Life back to normal, after the polls tsunami

From – Malaysiainsider
Perak is DANNY LIM’s third stop in his tour of the five Pakatan Rakyat-ruled states.


The limestone hills of Ipoh. — pictures by Danny Lim

JUNE 26 — “I don’t feel anything, no changes, the federal government is the same. Even Tajol Rosli’s photo is still up. 100 days and his photo is still everywhere.”

The Chinese fortysomething teacher of a Sekolah Kebangsaan in Ipoh who notes the persistence of the previous menteri besar of Perak’s visage in schools and government departments is unfazed by politics.

She has lived her entire life in Perak; born, raised and worked in Ipoh. She insists on being quoted anonymously so let’s call her Mrs Leong. Her life is anchored by her roots in Ipoh and her job, and she will not be budged.

“As a civil servant, I’m not worried about which party takes over,” says Leong with a weary smile. “Whatever changes, we just follow. They cannot disturb our years (of service). I will go to school every day until I retire at age of 58.”

At the local markets, it’s a different matter. When Leong goes to buy groceries, she sees locals feeling empowered by the political tsunami of March 8. “People there say, ‘Go to DAP and complain lah’,” notes Leong.

“They have a place to voice their opinion and they know they’re going to be heard. They don’t have to know somebody by ‘cable’ to get things done. All this while, you know somebody, then only it can be done.”

Leong is of course troubled about the fuel price hikes, and will soon have to wok part-time to make ends meet. “But what can Pakatan Rakyat do about this actually?” she wonders. “So far we have yet to see.”

New housing development in Ipoh.

“It has come to a stage, after 50 years, that Malaysians, especially the Chinese, have come to accept that there’s not much difference whoever is up there (in power),” says Leong.

As such she is pragmatic over issues like the early tussle for the Perak menteri besar position. “Actually you need a Malay to push a Malay. Everybody knows that. You put a Chinese, it’ll be even more difficult, cannot move at all. So that’s a very wise choice.”

But if a new person is “up there” in Kuala Lumpur, Leong would be concerned. “Is it the right time (for PR), with everything escalating?” she asks. “In a way the Chinese are also frightened. What if it backfires on us? For (the) Chinese, most important is peace. Frankly, I don’t mind whoever becomes the federal government. As long as it’s not Anwar, that’s all.”

Pakatan Rakyat’s so-called “prime minister-in-waiting” left the education ministry in 1991 but as a teacher, Leong still experiences the legacy of his policies. “He created KBSR, (and with it) all these projects for the teachers to handle. Every year, got another extra (layer of work), it never ends.

“Because of Anwar’s policies, he breaks up the classes, the non-Malays go for (Pendidikan) moral and then the Malays… are not moral?” Leong says. “So after 11 years, they still cannot get (ethnic) integration, so you have national service. What’s the purpose of 11 years of school?”

When I later meet 32-year-old Hasrol at a Starbucks in Ipoh Parade, he was amenable to change – state or federal. The Batu Gajah-born credit recovery executive pleads for more development in Ipoh, even as he is generally positive about the change in the state administration.

There’s a struggle to find the popular centre of Ipoh, spread out as it is across the Kinta Valley surrounded by limestone hills. Some would consider the old town fringing the Padang Besar as the historical core but it lacks the visual focal point of Menara Alor Star, or the escalating buzz of all the roads leading to Komtar in George Town. Which is why, for Hasrol, Ipoh is the most boring city.

Crossing over from rural Kedah to urban Perak, the closer I get to “development” the more fragmented and strident the vox populi. The largely rural and Malay Muslim population up north have little to complain with Kedah’s smooth political transition. Barely a week after elections, Perak had the menteri besar squabble. Hasrol had no doubt that the menteri besar had to be a Malay.

Where the rubber tappers of Pedu in Kedah were straining to recount their problems, perhaps the urban Ipoh middle-class is more comfortable with articulating grouses to inquisitive strangers.

Like this one young Chinese professional involved in land development I met in a coffeeshop. He deals a lot with government departments so he’s reluctant to reveal his name, so let’s call him Fong. He has no qualms, however, about ranting about all and sundry to me in a dimly-lit coffeeshop.

Ipoh-born and educated in Australia, he is one of the “rare ones that can actually live and work in Ipoh”. Fong believes Ipoh is getting the short end of the development stick because it has large Chinese majority, and has a history of backing Opposition parties. He rants about the town-planning in Ipoh, the traffic light system, the roads and the municipal council.

