BAGAN Datuk town is one of those early-to-bed kind of places. It was only 8.30pm but there was hardly a soul in sight and you could lie on the street and not get rolled over by traffic.
At the only coffeeshop still open, the lone customer, an Indian man, gazed at us as though we had arrived from Mars because few people in the town come out to eat that late.
About 15 minutes later, the coffeeshop owner came out of the kitchen carrying a huge claypot of cilli prawn broth, which he said was an original recipe. It was yummy but had so much ginger in it that by the time you cleared your bowl, every bit of wind in your body would have been expelled.
Our host and state executive councillor Datuk Dr Mah Hang Soon was sweating at the end of the meal. The state executive council meeting was being held in Bagan Datuk this week, and Dr Mah would probably be the most sweaty member at the meeting later in the evening.
With dinner over, we headed for the MRSM Bagan Datuk where Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir had joined the boarding school students for dinner. It is an impressive campus and bigger than private colleges and universities elsewhere.
The Mentri Besar had brought along his son Munir who, by the way, is tall, handsome and the student president when he was in MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar).
Dr Zambry is probably used to people telling him how good-looking his son is and he asked jokingly: “Who is more handsome? KJ (Khairy Jamaluddin) or Munir?”
Sorry, YB Khairy, Munir is much handsomer.
A brilliant smile and an unflappable temperament are Dr Zambry’s trademark. But there is something more these days – a certain confidence and sense of purpose.
The former academic came in on a controversial note when three Pakatan Rakyat assemblymen jumped ship in 2009, causing the state government to fall to Barisan Nasional. A messy court case ensued as Dr Zambry struggled to contain the ill-will especially among the Chinese who make up 30% of the population.
The air was so toxic, it was uphill all the way and Barisan retained Perak in the 2013 general election with a majority of only three seats. It was a close call and on top of that, the coalition lost the popular vote in the state, obtaining only 44% of the votes against 55% by Pakatan.
DAP has two big figures in Perak in the form of its state chairman Nga Kor Ming and his cousin Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham who is the state party adviser and they are very popular among the Chinese.
Everywhere one goes in Perak, the general opinion is that the Chinese vote remains tough for Barisan even though the white-hot anger has dissipated and politics does not electrify the ordinary folk like before.
Life is back to normal but so much has changed that things can never be as before.
“The critical point has passed. They can see what we have delivered,” said Dr Zambry.
In hindsight, Dr Zambry was the right man for the job. He is not the type who thrives on chaos and conflict and he has stayed focused on what he is there for.
“We worked hard from day one, I don’t believe in making big statements every day. I want people to judge us on our delivery rather than on who is better at playing politics,” he said.
Perak was known as negeri mati (a dead state) when he came into office but now, eight years later, the state is starting to take off.
The state has averaged 6.2% growth for the past seven years thanks to a revived construction industry, mineral mining and tourism.
Last year, Perak’s annual revenue hit an all-time high of more than RM1bil despite the economic uncertainty elsewhere.
Domestic tourism is also changing the face of Ipoh and boutique hotels – modern, clean and affordable – have sprung up the last few years.
Perak had the highest number of domestic tourists in the last four years, outdoing traditional favourites Malacca and Penang. Lonely Planet recently listed Perak as one of the Top 10 “must visit places” in the region for 2017.
Judy Ng, the general manager of Symphony Suites Hotel said tourists are thrilled to get a decent bowl of noodles in Ipoh for RM4.50 and a good sized pau for only RM1.20. The boutique hotel emerged tops in the state government’s Green and Clean campaign.
In short, Perak is no longer a state in the doldrums.
Dr Zambry’s administration has managed to revive the Perak economy in a way his predecessors were unable to.
However, some of the most interesting changes are happening in Hilir Perak or southern Perak.
The West Coast Expressway, now under construction, is set to make towns like Teluk Intan, Tapah, Hutan Melintang and Sitiawan more accessible and attractive to investors.
According to Gerakan politician Ivanpal S. Grewal, lower Perak has also acquired a reputation as some sort of “power zone” because there are three Ministers and two Deputy Ministers among five of the MPs in the region.
