In Bentong, battle between local giant and invisible man

Most residents would welcome Liow back to Bentong for another five years but the road ahead is challenging. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Most residents would welcome Liow back to Bentong for another five years but the road ahead is challenging. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

BENTONG, April 17 — DAP is set to have environmental activist Wong Tack take another swing at MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai here, but the odds appear to be stacked even more against the former this time around.

In 2013, Wong rode a wave of unhappiness over a rare-earths processing plant in nearby Kuantan to come within 379 votes of achieving an upset over Liow.

Five years later, the dissatisfaction over the plant has dissipated while Liow, according to residents, has made great strides in driving development to the area.

Retiree Koo Lam, 74, described Liow as humble and helpful to locals, as well as committed to seeing Bentong improve under his watch.

“I remember when he was health minister in Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Cabinet (in 2008). He assisted old folks by sending medical doctors to those too weak to make the trip to hospital, and for that, many are grateful,” he told Malay Mail.

The retiree also highlighted Bentong Walk as among Liow’s efforts to spur economic growth in the area.

Koo Lam, 74, said Bentong still remembers Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai’s contribution as health minister as well as to the Chinese community. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Koo Lam, 74, said Bentong still remembers Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai’s contribution as health minister as well as to the Chinese community. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

Bentong Walk is a weekly affair to encourage youths from the area to return home to maintain their connection here, but it also serves as a physical reminder of the MCA president’s efforts to uplift the community in ways that locals can touch, see and feel.

While Wong is not a complete stranger to Bentong, not many still remember his 2013 run or know what he is promising to do this time around. Among them is Koo.

“I am still unfamiliar with Wong Tack and I think he is still unfamiliar to Bentong, which I think may affect his chances of beating Liow as he does not appear often,” he said.

A ginger vendor who only wanted to be known as Chong, 42, said the Bentong community was one that appreciates an elected representative who makes himself available and whose influence can be felt.

Like Koo, he did not feel this applied to the activist seeking to upset Liow, whom he said has palpably contributed to the area’s development in terms of the local economy and Chinese education.

“I still do not quite understand Wong Tack; maybe because we see less of him around here compared to Liow, but I have heard of his intentions,” he said.

A ginger vendor, who only wanted to be known as Chong, 42, said DAP candidate Wong Tack may have a hard time challenging Liow because he seldom appears in the constituency. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
A ginger vendor, who only wanted to be known as Chong, 42, said DAP candidate Wong Tack may have a hard time challenging Liow because he seldom appears in the constituency. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

Across Bentong, this was the common refrain: Praise for Liow’s efforts in the constituency and puzzled looks when Wong’s name is mentioned.

Some, such as Kashturi, 49, said DAP has continued serving Bentong after Wong’s defeat, but not Wong himself.

However, she said MCA has also done no less in the same time, and the difference rested in Liow’s familiarity to locals and Wong’s lack thereof.

“I agree many have benefitted from both sides in terms of employment, housing and social needs, but DAP’s candidate Wong Tuck needs to conduct field work to garner more votes.

“Datuk Seri (Liow) will be there for almost anything that we organise in Bentong and he always presents himself humbly, which makes him very approachable,” she added.

Every Saturday, Bentong Walk allows residents a chance to start their own venture by promoting local cuisine and products to spur economic development from tourist attractions. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Every Saturday, Bentong Walk allows residents a chance to start their own venture by promoting local cuisine and products to spur economic development from tourist attractions. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

Price for opposing hudud

Where Liow may struggle is in Kampung Kuala Repas, about 2km from Bentong town.

“Many in the Malay community are thankful for Datuk Seri’s contribution in the tourism sector.... however, he hurt the feelings of some with his refusal to support the tabling of the hudud Bill in Parliament,” said 53-year-old Mazlan Ramli, founder of popular lemang restaurant, Lemang To’ki.

Liow and his party vehemently opposed PAS’ bid to introduce hudud in Kelantan, which later became an attempt to raise Shariah sentencing limits.

This won him points with the non-Muslim community, but dinged his standing with Muslims, such as those in Kampung Kuala Repas, for whom supporting hudud is a religious obligation.

Retiree Wan Mohamad, 67 said some of the Malay voters were still unfamiliar with DAP’s candidate Wong Tack. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Retiree Wan Mohamad, 67 said some of the Malay voters were still unfamiliar with DAP’s candidate Wong Tack. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

This could allow PAS to leech some support from Liow here, but Mazlan believed that his other contributions as part of Barisan Nasional (BN) would be remembered when it came time to cast ballots.

“The East Coast Railway Link (ECRL) and Central Spine Road (CSR) projects would undoubtedly benefit us economically in the long run now that we are known internationally, which we have Datuk Seri to thank for,” he said.

Other residents here, such as a veteran named Rosli, feel Liow has not paid the area as much attention as the neighbouring town or done enough for Malay voters.

“The differences between urban and rural Bentong is distinct,” he said, adding that Liow could also suffer due to public unhappiness with government policies such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

Comparing Liow to his predecessor, former MCA deputy president Lim Ah Lek who served from 1989 until 1999, Rosli said Lim had been more hands on.

A retired army officer, who wanted to be known as Rosli, said there was still a difference between urban and rural folks in Bentong. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
A retired army officer, who wanted to be known as Rosli, said there was still a difference between urban and rural folks in Bentong. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

The culmination of Liow’s position on hudud and his link to the Cabinet that introduced the GST meant they were currently aggrieved with their lawmaker, but voters said they at least know him, which was more than they could say about Wong.

“I am not familiar with Wong Tack nor have I seen PH campaigning in our area, but I believe he is being selfish for the sake of politics,” said retiree Wan Mohamad, 67.

“For the conservative Malays, those who champion religious issue will win their hearts,” he added.

Bentong is located about 80km from Kuala Lumpur and about 178km from state capital Kuantan.

The constituency is home to about 62,000 voters, with Malays making up the largest voting segment (45 per cent), just ahead of the Chinese (44 per cent) and Indians (9 per cent).

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