SUNGAI SIPUT (March 29): Will handouts and development promises help Barisan Nasional (BN) recapture the Sungai Siput parliamentary seat?
The seat was won by Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj in an unexpected victory against former MIC strongman Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu in the 2008 polls, but it is unclear if this feat can be repeated in the upcoming election.
One reason for a possible voter swing against the activist doctor is the perceived lack of physical development in the area.
"Just look around," said Diana (not real name), a Sungai Siput native and a mother of three.
"Since the opposition took over, there has hardly been any development and the town has been stagnant," said the social worker. "Last time, during Samy Vellu's time, you can visually see the changes to this small town.
"You look at the road, it's like highway. Which other small town has this kind of road," she asked.
And the residents don't just see such four-lane, well maintained road as a pride of the town; they are also being reminded that it as a symbol of the development that BN is capable of delivering – instantly.
No one is more aware of this than Samy, the former works minister who served as the local MP for 34 years.
While he won't be a candidate this time around, the man who is credited with bringing a lot of development to Sungai Siput has been named by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak as the BN coordinator for the constituency.
And Samy is wasting no time in trying to regain lost support. He has been there four days a week since last October with non-stop engagements throughout the day.
These engagements include meet and greet sessions with BN component party leaders, making appearances in markets, making donations to ailing families, appearing at funerals, and dinners with leaders of "anti-BN" communities.
And there is no doubt that the veteran politician can execute. During one of his visits recently, Samy and his entourage entered a decrepit two-bedroom house.
He examined the house, made notes and drew sketches of the house in his notebook, and immediately told a local construction material supplier what was needed and demanded that the quotation be sent to him.
Outside the home, people flocked to him with various requests. There is another house around the corner that needed fixing, and a man sought to have his name inserted as the father in his young daughter's birth certificate.
For the residents, these are requests which an MP, and not state mechanisms, must deal with.
Samy listened to the requests patiently. He made notes of the problems and promised to address them.
During lunch, a couple more requests – including on matters that should have been taken care of by the state bureaucracy and local council, like fixing manhole covers – were forwarded to him.
Speaking to fz.com recently, Samy said he had no issues helping people with such problems as he was doing it on humanitarian grounds.
"I have been to a house where the floor is just sand. When somebody is sleeping in a house with no roof...it's humanity, I must do something," he said.
When asked if it was an MP's job to attend to such requests instead of teaching the public to deal with the problems themselves, Samy said: "It is an MP's job. The people must feel like they are cared for."
Samy, however, won't be the BN candidate in Sungai Siput this time around. While MIC has not officially named the candidate, all indications are that Minister in the Prime Minister's Department and party vice-president Datuk SK Devamany will be fielded in Sungai Siput.
The former MIC president said he will back any candidate selected by the prime minister. "When the candidate is announced, I will tell the people this is the person who will do the same for you."
Meanwhile, Jeyakumar, the incumber MP, is also busy in Sungai Siput with people approaching him daily for assistance.
The Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) lawmaker acknowledged that some residents may be disappointed with him for not rendering financial assistance the way Samy Vellu did.
"We used to have people come to the party headquarters asking for money," he said, adding that money is given only to those who deserve such as single mothers, not NGOs who already have sufficient funds."
The tireless social advocate added that he and his colleagues in PSM had always helped the people in matters relating to land ownership, evictions and personal identification documents.
His team in Sungai Siput have always been involved in re-settlement issues, involving people displaced by major developments, Jeyakumar said, adding that most people would come to them when they have such problems.
"The people have become smarter," he said in jest. "When they are facing bulldozers, they will call us."
Just earlier, the soft-spoken doctor was warmly greeted by a Malay family during a wedding reception.
Like many others who have assisted him in one or more of his programmes in Sungai Siput, they broke into a warm smile when they catch sight of him.
Jeyakumar argued that there has been no lack of development in Sungai Siput as private companies still had several projects. The grouses, he said, "must be because I don't hand out contracts".
When pressed if he thought this sentiment about the lack of development under the opposition will sway votes to the BN, he said people recognised genuineness.
"People are not that stupid. They know when people are helping them sincerely," he said.
After completing a brief meeting with some displaced farmers fighting for compensation, Jeyakumar took a breather before heading out to a DAP-organised ceramah in Jalong.
His party assistant sat around the table in the bare office in a shophouse, which he himself called a "store room".
Another assistant, Khaw Seng Hean, quipped that when he met farmers from Sungai Buloh and Jalan Lintang area, they told him that money was given to them by government parties.
"Then I asked them, why didn't you ask for land grants. Their faces turned pale. When people request for something of more value such as land grants, these government parties can't fulfil. They don't even dare to make that promise," he said
He added: "They are not asking for a bungalow house. Like the farmers, who are not asking for 10 hectares but only three. They are demanding for their right to live. For survival. They just want the basics. That's enough for them.".
"Why can't the government use the BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia aid scheme) to make more substantial and continuous changes to the system like increasing retirees' pensions," he asked.
Jeyakumar said that in his time as an MP and even before that, the aim of his party was to educate the people about larger issues and of their rights.
"We have also consistently worked with stateless people trying to get some form of identification for them solely because the simple documentations put the children to school and could potentially end the vicious cycle of poverty within the Indian community," he said.
Will the people of Sungai Siput understand this distinction and appreciate what Jeyakumar is trying to do?
"I think the people will make the right decision," was the socialist politician's response.
But recalling Diana's unhappiness over the lack of physical development, it remains to be seen if Jeyakumar can hold on to his seat in the coming election.