Once a bustling mining town, Seremban has rapidly evolved into a centre not just for work but also leisure, and is on the cusp of receiving city status.
Its famed siew pao (roasted pork bun), as well as other dishes, such as baked crabs, have become synonymous with the town.
But beyond the savoury food, it has also become the centre of political attention as two rising stars – one from MCA and another from DAP – are set to clash in the parliamentary constituency in the coming general election.
The incumbent is DAP national organising secretary Anthony Loke, who is seen as the future successor to DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.
His challenger, MCA Youth chief Chong Sin Woon, is also being groomed for future leadership, with MCA deputy president Wee Ka Siong describing him as the “Musang King” of politicians.
Their success or failure in the general election may well propel or impede their climb up the party ladder.
It will not be the first time the Seremban parliamentary seat will witness a clash of the titans, as this constituency saw an epic clash between an MCA president and DAP chairperson 35 years ago.
At that time, DAP challenged then MCA president Lee San Choon to contest in Seremban, the seat that DAP chairperson Chen Man Hin (photo) held since the establishment of the federal constituency in 1974.
Lee, whose name now dons the San Choon Hall at the MCA headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, narrowly unseated Chen in a hard-fought contest in the 1982 general election.
Lee abruptly retired from politics the next year, later citing “backstabbing” by Umno, and DAP retook the seat in the 1983 by-election. However, the myth of DAP’s invincibility in Seremban was shattered.
MCA recaptured Seremban in the 1990 general election, and held on to the seat until the 2008 political tsunami, which saw the opposition making unprecedented gains.
Mindful of DAP’s history in the constituency, the last thing its 40-year-old incumbent Loke wants to be is overconfident.
DAP’s John Fernandez won Seremban in 2008 with a 3,948 majority, but Loke managed to widen the majority to 12,553 votes when he took over the seat in the 2013 general election.
But Loke, who is also Negeri Sembilan DAP chief, was quick to stress that the big win was not due to some innate ability he possessed, but the fact that Berjasa also contested the seat in 2013.
“Why did my majority in the 13th general election exceed the previous term? It was mainly thanks to multi-cornered fights.
“The Berjasa candidate gained 6,866 votes, and took away some Malay votes from BN. Hence, our majority increased,” Loke said.
Seremban is a mixed constituency, which comprises 44 percent Malays, 41 percent Chinese and 14 percent Indians.
Despite idealistic rhetoric about looking beyond race and religion, voting along racial lines remains a reality, and has its appeal among certain sections of every community.
Capitalising on this, Berjasa fielded Malay candidates in several seats, including Seremban, where BN did not.
But Berjasa may not necessarily field a candidate in the next general election, entailing perhaps a closer contest between BN and DAP, such as in the 2008 general election.
Political fatigue may also make the battle for Seremban a greater challenge for Loke in the coming election.
Negeri Sembilan Chinese Assembly Hall Youth (NSCAHY) deputy secretary Aw Yuen Hing told Malaysiakini that the turnout of Chinese voters could pose a challenge to DAP.
“Chinese turnout may go down, but a significant Chinese swing (back to BN) is unlikely to happen,” Aw said.
With Chinese voters backing DAP in droves in the 13th general election, any fall in turnout – their continued support notwithstanding – will adversely affect the party.
He added that it also remains to be seen if Bersatu can make up for the shortfall in votes that former ally PAS had courted for DAP in the last general election.
MCA had also repeatedly accused two DAP assemblypersons in state constituencies in Seremban, Siow Kim Leong (Lobak) and Ng Chin Tsai (Temiang), of underperforming.
If voters think the same, it could affect Loke’s (photo) position to an extent.
The Seremban parliamentary constituency has six state seats, the four others being Lenggeng (Umno), Nilai (DAP), Sikamat (PKR) and Ampangan (Umno).
But MCA’s Chong is not without his own problems.
He has had to grapple with perceptions that he does not have the full backing of the highly influential state MCA chairperson Lim Chin Fui.
Prior to Chong’s rise to MCA Youth chief, he was Selangor Youth chief, which has been met with some resistance from local leaders.
