IT was almost midnight, we were coming out of Starbucks in Batu Pahat when a sleek black Porche whizzed past us.
It was a Porsche Carrera and, according to local gossip, this sort of rich men’s toys usually come out at night.
Batu Pahat is not a showy type of town, it is not the done thing to show off in these parts even if you have lots of money and property to your name. That is why conspicuous cars like the Porsche roar out only after dark.
Incidentally, Batu Pahat has one of the largest Starbucks outlets in the state even though the senior generation still prefer the kopitiam-style coffee.
The breakfast scene near Taman Makmur, a middle-class enclave near the town centre is reminiscent of the old part of Petaling Jaya – lots of hawker food, not enough parking and very Chinese.
The political sentiments in this middleclass residential enclave are also not very different from that in Petaling Jaya - it is as black as can be for Barisan Nasional.
The Barisan candidate for the constituency, Kang Beng Kuan, was scolded by some of the residents when he went around the area. Yet, many local Chinese admit he did an outstanding job as a municipal councillor before he was asked to contest the Penggaram state seat.
Kang, who is the Batu Pahat MCA deputy chairman, is some sort of Lee Lam Thye figure. No problem is too small for him and the DAP assemblywoman Gan Peck Cheng has been known to approach him to solve her constituents’ problems.
Some of the MCA members tell him he should not be doing her work but he says that as a councillor, he needs to serve everyone.
Kang is very accessible. He was giving a speech during a dinner gathering when he stopped to answer his phone. No one except me looked shock. They said that is Kang for you, he answers every phone call because he says it could be someone who needs his help.
Batu Pahat has three state seats – Penggaram is Chinese-majority while Rengit and Senggarang are Malay-majority.
Barisan has always had a clean sweep in the Batu Pahat seats until 2013 when the parliamentary seat fell to PKR and Penggaram, which is 60% Chinese, went to DAP.
DAP’s Gan, whose father is said to be a local DAP strongman, has contested five times and finally got lucky on her sixth attempt, winning with a majority of more than 10,000 votes.
It must have been quite stressful to be a YB because her hair, which was jet-black in 2013, has turned completely grey. Despite an excellent service record, Kang is the underdog in Penggaram; that is the way the Chinese cookie crumbles these days.
It does not seem to matter that Barisan leaders have solved the perennial floods in the town or revamped the water supply system – the tap water used to look like diluted tea.
“We feel proud of what we did but it does not translate into votes,” said former Penggaram assemblyman Datuk Koh Chee Chai.
You hear Chinese patrons complaining about Pakatan Harapan leaders in the coffeeshop but you do not find them saying that they are going to support Barisan.
“The mood is not as black as in 2013. Many business owners tell us that they will support BN but their workers want to change the government,” said the Wanita MCA chief Yap Chiew Peng.
Barisan was confident of taking back Batu Pahat until a few days ago when Umno division chief Dr Puad Zarkashi threatened to contest as an independent after his Wanita chief Haliza Abdullah was named as the parliamentary candidate.
He is unable to accept the decision, he seems to think the seat is personal-to-holder and he went from a champion of Umno to a bitter enemy.
The local gossip is that he thought the seat would be his after Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak attended his daughter’s wedding in Putrajaya on April 20.
The Puad factor has complicated the situation even though he has been persuaded to stay out of the race and to allow it to be a three-way fight between Haliza, Datuk Dr Mahfodz Mohamad of PAS and Datuk Rashid Hasnon of PKR.
Dr Mahfodz is a well-known name in Johor and leading figure in PAS, but Rashid was parachuted in from Penang where he was the Deputy Chief Minister. His supporters in Penang had already put up posters of him in his former seat of Pantai Jerejak.
Dr Puad won Batu Pahat in 2008 but was not considered a winnable candidate in 2013. However, he was said to have lobbied the top leadership and his name was included at the final hour in 2013.
Although he lost by only 1,732 votes, there were 1,445 spoilt votes which were seen as protest votes against him.
The Puas crisis has passed but there is bound to be internal sabotage from his supporters and he will be blamed if Barisan loses again. Moreover, he had gone on a rampage, rubbishing other Umno candidates in Johor as less worthy than him.
It was unprofessional behaviour but then again, he is known to have cooperated with a well-connected operative in Umno in the past to launch attacks against members of the media who write critical articles. It is one of the reasons why he has little sympathy from the media fraternity.
It is unclear how much damage his disgruntled supporters can do and a lot will rest on the state candidates to also canvass for the parliament vote.
Ayub Jamil, who is going for a fourth term in the Rengit state seat, has seen his winning majority go up from one election to the next. In 2013, as seats and winning margins fell for Barisan, Ayub’s majority continued to climb. He even won in the Chinese voting station which was remarkable given the anti-Umno sentiments then.
The thing is that Ayub is known as the man who lit up Rengit town. Rengit was a dark and gloomy cowboy town when he first won in 2004. There were even some horses around.
The first thing he did was to push for allocations to put up modern street lamps for about 3km through the town. It completely changed the town’s image. He then set out to landscape the place so that it would also look good in the day.
His efforts have since extended into English classes for students, affordable housing and promoting local products like coffee and coconuts.
He has helped many smallholders to switch from palm oil to coconut which he calls the new golden fruit and which has tripled their monthly income.
The state education director once asked him whether he used to be a teacher after the English pass rate in the Rengit school shot up from 68% to 90%.
He is thrilled that a major wire supply company is locating in his constituency and will generate 2,000 jobs. He aims next to improve the outdated drainage system so that the town will be flood-free.
Ayub grew up in a poor family who had to get water from a roadside pump. He once worked as a labourer in Singapore so that his mother could pay to install piped water in their house.
The family tapped rubber and dug for siput or shellfish on the shore to eat with tapioca or rice.
“I am a kampung YB, the job suits me. When I help people, it comes from my heart because I know what hardship is,” he said.
He has his own version of karma and likes to tell people to do good to others, then good will come to you. As proof, he points to his four daughters who include an engineer, medical doctor, accountant and business graduate.
It has been reported that Umno’s support among Malays in Johor has come down but elected representatives like Ayub will continue to do well.
Rengit and Senggarang are the hinterland to the thriving town of Batu Pahat and it sometimes feels like they are two different worlds – a Chinese world and a Malay world.
The Chinese world is going through some mini revolution where nothing about the government is right for them.
For instance, there is an old-fashioned cake shop on the edge of town where locals go for snacks. The owner, a man who looks as old as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and whose cash register was ringing away, could be heard complaining non-stop about current issues.
Batu Pahat has some 400 temples and they are quite grand with elaborate arches and ornate roofs graced by figurines of dragons, phoenixes and mythical warriors.
Politicians are often pressured for donations to upkeep the temples. If they do not give, they will be criticised and when they give they are not guaranteed of support.
The Chinese are not known to be the most religious people in the world but temples are an important part of their culture. The community has a long history in this part of Johor and the temples are a symbol of their legacy, success and place in society.
The deities have been good to the town because locals say that Batu Pahat has 10 public-listed companies and famous sons like gambling tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan and property developer Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew.
But who will the deities smile on in the general election?