“There is going to be a fantastic concentration of influence and development in Hilir Perak,” said Ivanpal, who is also political secretary to Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, the Teluk Intan MP and Cabinet Minister.
But it was the appointment of Bagan Datuk MP Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as Deputy Prime Minister last year that gave the local folk the biggest adrenaline rush. He is the first Perakian to go so high in politics.
The post carries a lot of clout, he has used his office to encourage foreign investments in Bagan Datuk and political circles are talking about some RM50bil pouring into the area over the coming years.
There is a deepsea port coming up and an industrial park, all of which will unlock the potential of the hinterland.
The Deputy Prime Minister wants to create more local jobs so that young people do not have to seek employment outside, and he also wants to reduce the over-reliance on palm oil commodities.
All this is also about taking care of the seats in the southern zone which has carried Barisan through the last two political tsunamis.
“Hilir Perak has been loyal to Barisan but did not get the attention it deserved. It’s going to change from now,” said Ivanpal.
Yellow banners of the Sultan of Perak and his beautiful consort still line the narrow roads leading to Bagan Datuk.
The constituency used to be known as Bagan Datoh until earlier this month when Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah officiated at the proclamation of Bagan Datuk as the 12th district of Perak.
All the roads and names on buildings are still spelt the old way and it will take time to adapt to the change.
Becoming a district is a big deal because it means more funds and attention to the administrative and development needs of Bagan Datuk people. The future looks good for Bagan Datuk.
Actually, the riverine villages along Bagan Datuk are home to a multi-million ringgit fishing industry which is the biggest in the country. They are mainly located in Hutan Melintang, one of two state seats in Bagan Datuk.
Hutan Melintang, where Chinese and Indians make up more than 50% of voters, has been under PKR since 2008, while the other state seat Rungkup remained with Barisan.
Dr Ahmad Zahid saw his votes plunge from a majority of almost 13,000 in 2004 to 2,694 in 2008 and 2,108 in 2013. The charismatic politician has rarely said no to his constituents, and it was no secret that he felt deeply wounded.
Chew Chu Lam, the secretary of the local temple committee, admitted that it affected their relationship with him.
“Before 2013, he got along well with all of us, but now, it is a bit different,” said Chew.
Despite all this, said Dr Mah, the Deputy Prime Minister still goes all out when any of his constituents are in trouble.
When several Chinese fishing boats were hijacked in the Straits of Malacca more than a year ago, Dr Ahmad Zahid, who is also Home Minister, summoned police helicopters to go to the rescue.
During a meeting with the residents from a riverine village in the area, Dr Mah said half in jest that the Chinese in Bagan Datuk were so fortunate to have a Deputy Prime Minister as their MP.
“There are so many beautiful Chinese temples around here, I can see all your prayers have been answered. I also prayed for a DPM in my area but my MP is from MIC,” he said as everyone burst out laughing.
No one wants to make predictions about the Chinese vote. They can see that the Chinese have a mind of their own, how they used the ballot box to vent their frustrations and vote for change.
“My take is that they are still with us but they want to know whether Amanah and Bersatu (Parti Pribumi Besatu Malaysia) can replace PAS,” said Teja assemblyman Chang Lih Kang who is with PKR.
Chinese sentiments in these parts are not very different from that in the city.
The major difference is that development is very important to those living in remote villages and the government is pivotal in providing that.
“The Sarawak election showed that the development card works if it is followed by concrete action,” said Ivanpal.
Dr Zambry has not given up on the Chinese. The early start to Chinese New Year gatherings this year is also about reaching out to Chinese hearts.
“There is no such thing as writing off the Chinese vote. The MB wants to be the leader of all,” said Dr Mah.
The Mentri Besar likes to drive himself when he goes to the outskirts. He says it helps him stay grounded.
He had driven himself in a black Hilux to a gathering in the Chinese new village in Bagan Sungai Tiang on Wednesday. The community put up an elaborate stage show with cultural dances, tai chi demonstrations and Chinese drums.
“Such big smiles when they beat the drums. It is a good feeling,” said Dr Zambry as he watched on.
The man in the driver’s seat is getting ready for the big ride.