. The units costing about RM500,000 each are all sold with some locals buying several units each.
Job creation is a big challenge in small towns but the tourism take-off has boosted the standing of DAP assemblyman Ng Suee Lim, whose huge majority in the 2013 general election came with big expectations on delivery.
Swiftlet farming used to be the rage here but it is slowly dying off. Local bird’s nest king Chia Hiyok Cheng said it is because of tumbling prices for bird’s nest and the dwindling swiftlet population.
There are bound to be all kinds of goodies coming from both sides in the coming days. Selangor is a Pakatan Harapan state and that comes with immense incumbency powers.
The Chinese here have the means to come and go as they please but their occupations are subjected to government policies and regulations. The fishermen complain about harassment from enforcement officers while the farmers are rarely short of complaints about government agencies.
The political parties will have to press the right buttons to engage the Chinese who make up 30% of the voters.
“The Chinese here are not crazy about the Pakatan coalition but they like it that the Pakatan government does not meddle in how they live and do business,” said Lim.
The political fatigue and disinterest evident among the urban populace is less obvious here but everywhere one goes, there is this general disinterest in politics.
The political parties involved are out to test this and that about their parties but for the rakyat, this by-election is not going to change anything.
The Chinese, in particular, are in a dilemma about who to vote for especially after the hudud bill issue – PAS tabled the Bill with the cooperation of Umno and Amanah has said it will vote for it.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for one, would like to make this and the by-election in Kuala Kangsar a referendum on the Prime Minister. But will he stop if Barisan wins? Most unlikely.
Life will go on while people get more and more worn-out by the political rhetoric.
Nevertheless, it will be a lively fortnight for the people of Sungai Besar and perhaps even a welcome break from their laidback country living.
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