Datuk Seri Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah is slimmer and healthier after overcoming a health crisis but he now has to get the better of a hungry opposition that wants to grab back Kedah.
TWO things about Datuk Seri Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah will never change. The first is his intuitive ability to make people feel comfortable and the second is that sweet smile of his.
These two traits are a big part of the Kedah Mentri Besar’s reputation as a people’s politician.
Last month marked his first anniversary as Kedah Mentri Besar and what a turbulent year it has been. First, there was the political coup to oust his predecessor, then the health crisis that knocked him out for a good two months.
He has fully recovered and looks better than before his illness. He is slimmer and his complexion is smooth and clear. Ahmad Bashah smiled when reminded of the rumours swirling at the height of his illness.
The grapevine had it that he was dying, that he had cancer. Then, when he recovered and returned to work, there were rumours that he had to wear a colostomy bag.
“All not true. Look at me, do I look unwell?” he said, patting his belted waistline. There was certainly no bag in sight.
He had a condition known as gastrointestinal perforation or, to quote him, “holes in the intestine”.
On the day of the emergency, he had made an official visit to the Bukit Kayu Hitam constituency of Datuk Ahmad Zaini Japar where he had lunch and some durian with pulut. He returned to Alor Setar for a tea party in honour of the Yang Di Pertuan Agong’s birthday.
While chairing a meeting with some assemblymen later in the afternoon, he had stomach discomfit and excused himself to go to the toilet where he passed out.
He underwent surgery two days later during which the surgeon removed more than 2m of his intestines. It took him about two months to fully recover and his doctor has given him a clean bill of health.
Ahmad Bashah described all that has happened as “God’s will” and laughed when told that the Kedah Menteri Besar seat seems to be jinxed.
Health issues had plagued the late Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak of PAS and his predecessor Datuk Seri Syed Razak. Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, meanwhile, was not the first to be overthrown. Tan Sri Sanusi Junid, famous for his quirky policies, also met a premature exit while an earlier predecessor resigned after pictures of him living it up at a Mexican themed party surfaced.
Ahmad Bashah had a rough start. Everyone still remembers how he was booed at when he turned up at the stadium for a football match. The young crowd did not like the way Mukhriz was ousted.
The Mentri Besar had a smoother take-off with the Chinese community who saw him as a friendly and familiar face. He often breaks the ice by asking in colloquial Hokkien, “Ho seh oh?” (how is everything?)
“He is a good ground operator, very approachable and smiles all the time. Sometimes, you don’t have an appointment but if you sit outside and wait, he will see you,” said former deputy minister Tan Sri Chor Chee Heung.
Kedah Chinese Assembly Hall (KCAH) president Datuk Cheng Lai Hock recalled that Mukhriz felt the Chinese did not support Barisan Nasional and he took a while to warm up.
Cheng has become quite an influential figure in the Chinese community. The Chinese rejection of MCA and Gerakan left a sort of vacuum and the KCAH has become the Chinese voice that is accepted by a community divided.
“Bashah is a simple man. You go around, almost everybody will say they know him well. I can see some Chinese votes coming back because of him. Some people say he is too friendly to the Chinese but he could not be bothered. We trust him, he is different from other Malay politicians,” said Cheng.
What about Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who has been making his presence felt in Kedah?
The Chinese, said Cheng, have always had mixed feelings about the former Premier.
“Mahathir is not a talking point among the Chinese, his influence on us is minimal. We are practical people, he has done a lot for the country, time to let others occupy the stage,” he said.
Chinese make up only 15% of the population in this Malay heartland state but have a big presence in the urban areas from businesses to grand houses with imported cars parked under the porch.
Sungai Petani on the southern end is as Chinese as it gets and Kedah politicians often claim the Chinese in Sungai Petani feel closer to Penang than to Kedah. Shopping malls, modern residential suburbs and hypermarkets have sprung up in Sungai Petani, all of which are signs of the Chinese spending power.
Alor Setar has also grown, although at a slower pace. There are smart cafes, restaurants and private hospitals. The Chinese owner of one of these hospitals sometimes arrives for work in his Rolls Royce.
The newest shopping mall in town is a testimony to Azizan, the late Mentri Besar who was bold enough to push for the project. Umno politicians, including Ahmad Bashah, had opposed it saying that it would displace a historic surau, Today, the modern complex boasts of a surau in a mall.
