ALL heads turn as Ismail Saffian, Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate for the Bukit Gantang by-election, walks into the ramshackle wan tan mee stall near the Simpang wet market on the morning of 30 March 2009.
But is hard to tell who patrons are really looking at — the tall, broad-shouldered and moustached Mail Pian, as he is locally known, or the short, silver-haired Chinese Malaysian man with him. The local MCA had harnessed the star-power of its deputy president and former Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek on Ismail’s first walkabout to meet voters the day after nomination day on 29 March.
For the first few minutes, the Chinese and Indian Malaysian patrons abandon their noodles to shake hands with Ismail and to pose with him for press photographers.
Soon after, former Bukit Gantang Member of Parliament (MP) Datuk Tan Lian Hoe joins the entourage. The Gerakan Wanita chief is still popular among the locals. Tan and Chua then cheerily guide Ismail around, introducing him as the BN candidate and urging people to vote for him come 7 April.
Ismail (left, in blue), flanked by Tan Lian Hoe and Chua Soi Lek, drinks Chinese tea with patrons at a noodle stall
Ismail is not an unknown to Bukit Gantang voters, but on his first day on the campaign trail and among non-Malay Malaysian voters, he probably needed the help of well-known personalities like Chua and Tan.
The entourage heads from the noodle stall to a Chinese medicine shop, and then to a row of hawkers selling Chinese breads and sweetmeats. A packet of buns is purchased from one hawker and Ismail, Chua and Tan proceed to break bread before flashing cameras. Such subtle acts of cross-cultural acceptance are deliberate, a message to voters when a candidate is from a different race.
Ismail’s next cross-cultural act is to walk into a small Hindu temple across the road. The temple is apparently illegally constructed; it sits on land belonging to the Taiping Municipal Council. Ismail listened to the temple caretaker’s grouses — that nothing has come out of his application for land for the past two years — and promises to do something about it if he is elected.
Then, into the dingy wet market he steps, the smell of fish and raw meat assailing the nostrils. Ismail makes the rounds to all the stalls, saying little but smiling, leaving Chua and Tan to do the stumping.
From backroom to frontline
If Ismail doesn’t say much, it’s certainly not because he’s clueless. On the contrary, his track record indicates in-depth knowledge of the Bukit Gantang constituency. He is also confident about tackling any municipal issues constituents might raise, thanks to his more than 20 years’ service as a council secretary in various local authorities throughout Perak.
Ismail headed the BN election machinery for the parliamentary constituency in the 2004 and 2008 general elections. From backroom operations, he has now moved to the frontline as a first-time MP candidate.
“It’s an advantage for me. I know every peti undi and what their strengths are. Even now, although I’m the candidate, they (the BN machinery) are still referring to me on what to do,” he says in a brief interview at the Simpang market.
In Umno politics, the highest position he has held was that of information chief in the Bukit Gantang division from 2004 to 2008. Last year, he ran for the post of division chief but lost to Datuk Rosli Hussin.
Ismail’s selection as a by-election candidate is said to be part of Umno’s strategy to avoid the factionalism that might have occurred if the division chief had been chosen instead. He is now also deputy chief of the Umno Kampung Kubu branch.
Ismail puts the coalition’s chances at 50-50 this time around. The BN lost the seat to PAS by 1,566 votes in the general election last year.
Ismail says PAS has some 8,000 to 9,000 hardcore supporters out of the approximate 35,000 Malay Malaysian voters in the constituency.
The total number of voters is 55,562, of which 63.5% are Malay Malaysians, 27.1% Chinese Malaysians, and 9.1% Indian Malaysians.
Workers putting up a campaign billboard (Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
Although Malay Malaysian support is still split, Ismail thinks the community is becoming aware that the BN, and Umno in particular, is changing.
“Whatever mistakes made, there is willingness at the top leadership to make changes. The people see this and I think they will return to support the BN,” he says, in reference to the outcome of the recent Umno elections which chose a new line-up of leaders.
The BN lost the Bukit Gantang seat in the 2008 general election because “we didn’t expect the tsunami”, he says. But this time, like in 2004, there’s a new party president and prime minister-to-be that he believes will boost voter confidence among Malay Malaysians.
“You realise, in 2004 when we won Bukit Gantang, our majority was over 8,000. It means that at one time, people of all races supported the BN. If we can implement our election strategy and keep up people’s confidence until 7 April, then we have a strong chance,” Ismail says.
Born in Bukit Gantang, Ismail seems well-accepted by the local Malay Malaysians. They like the fact that he is one of them, unlike the BN’s candidate in last year’s general election, Umno treasurer Datuk Seri Abdul Azim Zabidi, who is from Kuala Lumpur. Being local is one asset Ismail may have over his main rival, PAS’s embattled Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, who was born in Kampar.
“If Mail gets to Parliament he can raise our issues because he understands them better,” says elderly Raja Ahmad Engku of Kampung Pauh, just down the trunk road from Ismail’s Kampung Kubu in Changkat Jering.
Non-Malay Malaysian sentiment, however, seems more preoccupied with larger issues than the choice of candidate. Saw, a vegetable seller, says the Chinese Malaysian community is still unhappy over the BN’s 5 Feb coup of the Perak state government.
“We are okay with Ismail. But the takeover still bothers some Chinese [Malaysians]. They think it was done by force or through some dishonesty. Otherwise, if you are like us, just selling things in the market, [who the candidate is does not make] much difference to life,” he said when met at the Simpang wet market during Ismail’s visit.
The Simpang wet market
Ismail has five children, and his last job was as human resources director of the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleaning Corporation.
He and Nizar are in a three-corner fight with independent candidate Kamarul Ramizu Idris, a motivational talk entrepreneur.
The Bukit Gantang by-election is necessitated by the death of its MP, Roslan Shahrom of PAS, on 9 Feb. The constituency comprises three state seats: Changkat Jering, Trong and Kuala Sepetang.