Malaysia election: MCA giant v DAP star in stiff Johor fight

Candidates from MCA, one of the Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties, and the DAP, from the four-party opposition pact Pakatan Harapan (PH), taking a group photo.

Yong Peng, a small town two hours north of Singapore, hardly draws any attention.

Tourists often give it a miss, but on Saturday (April 28) the place was abuzz with excitement as two political heavyweights came as election candidates for the Ayer Hitam parliamentary seat.

Malaysian Chinese Association's (MCA) deputy president Wee Ka Siong, the ward's incumbent three-term MP will see his seat challenged by the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party's (DAP) Liew Chin Tong.

MCA is one of the Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties and the DAP from the four-party opposition pact Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Both candidates were surrounded by throngs of supporters as they made their way from their local party office to the nomination centre.

"I've been here three terms with a track record in my constituency," Datuk Seri Wee told The Straits Times. "So I'll let my constituents evaluate my performance for the past few terms," he said of his odds.

Though he won the Ayer Hitam ward with a thumping majority of over 15,700 votes in 2004, that figure narrowed to a 7,310 majority in 2013.

SPH Brightcove Video
Dr Mahathir Mohamad enters a three-cornered fight, a stiff fight for a Johor seat and a two-term MP is disqualified from running - ST's Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh wraps up Nomination Day for the upcoming general election.
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Ayer Hitam is considered one of MCA's last strongholds, and Mr Wee, 49, has worked the ground using his credential as Minister in the Prime Minister's Department to bring development to the largely agricultural area.

As the minister tasked with overseeing Chinese New Villages, he sought to market Yong Peng as "little Fuzhou" to tourists and encourage setup of small local enterprises. Known among locals as a hands-on lawmaker, his efforts the past five years may just pay off come polling day on May 9.

"We don't need seasonal politicians who only show up during election time," said Yusof Dahlan, 80, a staunch BN supporter since independence. "Wee is often here, he comes to the mosque and doesn't play favoritism".

Liked by both ethnic Malays and Chinese, Mr Wee is described as a warm and easygoing politician, often appearing in remote villages' for community events. His popularity even surpassed that of the local Umno state assemblyman, with rural Malays speaking fondly of the leader whom they say is just as fluent in Malay as he is in Mandarin.

BN flags line the village streets to the main roads.

A banner in a Malay village read, "Jom Biru Jangan Haru Biru" (Go Blue, No To Chaos).

Malay villagers told The Straits Times that they equate ruling coalition BN as the pact that brings peace to Malaysia while the opposition PH represents uncertainty to these locals - made of mostly agricultural labourers.

This could prove an overwhelming battle for DAP's star politician, Mr Liew, who is contesting in his third election.

Dubbed "the giant slayer" after winning his first contest in 2008 when he took on a veteran BN politician in Penang and won, Mr Liew, 40, is banking on Malaysians unhappiness with the economy to strike his third victory.

"It's a tough seat but the economy is the unifying factor here," Mr Liew told The Straits Times.

"We are telling voters that a vote for Wee is a vote for Najib and Rosmah. Najib is toxic, that's why you don't see Najib photos in Johor towns," Mr Liew adds. Datin Rosmah Mansor is the wife of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Mr Liew, the DAP Johor chairman is lawmaker for neighbouring Kluang but has vacated that seat to take on Mr Wee instead.

He faces an uphill battle to woo Malay voters, who form 57.6 per cent of the ward's 46,000 electorate.

Though the opposition managed to wrestle most of the Chinese vote in 2013 in Ayer Hitam, Mr Wee has appealed himself to voters of different races in the constituency, making him a recognisable face among locals while Mr Liew has to play catch up.

SPH Brightcove Video
Barisan Nasional looks set to hold on to Johor but can the opposition win more seats? Visiting fellow at ISEAS, Dr Serina Rahman, and ST's Foreign Editor Zakir Hussain discuss the voting sentiments in Johor.

The contest for Ayer Hitam is also pivotal to MCA as it seeks a comeback in this polls after being trounced by DAP in the 2013 election.

Last election saw MCA losing 109 seats out of the 127 parliamentary and state seats it contested in nationwide.

Meanwhile, the DAP made the biggest gain among opposition parties by winning 133 out of the 154 state and parliamentary seats it contested.

The third contestant in Ayer Hitam is from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), but little is known about the candidate, Mardi Marwan.

Looking composed and relaxed, Mr Wee appears confident as he exited the nomination centre.

"Our biggest hurdle now is the next 11 days," he said. "The opposition is very aggressive… but we'll continue our agenda for Ayer Hitam to upgrade infrastructure and ensure it becomes an important tourist destination in the region".

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