REMBAU, July 31 — It's common to hear people living in small towns talk about moving to the big city to make a better living and experience the city life.
Chong (he preferred to give just the one name), who used to be a goldsmith, said he prefers the quiet life having been to the city and “hated the congestion there.”
“That’s why I chose to remain here, it’s quiet and I can go anywhere without getting caught in bad traffic.
“The only problem with this town is that it has lost its life. After the rubber estates were replaced by palm oil estates, people left town as they lost their jobs... due to outsourced workers hired by the palm oil estates.
“That’s why it feels like no one lives here,” he said when met at his shop in the Rantau town centre.
As of 2020, the Department of Statistics and the Election Commission recorded Rantau’s population at 53,778.
However, if one were to take a stroll through the town centre, there are only empty shoplots, abandoned structures and almost no eateries in sight.
Chong said Rantau’s glory days are over and that is why it is today a dead town, with retirees.
“But it doesn’t mean that it should be left in tatters.
“Years ago [during the Barisan Nasional administration], there was talk of bringing light industry here. If that happened, it would have created some jobs. But it’s all talk and no action, until now we don’t see any signs of it.
“That is one way to repopulate this town again, otherwise, the town will eventually be abandoned. With the high cost of living even here, what will happen to the people here?” the 76-year-old added.
Even before Covid-19, the town was struggling to survive and those who were barely holding on had to permanently shutter their businesses.
“For me, I’m retired, but what about those who don’t have the opportunity to leave town for work?” he said.
Ready to vote
Chong said folks in Negeri Sembilan are ready for the coming state election on August 12.
“It’s our duty to cast our vote, so we will definitely go out to vote. But if you ask me, I think the people should give a chance to the outgoing menteri besar, let him continue for another term.
“When he (Datuk Seri Aminuddin Harun) first took office, I know many people said he isn’t very friendly, but I don’t think it matters as long as he does his job and we do see positive changes,” Chong said.
Rantau dwellers have in the past supported Barisan Nasional (BN), he said, and in fact, the coalition has not once lost the state seat.
However, Chong, who is a loyal MCA supporter, said Umno needed to get its act together, as there seems to be some infighting and it is noticeable on the ground.
“It does affect us, because when they are busy fighting, they can’t focus on development and social welfare issues faced by the people.
“The unity government — collaboration between Pakatan Harapan (PH) and BN — is very good for us, because finally the two big coalitions can focus on helping the people instead of fighting for seats in the state.
“But there are still unhappy party people in Umno, and we are expecting to see some shift in supporters over to Perikatan Nasional (PN),” he said.
Chong claims Umno supporters in Negeri Sembilan are unhappy with party president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is seen to be playing “second fiddle” to PH and seemingly lost his “voice”.
In addition to that, he said some Umno supporters on the ground are also unhappy that Zahid was acquitted of his court charges and retained as the party’s president.
Agreeing with Chong, a sundry shop owner in his 40s who declined to be named said locals are hardcore supporters of Umno-BN, but they are hopeful that with PH on board this time, there will be less talk of politics and more problem-solving on the ground.
“It seems as though nobody cares about this town. Just look at the shop lot next to mine. It’s been in a dilapidated state for many years and no one has bothered to deal with it.
“While the assemblyman here (Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan) is a good man, we need help with our survival here,” the sundry shop owner added.
On July 21, Mohamad, who is popularly known as Tok Mat, announced that he will defend his state seat Rantau, where he has been the state assemblyman since 2004.
The state constituency is under the Rembau parliamentary constituency, whereby Tok Mat was elected the MP in last year’s 15th general election.
Almost giving up hope on chances of the town's rejuvenation, John Teo, 37, said unfortunately, most parts of Negeri Sembilan looks the same — unkempt and littered with abandoned old buildings.
Teo said there was the PR1MA housing project that was launched years ago in Bandar Ekar here, but that was halted.
The promise made last year during the general election is that it would be ready by this March. The project, which started in 2017 was due for completion in 2019, has been halted until now.
“Let’s hope that it really happens. With that, it could contribute to bringing some life back into the sleepy state constituency.
“But we need sustainability, not just dump some projects and hope they survive,” Teo said when met in Rantau.
Old menteri besar, new menteri besar
In Port Dickson, locals face a similar situation, even though it was once a popular vacation destination.
Taxi driver R. Thangavelu, 73, said while others are seeing improvement in the economy, Port Dickson seems to have been left out.
