On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Hoe leow, boh hoe leow?



BANGKOK Lane is famous for its mee goreng, with its tasty prawn-stock gravy and fritters, but on Wednesday night, Penangites were flocking to that narrow street for a different reason.

The road was packed with voters to listen to a DAP ceramah with state Opposition Leader Phee Boon Poh holding court. By Penang DAP standards, the size of the crowd would not be considered big.

But the mostly Chinese crowd was captivated with the incumbent Sungai Puyu state assemblyman's eloquence. His witty remarks, in Penang colloquial Hokkien, were greeted with laughter and applause.

“When you buy a car, motorcycle or even a bicycle, you get a geran. But in Penang, so many of us stay in flats and yet, it is so difficult to get a strata title. I brought this up at the state assembly, the government promised me that perkara ini sedang di beri perhatian dan tindakan akan diambil.

“They promised to send an official to look into the matter. But this chap, what can he do? He is not like the Goddess of Mercy who has 16 arms,” he said, as the crowd laughed along.

The seasoned politician took potshots at various targets, especially Umno Youth leaders. Often, he exaggerated his argument to emphasise a point. By the time he finished, the crowd was cheering wildly, asking for more.

When his Sri Delima counterpart R.S.N. Rayer took over the microphone, it was a tough act to follow. The lawyer’s “correct, correct, correct” joke, in reference to the V.K. Lingam inquiry, fell flat. It was a case of a joke being told too often.

Blogger Jeff Ooi, who is contesting the Jelutong parliamentary seat, had an even tougher job with the crowd when he decided to use Bahasa Malaysia and English. He focused on economic issues and this did not go down well with the mostly working-class crowd who wanted to be entertained rather than be informed.

Welcome to Penang – where Hokkien is the preferred lingua franca among the predominantly Chinese islanders. Even Malays and Indians, especially traders and hawkers, can converse reasonably well in that dialect.

The use of Mandarin, particularly in debate, is to emphasise one’s educational background but in the streets of Penang, it does not connect to the listeners. Even southern Hokkein, as spoken in Klang, Malacca and Johor, is regarded as crass and unrefined among Penangites.

When long-term Penang resident Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye found himself out of the race for the Penang Chief Minister’s post, supposedly because he could not speak Chinese well, he was understandably irked.

The Johor-born Gerakan leader, who is English-educated, can deliver his speech in Chinese and certainly in Penang Hokkien.

Penangites are well aware that the whole country is watching them. The state has become the focal point, where all the big fights are taking place. It is also the home of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his nemesis Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

As Penangites compared notes the following morning over breakfast at coffee shops, they were aware of the responsibility they carry. They talked about which politician speaks better and whether the previous night’s gathering was hoe leow, boh hoe leow? (good or not, a term which could also mean delicious or not, in reference to food).

In my midweek foray back to my hometown, I noticed that while the crowds are large, they are nowhere compared to 1990 when Lim Kit Siang knocked out then Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu by 706 votes and retained his Tanjung parliamentary seat by 17,469 votes.

That was not all. The DAP won 14 state seats, denying the Barisan Nasional its two-thirds majority, and was only three seats short of taking over the state.

But the DAP gains were all wiped out in 1995, when it only got one seat. Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon beat Lim in the Tanjung Bungah state seat by 7,497 votes. In 2004, Lim decided to move to Ipoh Timur and the Penang DAP still had only one state seat.

The DAP is understandably more cautious, having learn the lessons of the past debacles. With Lim Guan Eng leading the charge now, the DAP has stayed away from any talk of forming the state government and instead only called for a stronger check-and-balance.

But no matter how the politicians strategise, the reality is that Penangites are highly unpredictable. Their political fickleness is well-known and it is this scenario that the DAP is hoping for – just by some luck, with more checking than balance, the DAP may just end up with a repeat of 1990.

The Barisan, particularly the MCA and Gerakan, has harped on the importance of keeping intact the political structure of Penang, where the state is the only powerbase of Chinese politics.

They have warned against the community shooting themselves in the foot and strengthening Malay-based parties like Parti Keadilan Rakyat and PAS at the expense of the Chinese community.

“I hear church groups telling their congregation to vote anything opposition including PAS, which is simply naive and emotional. Whatever the flaws of the system, it still works, despite some occasional hitches,” said one Penang Barisan leader.

MCA and Gerakan campaigners are racing against time to tell their listeners that the statements of one or two Umno leaders, which smack of racism, do not reflect the entire government and that representation in the government is crucial.

Said MCA Youth vice-chairman Chew Kok Woh: “You can shout and bang tables but the fact is that the voices of the community can only be heard inside the Cabinet or state executive council meetings. Parliament only meets a few times a year but the Cabinet meets every Wednesday. The community must understand the realities.”

But no one dares to predict the mood of Penangites. They remember the gigantic crowd at Macallum Street, on the eve of elections in 1995, when Kit Siang basked in all the glory only to be unceremoniously dumped the next day.

At the end of the day, the argument for Penangites could well be, which party oo leow ah si boh leow, which means which party has the substance in the elections.


* Hoe leow, boh hoe leow means Good, or not so good, in Hokkien.