A workhorse named Dr Mah

NOTHING much ever happens in Bagan Pasir Laut, a Chinese fishing hamlet on the muddy mouth of Sungai Bernam.

The last big excitement in these parts was when a woman plotted with her Nepalese lover to kill her husband in a village not far from here.

Life here is as predictable as sunrise and sunset but all that is about to change because the village is under siege – it may have to make way for an ambitious development project.

As such, the townhall meeting called by Chenderiang assemblyman Datuk Dr Mah Hang Soon drew a sizeable crowd despite the oven-like afternoon heat.

In the spacious open-side village hall, about half of the 46 ceiling fans were whirring away overhead but it still felt hot and sticky.

The hall belongs to the Temple of Peace and Protection on the other side of the village road and in a month’s time, it will be bustling with festivities and Chinese operas for the deity’s birthday.

The Chinese fishing villages along the Bagan Datuk coast are dotted with temples because people whose livelihood depends on the sea are big on divine intervention.

The village hall overlooks a meandering river and a hump bridge connecting the two halves of the village. It was picture perfect as long as you did not breathe because the air was heavy with the smell of stale fish.

Dr Mah had begun the day in a smart sky-blue shirt. But his shirt was now creased, his forehead glistened with sweat and damp patches had formed around his armpits.

This is the less glamorous side of a politician’s life, dealing with the nitty-gritty needs of the people.

The Hokkien-speaking villagers had built their homes on state land but a big company has acquired the land for development. This is the second attempt to develop the area. Another company had tried to develop the area in the 1990s but the plan fizzled out and there is now a fresh and more serious attempt.

An elderly villager likened their situation to “a big rock dangling over our house”.

The villagers have turned to Dr Mah for help. He is not their YB but he was the only MCA assemblyman who survived the 2013 general election. He is also the only Chinese state executive councillor and Perak MCA chairman.

It is one of those supreme ironies for the Chinese in these parts. They had thrown their support lock, stock and barrel to DAP in the general election, but now that they are in trouble, they are running to the only link left between the community and the state government.

The irony has not escaped some of the village leaders in Bagan Pasir Laut. They admitted that their relationship with their Bagan Datuk MP – who is none other than Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – was not like it used to be and who can blame him?

The Chinese support for Barisan Nasional in Bagan Datuk plunged in 2008 and worsened in 2013 which saw Dr Ahmad Zahid win against a relative unknown by only 2,108 votes.

A long banner of a smiling Dr Ahmad Zahid, left over from the general election, was still hanging across the front of the local coffeeshop. It seemed like a faded reminder of the betrayal.

Had they been there for him then, they could now claim a stake in his rise to become Deputy Prime Minister, a post that carries immense clout and which can make things happen.

After several minutes of updating his audience about the progress of their situation, Dr Mah switched on the political talk.

“You are lucky your MP is the DPM. Give him 90% support like before and if you want wind, you will get wind. You want rain, you will get rain.

“Next round, you have to support people who are around to solve your problems and determine your future. When your children come back to vote, they must follow who you want to support because you live here, you have to face these issues,” said Dr Mah.

Despite the political pitch, Dr Mah is not your typical politician. The former cardiologist entered politics in 2004. It was the last golden election for the ruling coalition but while his Barisan colleagues swept to victory, Dr Mah lost.

But in 2008, when Barisan candidates crashed in Perak, Dr Mah won with a majority of more than 3,000 votes.

In 2013, he retained his Chenderiang seat with an even bigger majority of almost 5,000 votes.

Two factors contributed to his big win. One was that he had gone around to register new voters especially among the orang asli and the other, he said, was because he treats everyone like “my family”.

There is a much simpler reason though – Dr Mah has basically stuck to the golden formula staying connected with the constituents and delivering on promises made.

“My approach is to show by action. If you reach out and touch people’s hearts, they will open up to you,” he said.

Last month, the school board of a Chinese school in Teluk Intan together with the Hilir Perak Crematorium Committee held a dinner to thank him for resolving some long-standing issues they had faced.

He had helped the school to sort out some land title problems that would have cost the school some RM3mil in land premium if unresolved.

Grassroots politicians are expected to serve the living but sometimes, they also have to take care of the dead.

Dr Mah had ploughed through the complicated process of helping the crematorium committee secure a burial site and permit to build a modern crematorium park that will be styled after the Nirvana Memorial Park.

Burial grounds can be very sensitive and political and the committee which had faced roadblocks for more than 20 years, described it as “a dream come true”. Hence the dinner they threw to acknowledge Dr Mah’s mediating role.

Chinese politics since the political tsunami has revolved around a blame-game against Umno. Dr Mah knows he cannot match DAP in playing politics, and he has kept his focus on delivering and solving problems.

He has also fine-tuned his grassroots approach following the advances made in the Jerlun Chinese new village. Jerlun was the epicentre of the opposition in 2013 but during the Kuala Kangsar by-election, Dr Mah campaigned extensively in the far-flung village.

He went house-to-house several times and promised to deliver the community hall they had been clamouring for. He also got the state government to approve the site for the project midway through the campaign.

He managed to connect where others had failed, and Jerlun turned from black to white for Barisan which secured 57% of the village votes in the by-election.

But what really sealed his place among the villagers was the way he delivered more than he had promised. The community hall will be bigger than expected and he also secured funds to overhaul the roads and drainage system in the village.

In short, he gave this formerly neglected village a facelift. One of the men in the village is so thrilled that he has timed his wedding reception with the completion of the community hall scheduled for the middle of the year.

“I know what it is like to grow up in a small village in the middle of nowhere. My father was a rubber smallholder. I am the eldest, I used to help him tap rubber,” he said.

However, he was an exceptional student, winning one best student award after another and went on to study medicine in Universiti Malaya. The smart genes run in the family, and his son is studying in Cambridge.

Dr Mah’s thrifty Foochow habits are still there, and people are often taken aback by his simple and unpretentious house in Ipoh.

From a cardiologist to a politician, is that not a step down? Apparently, he loves the challenge of being in politics, and he had grown up reading about Asian leadership figures. He is a naturally energetic person who actually enjoys solving problems and planning ahead.

“I am coming in at the lowest ebb of MCA. The good times are over but there is still a lot of work to do. We need to move forward,” he said.

As the state MCA chairman, he is expected to deliver the Chinese vote. He is shouldering a heavy load that may crush him if he fails.

But the Chinese tide is clearly shifting in Bagan Datuk.

Dr Ahmad Zahid is a water dragon and according to the Chinese zodiac, dragons are going to have an excellent time in the Rooster Year.

A steady drizzle had fallen on the evening of the Chinese New Year do in Bagan Datuk but Dr Ahmad Zahid was greeted by a lion prancing to the deafening beat of drums and a huge Chinese crowd trying to shake his hand.

He is familiar to everyone but it was the first time many of them were up close and personal with the Deputy Prime Minister.

It was not just the numbers, the political animal in Dr Ahmad Zahid could sense the mood – it felt warm and genuine, so different from what he had faced in 2013. You could say he was feeling the love that evening.

“We all know I have been whacked two times. But what happened is now in the past. Let us start again,” he said, flashing his megawatt smile as he alluded to how the Chinese vote went the other way in the last two general elections.

There was loud applause.

“Next year, we will have an even grander celebration. This is a “potong ayam” promise,” he said to even louder claps and laughter over his slaughter-the-chicken pledge.

Dr Ahmad Zahid is the first Perakian to have come this far in politics, and as Dr Mah told the same gathering: “This is his time, it can also be our time. Don’t let the chance slip by.”

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