“The previous government developed outside Ipoh,” says Fong. “Ipoh has no government university, no major government institution. What has the government actually put into Ipoh, nothing, it’s all private…the town is practically dead at night. ” Most of all, his familiarity with developers and the Land Office has him frustrated with the corrupt dealings and indiscriminate planning he claims to be privy to.

“Land developers are the ones who are always forced to ‘pay money’ to the government departments but they cannot say anything because they rely on them for approval,” says Fong. “Our land title system, the law is almost perfect. But it’s the people, the corruption and the justice system has not helped.

“Ipoh’s developers are very fragmented. They develop small chunks here and there, not like in KL, where Sunway builds a whole township one shot. Here they rely on the town planner to co-ordinate, but it doesn’t happen. So this fella only builds what he wants.”

You almost expect him to be jubilant about having a new state government. “I’m actually more of a BN person,” Fong reveals. “I actually feel for Badawi, I don’t believe he’s doing enough, he’s very soft, but his intentions are good, other than the Khairy part.

“I don’t know why he lies though. The two biggest things – calling for elections and revising of the fuel price. No explanation was given. But I deal with the government so I know he was trying to do certain things within government.

“(Before elections) Badawi was trying to improve the public delivery system of the Land Office, where everybody knows the Land Office is very corrupted. His way of trying to clean up corruption was to set a deadline for everything, clear the backlog. But these type of things can’t be done overnight.”

While he is glad that his new MB is well-educated, Fong has doubts which are informed by the kind of racial politics that was supposedly left behind by March 8.

“He’s still a member of PAS, and Ipoh is mostly DAP,” says Fong. “When he came in, what did he do other than abolish parking fines for a certain period? That’s unfair to people like me who actually paid the fines.

“I believe (the move) was nothing more than to gain popularity. Nizar will still try to be popular with the Malays, but as Chinese, what can we do? What can he do? If you give anything to the Chinese, the Malays will feel they’re losing out, so I don’t see a change in that respect.”

What would he like to see? “Bring some proper development into Ipoh, rehabilitate the Kinta river. All they’re talking about is reviving the tin industry. I’ve been going around looking for tin, I follow these miners… Ipoh, Perak where got any more tin?

Taxi drivers waiting outside Ipoh Parade.

“Our biggest industry now is limestone quarrying and pottery. Ipoh’s two biggest employers are in the semi-conductor industry – Unisem and Carsem – and they’re the only reason why any young engineers actually stay in Ipoh.

“I think this new (state) government is not thinking of our future at all. They’re trying to get support from the poor, because the poor forms a huge amount of votes. The poor always believe government should do more for them.”

Which is not what I heard from the rural poor in Desa Keda. But it’s getting late so I leave Fong’s shroud of candid, but gloomy pessimism (“According to my friend, most reporters are leftists, all support Opposition,” says Fong) for my next interview.

Is Fong the voice of urban middle-class Chinese disillusionment? His opinions are not unfamiliar amongt coffeeshop talk in Chinese communities.

Thirty-two-year-old Kenny Lai, a lawyer from Canning Gardens, offers another urban middle-class Chinese perspective that resumes the cautious optimism that has rung throughout much of my Pakatan states’ trek so far.

“People with something to prove usually have something better to offer,” says Lai in his air-conditioned office. “The little that we have seen has been quite positive, like the cost-cutting measures and the review of certain contracts given by the previous government.”

According to Lai, his friends and relatives were happy with the election results, but worried about riots. But Lai believes “Malaysians are smart enough to know that these kind of things don’t happen anymore.”

They were also skeptical about Nizar – “a lot of people thought he would go all Islamic nation” but Lai thinks the MB is a worldly-wise man. “I think PAS itself has realised (an Islamic nation) will never work in Malaysia, with the multiracial components here, and they’ve toned it down and it seems to bode well for them as well as for Pakatan Rakyat.”

However, Lai is against MPs crossing over party lines. “It’s an affront to the voters,” he says. What he would like to see are MPs – especially from BN – to show some guts. “If you see something wrong, speak up… a lot of Malaysian ministers believe party is everything. But the people is everything, party is secondary. They should realise they work for us, and not that we work for them.”

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