by Fathol Zaman Bukhari
Courting the Chinese
One week before the big day, Chenderiang, a sleepy hollow 55 km south of Ipoh with the imposing Gunung Kampar and the spectacular Lata Kinjang Falls as its backdrops, was a hive of activity. Council workers and staff of the state Public Works Department were busy clearing and levelling a sparsely wooded shrub land near the entrance to the town. The tempo was fever pitch. Those unfamiliar with the goings-on had wrongly assumed that a big carnival was coming to town. It was only upon checking with the workers that the truth was told. The state-level Chinese New Year open house, normally the preserve of Ipoh Padang, would be held there instead. The barren laterite-filled ground could accommodate some 5,000 people at any one time.
Flags, buntings and banners were hoisted and hung on poles and lampposts along the trunk road to Chenderiang. At an uninhabited stretch, workers were busy fixing solarlights on custom-made metal lampposts – a novelty for Perakeans. Soon tents and covered stands dotted the open field where the main event would take place. Nothing was left to chance to organise the most expensive party in town. The banners bade welcome to visitors to the CNY open house scheduled for Sunday, February 21 beginning at 6.30 p.m. Dignitaries attending included the Sultan, Raja Muda, their consorts, Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri Dr. Zambry Abdul Kadir and host, Dato’ Dr. Mah Hang Soon. The intended guests, obviously, were the Chinese population of Chenderiang and their neighbours from the surroundings.
Chenderiang was once a Communist hotbed. Right through the 70s, troops were still deployed in the hills around the town to secure the high grounds. The British found it expedient to build a new village under the Brigg’s Plan in the 1950s to separate the people from the terrorists. Will the town’s less than savoury past have an impact on the event unfolding? Only time will tell. Why the sudden interest in the Chinese? Since the setbacks suffered by Barisan Nasional in the 2008 General Election, attention has shifted to the Indians and the Chinese. Suddenly, their support becomes nombro ono although Thamby Chik, an Umno Vice President, once told an Indian-based party that its members’ votes meant little since Indians represented only a fraction of the Malaysian voters. Another party stalwart, and a Najib’s aide, had more insidious remarks for both Indians and Chinese. He branded them as pendatang, pengemis and pelacur. The order to woo Indians and Chinese was out. Najib visited Batu Caves during Thaipusam on Sunday, January 30 – the first ever by a serving prime minister. He and wife, Rosmah, attended the much-touted CNY open house in Pandamaran, Selangor, on Saturday, February 20. The mainstream media trumpeted a turn-out of over 20,000 when the open space could barely support 5,000 revellers. Incessant rain almost ruined the programme. The Prime Minister visited three Chinese families but chose to sit on a tastefully carved government-supplied chair rather than the chairs in the houses. Many felt slighted by his insensitivity. Was it deliberate? If so, Najib’s 1Malaysia sloganeering now sounds hollow.
A heavy downpour preceded the Chenderiang CNY open house too. The week-long dry spell in the state culminated with this sudden deluge. It was a welcome relief for Perakeans who were reeling under the scorching tropical sun. Like in Pandamaran, some had hailed it as a rahmat (salvation). I, however, disagree. May be God was angry with the charade and had opened up the sky to show his displeasure. I left my house for Chenderiang at around 6 p.m. on Sunday, hoping to beat the traffic before show time. But the driving rain got into my way. It was raining cats and dogs and visibility was poor. There were a couple of nasty accidents on the Plus Expressway near Gua Tempurung. One heavily smashed MPV laid precariously on the roadside. It had rammed into the iron railings guarding the side of a deep ravine. Like all government sponsored activities (where dignitaries are involved), the event was characterised by a heavy police presence. Cars and buses jammed the road leading into the town. With some clever manoeuvring I reached Chenderiang town unscathed, saved for a creaking wiper blade. A crowd had gathered at the site but most were huddled in the covered stands, shielding themselves from the pouring rain. A lone policeman, in a white reflective raincoat, was directing the traffic in the downpour. He seemed oblivious of things around him.
I stopped by a kopitiam, located in a pre-war building along the main street, and ordered a cup of hot white coffee. While waiting for my drink, I asked an elderly Chinese gentleman sitting next to me what he thought of the open house. “Ayaa.. dia olang mau pancing Orang Cina punya undi. Kita olang bukan bodoh.” (They want to fish for Chinese votes. We’re not stupid). Does this sum up the feelings of the people on the ground? I think so.