Monday, 29 April 2013

Small town, big names in Bentong war, Malaysian election fever

Politics up close and personal in a small town is different even if the candidates are major players at the national stage.

TIADA tingkap RM57.25, ada tingkap RM76.35 (without window it is RM57.25, with window it is RM76.35),” said a Hotel Kristal receptionist over the phone.

The difference was RM19.10. I decided to splurge and go for “ada tingkap”.

I wanted a room with a view for my quick stay at Bentong town in Pahang on Friday. The eve of a weekend presented a window of opportunity for me to get out of Greater Kuala Lumpur.

Since nomination day I’ve attended poli­ti­­­cal activities in the MP seats of Lembah Pantai, Serdang and Putrajaya and I wanted a change in political scenery.

Bentong was tempting as it is a hot seat. Incumbent MP and MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai is facing fiery environmentalist Wong Tack of the DAP, who had threatened to burn the Lynas plant.

I also wanted a taste of politics in a sm­­all town and the famous ABC (ais batu campur) in Kow Po Coffee Shop.

Plus, I wanted to contribute to Star Online’s Storify timeline. (Storify users, in the words of Storify.com, tell stories by collecting updates from social networks, amplifying the voices that matter to create a new story format that is interactive, dynamic and social.)

On that day, The Star was covering the campaign trail of Liow and Wong via Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

After an 80-minute, 85km-drive from Subang Jaya, I arrived in the quaint town of Bentong, once a mining town, at around 3.30pm.

Here’s how I judge a town. “Wah, got KFC! Wah, got 7-Eleven! Wah, got Secret Recipe! Wah, got HSBC!,” I told my wife as I drove around the town which was like a big roundabout.

“Wah, no McDonalds!,” I told her. It seemed if you lived in Bentong, you had to drive 37km to Genting Sempat, on the foothill of Genting Highlands (and also part of the Bentong parliamentary constituency), if you had a McAttack.

One of the best hotels in town is Hotel Kristal. I checked in and quickly checked out my “ada tingkap” room. The view was that of a rather narrow Bentong River, the back of KFC and Barisan Nasional flags. It was worth the extra RM19.10.

Across the Bentong River and about a few kilometres from Hotel Kristal is Kampung Baru Perting, a Chinese new village, which is a DAP stronghold. I drove there as a candidate running for the Bentong seat was campaigning door-to-door.

It was drizzling. After a five-minute drive around the village, I spotted two dozen people carrying blue Barisan umbrellas. Must be Liow Tiong Lai, I told myself.



The 52-year-old politician has been the Bentong MP since 1999. Liow was working his way through a row of wooden and concrete houses together with his mentor Tan Sri Lim Ah Lek, a former Bentong MP and MCA deputy president.

I took their photograph and tweeted (when the Internet signal was strong enough) it.

The silver-haired 70-year-old retired politician, according to my colleague T. Avinesh­waran, was amazing as he remembered almost all of the residents’ names.

Earlier, at 11am, Liow’s opponent Wong Tack had a press conference at the DAP office in Bentong town. At that time I was still in Petaling Jaya. But, via the Storify time­­line curated by Michelle Tam, I felt as if I was in Bentong town covering it.

One of the questions asked of the politi­cian, who made a name for the anti-Lynas campaign, was on the revelation over the Inter­­­­­­­­­­­­­­net that he owned large tract of oil palm plantation in Sabah.



In a video uploaded by Avineshwaran on YouTube immediately after his press conference, Wong said those who questioned his environmental credentials should call Datuk Masidi Manjun, Sabah’s Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister, to ask about his contribution to environmental conservation in Sabah.

Tashny Sukumaran, my colleague, tweeted: “@wong_tack asked that @liowtionglai call @MasidiM to ask about his contributions to environmental conservation in Sabah. #bentong #ge13” and Masidi replied on Twitter: “let them fight their own battle like a gentleman #ge13”.

That’s the beauty of social media. The response is immediate and public.

Done with the Liow door-to-door campaigning, I decided to follow my rule #72 of covering a campaign trail – patronise a famous eatery in the town you are in.

I drove to Kow Po Coffee Shop. I managed to chat with the 80-year-old Tan Kow Po and his 48-year-old son, Michael. In 1969, Kow Po established the ABC and ice cream parlour at the same premises which it still occupies now.

Kow Po gave me the low-down on the political scenario in his hometown, Bentong.

At first I could not understand which party he was referring to as he used gestures to describe them.

Finally, I understood that when he made a quick stab with his index finger it meant DAP’s rocket and an O-sign repre­­sen­­­­­­­ted PAS’ moon.

If I was to understand the nuances of the ice cream maker’s political observations, I think he meant: be careful of voting based on the flavour of the month.

 One Man’s Meat by PHILIP GOLINGAI

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