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Monday March 19, 2007

Poh never forgot his roots

Despite his taxing schedule, the late Machap assemblyman always had time for his hometown. And it is here in Machap Baru that the sense of loss of the new village’s illustrious son is most deeply felt. 

A WEDDING dinner on Thursday night was then the first major gathering of the community after the Chinese New Year. Shortly after 7pm, just as the noise level was rising in the packed air-conditioned hall of SRJK (C) Machap Baru, the sad news was spread among guests in hushed tones.  

The illustrious son of the new village, Datuk Poh Ah Tiam, who had been battling lymphatic cancer since 2005, had succumbed to the deadly disease at the age of 55. He had died of renal failure about an hour earlier in Pantai Air Keroh Hospital.  

With the funeral scheduled for Wednesday, thousands of people have been calling at the late Malacca MCA chief’s house at Taman Bachang Baru to pay their last respects but the sense of loss has been felt most deeply in Machap Baru, located 35km from town.  

Poh was born in nearby Kg Belimbing, Durian Tunggal, on April 1, 1952. His family moved to Machap Baru before he started schooling. 

“He was a very good boy who was also hard working. He used to help his father tap rubber early in the mornings before going to school,” reminisced village headman Tan Kim Wee, 68, as he sat sipping coffee at the popular Sing Fung Yean coffeeshop.  

“Nobody has done more for this village. We are very sad that he is gone,” he said, as those around him nodded in agreement. 

Among those at the coffeeshop mourning their loss was Poh’s close friend, his deputy in the Air Pasir MCA branch, businessman Pang Fei Sing, 47, who has just returned from Nanjing, China, where he served a stint at Malacca’s special representative for tourism and trade. (Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province which has a population of 70 million, is Malacca’s twin city.) 

Pang said Poh had contributed much to Malacca’s progress in his role as executive councillor in charge of tourism and later local government, but he was only proud of one accolade bestowed on him by the community – Xin Cun Fa Zhan Zhi Fu (Father of New Village Development).  

“He was very happy about what he has done for all 18 new villages in the state, especially his own kampung of Machap Baru,” he added. 

Other than its impressive arch at the entrance, Machap Baru looks like any other new village from the outside. Most of its 5,000 residents are Hakka-speaking Chinese. A few Malay and Indian families live in the village but they are hardly noticeable.  

To the locals and tourists who come from as far as Singapore, the village is the place to savour wildlife delicacies including wild boar, deer, monitor lizard and snake. Its few restaurants specialising in exotic fare, are often under scrutiny by the Wildlife and National Parks Department for suspected serving of endangered species.  

But beyond the main streets the new village holds other surprises. Besides the original wood and brick buildings, the 40 hectare new village has 88 units of four-storey flats, 96 terrace houses and scores of impressive bungalows.  

It has its own fire station manned by volunteers, a welfare home, eight Chinese temples and a school equipped with state-of-the art facilities, including its grand hall, second-largest only to that of the famed Pay Fong Middle School in town.  

“Almost everything here has been touched by Poh. He was instrumental in transforming this place to be what is it today. We owe a lot to him,” said Pang. 

Poh, trained as a teacher but always a businessman at heart, was busy promoting AIM Marketing, a firm that he founded with some friends, when he was picked as MCA candidate for Pulau Sebang in 1986.  

He won the seat comfortably, with a majority of 1,620 votes, polling 3,695 votes against DAP veteran Ang Kuang Meng who obtained 2,075. He was appointed an executive council member handling the tourism portfolio. 

Among the first things he did for the village was resolve the housing congestion. Extended families had grown bigger and needed more space. Poh and his friends set up a cooperative.  

By 1987, they had pooled enough funds to build two blocks of walk-up flats with two-roomed units costing RM19,000 and three-roomed corner lots prized at RM30,000. 

“We completed the project and obtained certificates of fitness in record time, enabling the buyers to move in in 1988,” said Pang, a director of the cooperative. 

Two years later, the feat was repeated with the cooperative building 96 units of terrace houses costing between RM50,000 and RM70,000. Poh then focused on improving the infrastructure of the village with better roads and more streetlights before turning his attention to improving the school and building a congregation hall for the Machap Baru Buddhist Association.  

Pang said Machap Baru folks held Poh in high regard because he never forgot his roots. He said that in spite of his taxing schedule as an executive council member and national-level MCA leader (he served as deputy treasurer-general, deputy secretary-general, central committee member and presidential council member), Poh still returned to his village for all major functions.  

Poh’s demise has also been felt by the local business community and the Chinese clans and guilds with whom the late MCA chief worked closely with. Heng Ann Association vice-president Goh Thien Wah said diplomacy was Poh’s forte.  

“He enjoyed very good relationships with the all the associations because of his interpersonal skills. Being a businessman at heart, he contributed to policies that were beneficial to Malacca’s economic growth, especially in tourism,” said Goh, a former journalist who is now the executive director of a printing firm.  

Goh said a significant feather in Poh’s cap was the MCA’s wresting of the Kota Melaka parliamentary seat from the DAP after 30 years, adding that Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Ali Rustam placed him in charge of the vital Housing and Local Government Committee to further improve the historical city and consolidate the hard-fought seat.  

According to his friends, Poh was not one for gloating over victories. He chose to avoid fighting the DAP publicly even when faced with allegations of impropriety before the 1999 elections. 

Apparently he had decided not to contest the elections and made up his mind to focus on business. He was preparing to make his announcement when the then MCA president, Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik, summoned him to Kuala Lumpur. Poh only changed his mind after being “touched” by the persuasive words of Dr Ling.  

Even political foes and adversaries only had kind words to say about the late MCA chief. DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, who was among those who came to pay his last respects at the house, said Poh acknowledged the role of the Opposition.  

“We had our political differences but he was fair and friendly in dealing with things. We worked together on reviving several abandoned projects. Towards the end he was very mellow,” he said. 

Former Kota Melaka MP Kerk Kim Hock, who has battled cancer, said he had called Poh to share his experiences when he found out that the MCA leader was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2005. He said Poh had been confident that he could fight and overcome the disease.  

Kerk said Poh was a cordial and seasoned politician who was cautious in what he said to people and whom he chose to confide in.