Malaysia election: BN pins hopes on popular minister to retake Kelantan

International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed, who is also Umno chief for Kelantan state, visiting a constituent in the rural seat of Jeli. He is optimistic that BN can recapture Kelantan from PAS.
International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed, who is also Umno chief for Kelantan state, visiting a constituent in the rural seat of Jeli. He is optimistic that BN can recapture Kelantan from PAS.ST PHOTO

JELI (Kelantan) • In a suit and tie on the international stage, Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed can be persuasive when trying to promote Malaysia to a foreign investor or discussing trade deals.

Back in his agricultural state of Kelantan, he is equally at home chatting about the padi yield with farmers or the need to repair a villager's leaking roof.


The Minister of International Trade and Industry, 68, is widely seen as the main weapon of Barisan Nasional (BN) to retake Kelantan after 28 years under the rule of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

In the state, the unassuming politician mingles easily with his constituents comprising rubber tappers, farmers and small traders who live at the edge of the Thai border.

Said Mr Abdul Rahim Mat, 46, a Malay-Thai restaurant owner: "The majority of people like him. He can fit in anywhere and with anyone, whoever needs help. He does not practise favouritism. There are some politicians who are arrogant and won't meet you, but not him."

The villagers call him "TokPa", short for Datuk Seri Mustapa.

The catchphrase "Team TokPa" is printed on all his campaign materials, from T-shirts to car decals. The minister is defending the state ward of Air Lanas and the Parliament seat of Jeli in the May 9 polls. As Kelantan Umno chief, his name has been floated as a possible Kelantan menteri besar should BN win.

His schedule was packed last week when The Straits Times trailed him. Having been up until 2am attending meetings, he began the next day early, completing some paperwork before heading to Jeli, two hours from the state capital of Kota Baru, to meet district party leaders to discuss election matters.

After nearly three hours of discussions, he decided to visit the Bukit Bunga checkpoint at the Thai border, surprising border police, immigration officers and travellers.

He later visited half a dozen kampung houses, where he just walked in unannounced. His constituents were enthusiastic to meet him and seemed genuinely fond of him.

Mr Nik Ismail Nik Hassan, 61, who earns RM400 (S$136) a month tapping rubber, said: "He takes care of our community very well. He likes helping people; he often gives us rice, sugar and other food items."

Many of the houses had framed Quranic verses on the walls and pictures of the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam.

Ms Nadia Sagirah, 23, who works at a sports clothing store here, said: "He is very popular. He sponsors the kids in the community to play futsal." The minister's boundless energy could put younger people to shame. His young aide could barely keep up as he met voters from all walks of life.


Born to a poor family in Kelantan, Mr Mustapa has been Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry since 2009.

He graduated from the University of Melbourne in Australia with a first class honours degree in economics, and later gained a master's degree in economic development from Boston University. He started out as political secretary to then Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin in the 1980s.

Among his achievements in the East Coast state - he helped set up the Universiti Malaysia Kelantan in 2012 which now has more than 5,000 students, a community college, and two boarding schools specialising in the sciences.

He has also spent a portion of his MP's allowance to build a religious centre for the local community, and to provide tuition classes which started at his home in 1996 and has since expanded to all schools.

Mr Mustapa was first elected to the Jeli seat in 1995, lost it once in 1999, but has since been re-elected thrice.

Asked about Umno's chances of recapturing Kelantan, he said: "This is the best time. It has never been like this. Our target is 31 state seats (out of 45). We are reasonably confident at this point in time; we have the slight edge, about 31-32 state seats."

As for parliamentary seats, he said Umno hopes to almost double its seats from five to eight or nine. Kelantan has 14 parliament seats.

BN has been focusing on Kelantan workers in other states too, as they form a large chunk of voters. In some polling districts, they outnumber the locals, he noted.

"One thing for sure, this time around, there is a change in sentiment because of the Nik Aziz factor and divisions within PAS," he said.

He was referring to the 2015 death of PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat that has drained the invincible aura of PAS in Kelantan, and the rise of a PAS splinter party.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2018, with the headline 'BN pins hopes on popular minister to retake Kelantan'. Print Edition | Subscribe