THE Ah Tee Koay Teow Kia Restaurant in Taman Bintang Jaya, Labis, serves good flat noodles with braised innards, meat and bean curd. It is also a favourite gathering place for election campaigners.
Labis MP Chua Tee Yong walks into the restaurant and shakes hands with the customers. He is a recognised face and does not even need to tell them to vote for Barisan Nasional.
The boyish-looking politician is warmly greeted at every table except one – two young couples having their meals appear reluctant to return his greetings.
They could well be locals currently working outside Labis as they left in a car bearing number plates from the Federal Territory.
But the MCA Young Professionals Bureau chief sportingly shrugs it off, saying by now he can easily detect who would vote for him and who would not – as well as who were the fence-sitters.
The restaurant is located not far from the three-storey Labis MCA headquarters where Chua maintains a well-run service centre.
Labis is a parliamentary constituency where the majority of the voters have benefited from palm oil and rubber. It is the second largest town in the district of Segamat and is said to have received its name from the British who found many river terrapins in the area.
Many are smallholders, including the Chinese and Indians, who own their land – thanks to the distribution of land by the Johor state government.
At least 60% of the constituents are involved in commodities and their market prices would have a bearing at the voting centres.
“Look at my helpers for the elections, they are all very young. They are school-leavers and college kids,” Chua said, as if to remind this writer that not all the young would be supporting Pakatan Rakyat.
After all, cyber troopers and supporters are campaigning hard via Facebook and other social media platforms. Those who dare support Barisan have found themselves shouted down and in one case, threatened with rape and murder.
For sure, Chua’s campaigners appear spirited and eager, saying they personally called up every voter in the constituency.
In my brief visit and talk with some smallholders, one unexpected name kept cropping up. I would never have imagined that independent Australian senator for South Australia Nick Xenophon would be so well-known here.
Barisan has done a good job in reminding Labis voters that Xenophon – who has openly campaigned for Pakatan – is not a friend of Malaysian palm oil.
He advocated a Bill which would make labelling of palm oil content in food mandatory while the same is not demanded of other vegetable oils.
If the Bill had succeeded in becoming law, it would have adversely affected Malaysia as the world’s largest producer after Indonesia.
In short, the smallholders, who are pretty well-informed, see Xenophon as someone who wants to damage Malaysia’s palm oil industry.
A 56-year-old palm oil cultivator, who spends a lot of his time at a coffeeshop, was angry with the Australian politician.
“Look around you. This is a peaceful constituency. Why is the opposition working with this man?” he asked, admitting to being a longtime Barisan supporter.
Another planter said he used his savings to “see the world” and that he considered himself “pretty well off” because of the palm oil earnings.
“When I retire, my children will take over the business. It’s hard work but they can hire foreigners. My only worry is paying foreigners minimum wages. It’s nonsensical.”
But it is not all smooth sailing for Chua. At the centre of Labis are rows of Chinese new village houses.
Many put up DAP flags in their compounds and in fact, their anti-establishment sentiments have been around even before the 2008 general election.
I saw a Chinese man – known to the small town as a contractor – driving around with a huge PAS flag. And at one car service shop, there were two vehicles plastered with DAP posters. One motorist even had a replica of a rocket on his car.
A local resident, who only wanted to be known as Ah Chye, said he would vote for DAP because he wanted a change in the government.
“I don’t care whether it is PAS or DAP or PKR. I will vote the opposition,” he said, admitting he came from the new village.
He said he was excited by the news of DAP leader Lim Kit Siang coming to Johor to contest the Gelang Patah parliamentary seat and hopes to see the “tsunami sweep through Johor.”
It is this sentiment, not just in Labis, but other Chinese-majority areas, that has put Barisan campaigners in a spot.
Said a Labis Umno official: “I find it hard to understand the Chinese. PAS has openly said it wants to impose its style of PAS hudud.
“Even the Malays are wary but some Chinese are openly welcoming PAS and flying their flags.”
In 2008, Chua – who succeeded his father Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek in the constituency – was the youngest Barisan candidate. He polled 13,658 votes against DAP’s Teo Eng Ching (9,564) to win by a majority of 4,094.
Labis looks like a win for Barisan but no one is taking anything lightly. Chua was earlier expected to face DAP’s ex-senator S. Ramakrishnan but it has not been confirmed.
Chua is now 39 years old and he has certainly grown up not only physically but also politically. When I walked into the Labis MCA building in 2008, Chua Senior was at the operations centre but this time, Chua Junior shows he is the man in command.
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