KUALA LUMPUR, April 12 — While some political observers have already written off the Rantau by-election as a shoo-in for Umno’s Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, the state constituency’s sizeable Indian minority could very well make or break this contest.
Mohamad, better known as Tok Mat, is expected to win the majority of Malay votes which comprise up to 55.51 per cent or 11,615 of total voters (20,926 registered voters). He will need about 10 per cent or more from the non-Malay voters to secure a convincing win.
In Rantau, the Indian community accounts for approximately 26 per cent (5,441) of the total registered voters, while the Chinese make up 18.46 per cent or 3,863 voters.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) is aware of this, which is why Port Dickson MP and prime minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has been engaging with Indian voters on a daily basis, attending dinners with community leaders and even performing in front of them with a MG Ramachandran (MGR) lookalike.
At the same time, the PKR president has gone to great lengths to convince voters why he chose Dr S. Streram for the seat, and not a Malay candidate.
But with less than 24 hours left until polling day, have Mohamad and Dr Streram convinced the Indian community on who to vote for?
Voters from the community here are keeping their cards close to their chest. While some feel that having Mohamad as their elected representative would help given his experience and reputation as former Negri Sembilan MB, others believe that having a lawmaker from PH would help the constituency.
In Kampung Ekar, opposite the now abandoned PR1MA housing construction site in Rantau, Deviga and her family declare themselves proud Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters. They display that pride with banners and posters strewn across their front porch.
“Since I was young it’s always been BN,” said Deviga when met outside her home.
“My grandfather, grandmother, mom, dad and now me and my kids have all only known BN and we are sticking with it. Besides who is Dr Streram anyway? We’ve met him when he came and made his rounds here but I feel no affinity to vote for him nor his party as we do not have faith in him,” she told Malay Mail.
For another Kampung Ekar resident, Valiammah Ragu, Mohamad’s personal touch will never be forgotten despite the scandals surrounding him.
“My husband needed RM2,500 for an operation to get his leg amputated,” said Valiammah when met.
“I sent the letters of request for help to the government offices and one day they summoned us. I was surprised to meet Mohamad himself in his office and since my Bahasa isn’t very good I conversed in Tamil.
“Mohamad listened to me through a translator and soon after the meeting his personal assistant delivered the cheque. That personal touch I will never forget,” added the 61-year-old.
It’s stories like this that have made a lasting impression on some Indians in the community as word of mouth carries a lot of weight in smaller kampungs and rural townships.
Mohamad, who was mentri besar from 2004 to 2018, has done a lot for the state and his face is the only one residents have seen these past years.
It has added to his charm and aura as a people person, someone who knows how to get things done and has the ability to handle the state office.
But Valiammah’s eight other family members are now all PH supporters.
When asked why they were voting for PH she said: “You’d have to ask them. It’s been a huge point of contention in this house. We’re always arguing about it and I’m done trying to convince them otherwise.
“In the end I just tell them to get lost and do whatever they want,” she said with a laugh.
When asked if other Indians in the area feel that Mohamad is still better for the people, Valiammah said it is up to each individual as everyone’s needs are different.
“If someone helps me and my family, as a God-fearing Hindu, I cannot forget that kindness, hence it’s easy for me to decide. For others it isn’t as easy as they feel BN has been in power too long and a change is warranted.”
For voters in Kampung Kuala Sawah, a 20-minute drive away from Kampung Ekar ― one of the residential areas with significant Indian population ― PH may just need more time to prove themselves.
“Streram deserves at least one term (five years) to prove himself and if people think the Indian votes don’t count, they’re wrong,” said Sivakumari Arumugam, a former staff at Mawar Medical Centre.
“In the past I’ve always voted for the Opposition as I felt there needed to be a strong voice in Parliament to fight the then ruling party.
“Now that the former Opposition is the ruling government, I want to see them take their time and implement the changes that we need.”
Sivakumari felt Mohamad’s added responsibility as acting Umno president and the scandals surrounding its former president, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, will take away his attention from Rantau.
“He may be focusing on matters in Kuala Lumpur more than here so I feel PH can take over and do good for Rantau.
“In fact many Indians are also thinking about voting Opposition now that they have a second chance to vote.
“They may not tell anyone as they are afraid people will judge them but the feeling is the same. They want to see who can do the best for the community and that’s it.”
The by-election has been necessitated by the Federal Court’s dismissal of an appeal filed by Mohamad to set aside the November 16 Seremban Election Court decision declaring his unopposed victory in the 14th general election (GE14) null and void.
In GE14, Mohamad was declared the winner of the seat for BN after Dr Streram, the potential PH candidate, was prohibited from entering the nomination centre to submit his nomination papers because he did not have a pass issued by the EC.
Dr Streram has said in the past that although some of the Malay voters were “silent” over their support, he was confident they would cast their vote for PH.
The anaesthetist said he needs the majority of the non-Malay votes and around 15 to 20 per cent of the Malays to vote his way to wrest the seat from Mohamad.
Many believe this to be impossible but one resident, Rajeswari Ponnusamy, feels that many voters, especially the Malays, are keeping their cards close to their chest and want to vote for PH.
“Secretly there are many Malays who are prepared to vote for Dr Streram. They’re just afraid to say it out loud,” said Rajeswari when met at her home.
“When I go to the market and talk to the Malays there are many are planning to vote for PH in the elections.
“The Malays are also fed up with the corruption and the ignorance of many of their peers and since it’s their right to vote and it’s nobody’s business who they vote for they’re staying mum about it.”
Rajeswari said many Malays do not want to be judged and vilified for not backing someone of similar race to them, so they choose to stay silent until they cast their votes.
“I believe Dr Streram still has a chance to pull off a win and is a good candidate. If not, why would PH appoint him as their representative?” Rajeswari asked.
“You won’t be able to get the truth from many Malay voters being a news man but for me the underlying sentiment is that there will be quite a sum who will vote for PH on Saturday,” she added.
The Rantau state constituency in Negri Sembilan, spread over 15,960.74 hectares, has 20,926 registered electors comprising 20,804 ordinary voters, 118 early voters and four absentee voters.
It is a four-cornered contest in Rantau, involving Dr Streram, Mohamad and independent candidates R. Malarvizhi and Mohd Nor Yasin.