The mall was built by a developer known as Datuk Sonny Ho whose Hokkien nickname, “sar nee ho” translates as “ready in three years”. To everyone’s amusement, he completed the project within three years.
Alor Setar and Sungai Petani are like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – a contrast of the historical versus the modern.
A trip to Chinatown or Pekan Cina in Alor Setar is like going back in time. Like many Chinese enclaves elsewhere, there is that somewhat cocky air of self-sufficiency, a sense that they can make it on their own.
A Hokkien-speaking businessman said there are Chinese who are so anti-Barisan Nasional that they will continue to, as he put it, “suan guek niow” (vote for the moon, that is, PAS).
Alor Setar fell to the opposition in 2008, and it looks set to stay that way. The constituents do not seem to care that their MP, Gooi Hsiao Leung of PKR, is not even a Kedahan or that he lives in Penang island where he spends most of his time.
Meanwhile, the street art culture has caught on in Pekan Cina. Dr Lim Sin Keat’s dental clinic is next to a giant mural of Tunku Abdul Rahman and a kopitiam that sells really yummy wantan noodles. Incidentally, the coffee shops here are clean, serve delicious food and are run by locals instead of Bangladeshis or Myanmarese.
DAP offered Dr Lim a state seat to contest in 2013 but he gave it a miss because he wanted to maintain his quality of life and to focus on helping Chinese schools.
Dr Lim, who also has a law degree, is soft-spoken, likeable and rather charming. It was a timely decision to stay out because it is hard to see him fitting in the crazy world of politics.
Agriculture is a key component of the Kedah economy but several mega projects are about to take Kedah into the industrial era.
“They will be the gamechanger for Kedah,” said Shaiful Hazizy Zainol Abidin, the political secretary to Ahmad Bashah.
The Chengshan Group, one of the top five rubber manufacturers in China, is investing RM1.6bil in a plant in Bukit Kayu Hitam and it will be operational by 2018.
Plans are also afoot for a multibillion ringgit tuna port in Kuala Kedah, which will be the biggest in the region.
“We open our arms to foreign investment, we want to create jobs for people,” said Ahmad Bashah.
Work will also begin soon on the Nauk Dam in Pendang. The water for the dam will be channelled from the Beris Dam via a 22km-long man-made waterway. It will be quite spectacular and will benefit households and farmers in this drought-prone part of Kedah. It will also be a potential tourist attraction.
Some opposition politicians began speculating about another change of Mentri Besar when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak made two visits to the state last month. It could not be further from the truth.
The first visit was part of Najib’s nationwide tour as Umno president while the second was in conjunction with the annual gathering of Bakti or the association of wives of ministers and deputy ministers.
Not many people realise that Najib and Ahmad Bashah have been together since their Umno Youth years.
For instance, when asked if he would go on after the general election, Ahmad Bashah said without missing a beat: “If Najib says stay, I stay. If he says go, I go.”
He said he is not complacent about the general election even though the opposition parties are in disarray and resemble a tin of assorted biscuits.
Ahmad Bashah’s strength is his ability to work closely with everyone, from the civil servants to the federal leadership.
“The MB is the unifying factor. You don’t hear Umno leaders complaining about him and he has rapport with the KCS (Kedah civil service). You can lose support in Kedah, if you don’t get support from the KCS,” said Shaiful.
Ahmad Bashah’s conciliatory approach won over the three “rebel YBs” who stood by Mukhriz during last year’s crisis.
“I trust them, they deliver what I ask them to do. We will face the general election as a team,” he said.
Of the trio, Datuk Aminuddin Omar, the Jitra assemblyman whom everyone knows as Pak Tam, was the most devoted to Mukhriz. Aminuddin admitted that Mukhriz approached him to join Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
“My loyalty is to the MB. At that time it was Mukhriz, now it is Datuk Bashah. I have come this far in life because of Umno. Umno is not perfect but it’s the only party for me, I will stay with Umno even if I’m not picked as a candidate this general election,” said Aminuddin.
At the height of the Mentri Besar crisis last year, it seemed like it was game over for Barisan in Kedah.
Despite the fierce sabre-rattling by Dr Mahathir, Aminuddin believes that Kedah will not fall.
“When the moment comes, I am confident people will make the right decision,” he said.
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