“After Covid-19 came, things became worse. Since last November, after the general election, we were hoping that something could be done to revive this once popular holiday town.
“Nothing until now, and the cost of living is still rising... it has affected us even though we’re not a big city like Kuala Lumpur.
“The beaches are now very clean, but there is no one to enjoy them,” he said.
Thangavelu’s colleague, who declined to give his name, said no matter who the next menteri besar is, they only want improvement.
“Old one, new one, all the same to us if nothing is urgently done to save Port Dickson.
“So much talk about who will be the next menteri besar. The real people who are suffering is us,” he said.
Port Dickson was once known for affordable seafood meals, but this too has changed and now, the shops are charging cut-throat prices, Thangavelu said.
“Port Dickson is very dependent on tourism, but if no one is making an effort to help it recover, it’ll soon be gone. There will be many people left jobless here,” he said.
The Port Dickson seat went through a by-election in 2018 where its then incumbent stepped down to give way to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who was returning to the political arena after his release from prison in June that year.
Last November, MIC’s Datuk P. Kamalanathan contested against Aminuddin who was then menteri besar. The latter won.
The state seats that will be contested are Chuah, Lukut, Bagan Pinang, Linggi and Sri Tanjong. As of 2019, they’re over 130,000 residents in Port Dickson.
Who do the locals want?
On one hand, PKR wants Aminuddin to remain as menteri besar if PH wins the state election, on the other hand, there are speculations that the Umno Jelebu MP Datuk Seri Jalaluddin Alias is BN’s candidate.
Chia Kem Hung, the owner of Apacaba Coffee, located in Pekan Titi, Jelebu said the menteri besar should not be changed just for the sake of showing who is in power.
“Now that PH and BN are on the same side, they should not be fighting over who is to be menteri besar anymore.
“Aminuddin has been doing well, let him continue to do his job. If we keep changing the menteri besar, there will be no continuity in development plans for the state,” Chia said.
Just in Pekan Titi itself, Chia said it is a struggle to get approval to build a petrol station. After going through what seemed like an endless vetting process, his building plans were finally approved.
“Instead of being fixated on who should be menteri besar, how about they focus on how to improve local authorities.
“Right now, the district council isn’t functioning at its optimum level. My building proposal could not be approved simply because the district council refused to issue a letter of support and without any valid reasons,” Chia claimed.
Chia said he tried to raise his problem with higher authorities but that itself was also a challenge.
Out of frustration, Chia said he was very close to shifting his entire 40-year-old family business, Titi Cane, out of Negeri Sembilan.
“When I wanted to bring this matter to the state assemblyman (Pekan Titi is under the Chennah state constituency), he wasn't here, and his team wasn't helpful.
“Right now, for us to fuel up, we have to drive out of the town centre into the next town.
“We’re not saying that he isn’t a good man, but right now, there seems to be a disconnect between the state assemblyman and the people on the ground," Chia said.
On July 15, DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke announced that he will defend Chennah, a state seat that he has held for two terms.
Pekan Titi is well-known for its Hakka food. Historically though, it was where the Japanese army had in 1942, during their occupation of Malaya during the Second World War, massacred 1,474 men, women and children from the village.
As of 2020, the Department of Statistics recorded 5,533 population in the town, while there are 12,119 registered voters in the Chennah state constituency.
Next to Pekan Titi is Jelebu. This parliamentary constituency is popular for its recreational spots.
As one drives into the Jelebu town centre, the first thing you will see are the Minangkabau-inspired buildings with their distinctive “buffalo horn” shaped roofs — except, they all are in need of repair.
Food kiosk owner Nur Aina Nadirah Rahman, 20, said, "There is no maintenance, even the signboards are so faded you do not know if the tourist attractions are still intact.
“You can go to the Muzium Adat (Cultural Museum), there you can learn about the culture of Negeri Sembilan. I think it’s still there,” she said.
Nur Aina is also hoping the roads will be “fixed” as they are winding and in need of repair.
Another Negeri Sembilan resident, an electrician who requested anonymity, agrees that the collaboration between PH and BN is good for the people.
However, the man who is in his 70s said the people right now need less political posturing and more serious talk on how to boost the economy.
“Everywhere, people are struggling to make ends meet, what good is all the talk without action?” he said.
Negeri Sembilan is one of the six states that will have its state polls this August 12 with nomination date set on July 29. Political analysts have predicted that PN may make a dent in this state as there will likely be protest votes from BN supporters — mostly unhappy about the collaboration between the two coalitions at Federal level.