Some of these local leaders are prepared to put up with a “parachute candidate,” but want a deal for Temiang Residents Association chairperson Ho Kok Yew.
Ho lost the Lobak state seat under an MCA ticket by an 8,270 majority. These local leaders want Ho moved to the DAP-held Temiang state seat, where he stands a better chance – the seat was won with a 1,677 majority – in exchange for Chong contesting at the federal level.
Ho has the backing of the influential Lim, who is the successor to the Seng Group, which owns hundreds of petrol station franchises nationwide.
The 38-year-old “Datuk Seri” also holds a slew of prominent positions in local Chinese groups, such as the presidency of the Xiang Lian Youth Association, as well as being an honorary adviser with the Negeri Sembilan Chinese Association and the Chung Hua High School.
However, Seremban MCA chief Siow Koi Voon, seen as a favoured candidate by the MCA central leadership, is also vying for the Temiang state seat.
Failure to resolve the competing claims could see sabotage spill over to the federal constituency, which would hurt Chong’s chances.
There is much at stake for Chong, who is a second term senator and will not be able to extend his tenure as deputy education minister if he is defeated.
Already, the 43-year-old leader is working the ground hard.
Adopting a down-to-earth style and often dressed in casual attire, Chong (photo) engages with the locals and is comfortable with being referred to as “Ah Chong.”
MCA also puts considerable efforts into grassroots events, such as the Tin Tin Market in Mantin, Seremban, and the “One Village, One Fruit” programme in Rasah.
Missteps could turn the tide
As a deputy minister, Chong has not only deployed his ample resources in Seremban, but also in the rest of the state.
Within Negeri Sembilan, Chong has taken credit for the relocation of SJK(C) Aik Hua in Taiping, Perak, to Seriemas in Negeri Sembilan. At the national level, Chong is seen as synonymous with getting Putrajaya to agree to build 10 new Chinese primary schools.
Malaysiakini reached out to Chong’s aide for this story, but his office declined to comment.
Not to be outdone, DAP’s Loke had also pushed for several local initiatives in the wider Negeri Sembilan, such as tourism programmes in Titi, located within the state seat of Chennah, which Loke also holds.
The Chennah state seat is located within the Jelebu parliamentary constituency, which neighbours Seremban.
However, Loke argued that when casting their votes for an MP, voters consider more than local initiatives.
“You’re contesting for MP rather than mayor… I do think these activities will help the people, but they will cast their vote based on national vision (provided by both parties),” said Loke.
MCA, in the last general election, contested 10 state seats and two parliamentary seats in Negeri Sembilan, but lost all of them to DAP – with the exception of one state seat, which it lost to PKR.
DAP now controls 11 state seats and two parliamentary seats in Negeri Sembilan.
The two heavyweights are not only seen as candidates for Seremban, but are expected to lead their respective parties in the state and show leadership on the national stage.
In the same vein, what is said and done beyond Seremban could also potentially impact the voter sentiment within the constituency.
This is especially true for MCA, whose negative perception among the Chinese community has left the party with little goodwill for voters to tolerate mistakes.
For example, Chong was deluged with negative reactions on social media for his comment last week that Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng should not “fight the heavens” despite being a “deity”, amid the devastating Penang floods.
However, Chong was swift in his apology, conceding that he had hurt the feelings of Penangites.
A similar situation had occurred locally in Seremban in September, when fires razed part of the Seremban market.
MCA quickly swung into action, allocating RM327,000 to 327 victims of the fire.
DAP, whose resources cannot compare to MCA’s, sought public donations and eventually raised RM310,000 for the affected traders.
However, the actions of certain MCA groups on social media – who urged the public not to donate to the DAP fund ultimately intended for fire victims – caused a backlash, said Negeri Sembilan DAP political education director Lee Kai Yet.
“Not only were the market folks unhappy, the people of Seremban also disapproved,” he noted.
Although DAP in many respects faces an uphill battle to fend off the MCA challenge, DAP will still need to tread carefully if it intends to maintain a realistic chance of retaining the Seremban parliamentary seat.