DATUK Seri Mohamad Hasan began as the underdog in Rantau.
But within days of the campaign, it was quite clear that his main opponent Dr S. Streram seemed out of his depths despite having the backing of the Pakatan Harapan state government.
By the time the campaign reached its mid-point, it was hard to find anyone who did not think that Barisan Nasional’s Tok Mat, as Mohamad is known in these parts, would be the winner.
A lot of it had to do with the fact that many voters, whatever their race and even those planning to vote for Pakatan, acknowledged his track record as their YB over the last 15 years.
The hometown boy has a good name in Rantau. He has helped many people and the changes he brought to Rantau are there for everyone to see.
More than that, they appreciate his unassuming style and efficient work ethic.
Heartwarming stories about him have trickled out throughout the campaign.
One of the more memorable ones is how he would sometimes ride his motorcycle to the market to pick up his old friend, a butcher who sells pork, for a drink.
It did not bother him that his friend was still in his sweaty work clothes.
As Seremban MCA chief Siow Koi Voon pointed out, it is tough to beat the type of human relationships and goodwill that Mohamad has built up from boyhood.
“When I went to campaign in the market, an elderly lady told me there was no need to campaign there. She had known Tok Mat since he was a boy and she said he gives her a hug whenever he sees her,” said Siow.
Many of these old friends were swept along by the message of change on May 9, but yesterday, they came out for him in his moment of need.
His landslide victory would not have been possible without the support of the Indians and Chinese voters.
Mohamad has broken through a barrier that other Umno leaders have been unable to.
The non-Malay voters in Rantau looked beyond his Umno label and saw him for the moderate Malay leader that he is.
But going by the nightly ceramah crowds, it was disturbingly clear that the Malays in Rantau were overwhelmingly with Barisan while the bulk of non-Malays were still on Pakatan’s side
The Umno-PAS collaboration has amassed Malay support into a powerful bloc and Datuk Seri Hadi Awang’s appearance on Thursday night drew the biggest ceramah crowd Rantau had ever seen.
On the other hand, PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the star campaigner for Pakatan, found himself addressing big crowds of mainly Indians and Chinese.
One night, Anwar was so pleased to see a racially mixed crowd that he gave thanks to God on Facebook.
It did not help that this by-election was taking place amid rumblings about the job market, low wages and an economy that is slowing down.
According to a survey by the Ilham Centre, 67% of Rantau voters were dissatisfied about the rising cost of living, 65% about unfulfilled election promises and 51% about the performance of the state government.
Despite measures taken towards the bumiputra agenda, 86% of Malays believe that Pakatan has failed to defend Islam and Malay interests.
Logically speaking, Dr Streram, as part of the ruling coalition, would have been able to deliver what the people need.
For instance, there is no way the opposition could match Pakatan’s promise that the ECRL would now also run through Negri Sembilan.
The thing is that people like Dr Streram are quite unsuitable for a by-election where everything is put under a magnifying glass.
A video of the PKR politician talking about his anak manusia (his daughters) and anak bulu-bulu (his cats) was fun to watch but probably cost him votes.
On Thursday, as the Barisan team had last-minute jitters about the votes, Mohamad took a slow ride on his motorbike along the country roads or, as he put it, “pusing-pusing tengok kampung”.
His style is quite different – he eschews the usual entourage, preferring to casually pop by the town centre to chat with the local folk or drop in at people’s homes without fanfare.
His campaign, jointly run by his younger brother Datuk Ghani and Umno secretary-general Tan Sri Annuar Musa, is also said to be the most well-managed in any Barisan by-election.
But he is a different man on the ceramah circuit where everyone could see that he is giving it his all to win the fight of his life.
Mohamad has often come across as a rather shy and low-profile politician and it was a surprise to see that this man has fire in the belly.
He is a remarkably good ceramah speaker – factual and able to speak about complex issues in an everyday sort of way, witty yet hard-hitting and most of all, he knew what he was talking about.
Political commentator Khaw Veon Szu said Mohamad can bring a new image to the opposition.
“He is credible and moderate which is what the new opposition needs. He is the reset button that Umno and Barisan needs,” he said.
In that sense, said Khaw, Mohamad’s win is also a win for New Malaysia because the country not only needs a good government, it needs a credible opposition or what in the Westminster system is known as a “loyal opposition”.
As the state opposition leader, Mohamad will provide the check and balance that is necessary for any government.
This is an important win for Umno and it is significant that this is the party’s third victory in a row under Mohamad’s leadership as Umno deputy president.
During the campaign, Mohamad had moved quickly to quash talk that Umno may have found its prime minister candidate in him.
The Rantau campaign was about electing an assemblyman and he did not welcome the distraction.
However, his star will shine brighter than ever after this hard-fought battle and the perception that he could be the new hope will grow in Umno.