THE voice over the plane’s intercom welcoming everyone to Langkawi made it sound as though we had landed in paradise.
Well, Langkawi with its many islets and glittering blue seas does look like paradise. The sun seems to shine brighter here and the air feels so pure that it is like watching high-definition TV – the blue skies are bluer and the vegetation is extra green. And the island folk do not put on any airs. They talk and laugh easily and welcome outsiders like old friends.
But a defining moment in Langkawi’s history is about to take place. A drama is unfolding that will overshadow what happens in the rest of Kedah during the upcoming general election. It revolves around the man Kedahans know as Che Det and who is credited with bringing Langkawi to where it is today.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad seems to have set his mind on becoming the next Langkawi MP, which he needs as the stepping stone to his second bid for the prime ministership.
Some ordinary islanders were not aware that Langkawi will be the stage for Dr Mahathir’s last big hurrah in his political career. Some said they had heard about it but then asked: “Is it true? Is he really going to do that?”
The doubt in their voices had to do with two things – one is Dr Mahathir’s advanced age and the other is a certain incredulity that the former prime minister would do this to the party he had led for so many years.
Some are still undecided, while others disapprove of what Dr Mahathir is doing. But there are also many who are openly leaning towards Dr Mahathir and who seem to have decided. Whichever category they fall into, they are unanimous that Langkawi’s growth and status is because of the former premier.
“If there was no Mahathir, there would be no Langkawi like what you see today,” said a Chinese businessman.
This mantra about Dr Mahathir and Langkawi just goes on and on like elevator music that you cannot switch off. Based on Dr Mahathir’s delivery record, he should win hands down in Langkawi. But the trouble is that politics is not so simple.
Malay businessman Ridzwan Abdul Rahman was also singing the Mahathir mantra until he was asked if he would vote for Parti Pribumi.
There was a long pause before he said: “Actually, I am not sure why he is doing this. My friends say he is doing it for his son. I respect him but he is too old to lead Langkawi. What can he do if he wins? We have to think of the future.”
GE14 in Langkawi is going to be about choosing between the past and the future, and between the one to whom they owe so much and the one who is promising them more to come.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak flew into Langkawi recently, promising an astounding RM1.3bil in development funds to expand the hospital and airport and upgrade water supply facilities, as well as a new fire station and additional quarters for the hospital staff.
But as they say, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush and the Prime Minister may have to try harder. On the other hand, his RM1.3bil promise has put the Opposition on the defensive. They have tried to brush it off as “mere promises”, even as they themselves make grand promises all over the country.
Dr Mahathir’s name sells well, but his party is still struggling as a brand among ordinary Malays. Two months ago, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir arrived at the bungalow home of Johari Bulat, a retired businessman whose elder brother Datuk Mat Hassan was a state exco member in the ’90s.
“He asked me to be a candidate. I told him if he had come when I was 40, I would have agreed. But I am 61, too old,” Juhari said before realising that he had said the wrong thing.
Too old, he added, is not a suitable term in Pribumi, as all of us burst out laughing. However, Juhari pledged his full support for Pribumi and to run Dr Mahathir’s campaign.
Minutes after Mukhriz left, he asked his staff to quickly get Pribumi, Amanah and PKR flags to hang around his compound. They also managed to find a banner of Dr Mahathir against a backdrop of the famous eagle and cable car, with the slogan “Jasamu dikenang Che Det” (your deeds are remembered) .
“What is so unusual if Mahathir becomes prime minister again? Our Kedah Sultan became the Yang di-Pertuan Agong two times, it will be a second world record. He is not senile, just slower. We are not looking for his energy, we want his wisdom,” he said.
Juhari is full of kampung charm and wit. When asked whether his friends and relatives shared his politics, he quipped: “Not all, only 51%.”
His brother used to be the assemblyman for Ayer Hangat, one of two state seats in the Langkawi parliament area. It would have been a coup for Pribumi to get Juhari to contest. He admitted that his brother is still 100% with Umno.
His younger sister, who stopped to say hello, merely smiled and rolled her eyes when asked about Pribumi.
Datuk Tan Lai Beng, the Langkawi MCA division chief, was less subtle.
“We remember his deeds, he introduced Langkawi to the world. If we really love him, we should not support his move. The island needs someone with the energy to serve and bring in tourism,” he said.
He also questioned whether Dr Mahathir would be able to accept it if he did not win.
Tan used to be known as the “mini MB” of Langkawi when Tan Sri Sanusi Junid was the mentri besar, but those glory days are over. The pawnshop and jewellery store owner also wears his business on his hands, sporting three sparkling rings studded with diamonds and a thick gold bangle.
He claimed credit for helping to look after the China tourists who were stranded in last month’s cable car incident. They were given free meals and those who missed their flights were given free accommodation and tickets to return home.
Langkawi folk are at a crossroads, torn between gratitude and continuity. It is easier for them to decide on which fast-food chain they prefer in Langkawi, where KFC has trumped McDonald’s by four to two.
A worried look came over Norazita Dahari’s face when asked about Dr Mahathir. She is in her 30s and runs a village stall selling popiah and drinks – Capuccino’s Stall –near the famous Black Sand Beach. Her younger brother runs a stall selling secondhand jeans.
“We always supported him when he was in Umno. If he wins, will our livelihood change? Will the prices of things come down? BR1M is very important to us. They said they want to stop it,” she said worriedly.
Ayer Hangat assemblyman Mohd Rawi Abdul Hamid’s service centre is just across the road. His family home is along the coastal road.His mother has turned it into a homestay with at least 20 rooms at only RM45 a night. It is verybasic but has a view to die for, overlooking the sea beyond the Black Sand Beach.
The second-term YB is a lawyer and has quite a good image, even among the Kuah folk on the other side of the island. During the Chap Goh Meh celebration, he sprinkled his speech with Thai and Arabic phrases.
Both Mohd Rawi and his Kuah counterpart Nor Saidi Nanyan won with comfortable majorities in 2013 and they are expected to hold their own, especially with PAS planning to make it a three-cornered fight.
Langkawi PAS chief Zubir Ahmad runs a modest eating place called Kedai Makcik. He has contested and lost in three general elections, but wants to give it another go.
The PAS presence is seen mainly in Teriang on the west side of the island, where there is a tahfiz school painted green, with PAS flags fluttering along its perimeter.
Zubir contested in Ayer Hangat in 2013 and secured 5,855 votes against 11,166 by Mohd Rawi. It shows that he has quite a sizeable base.
The weak link is first-term Langkawi MP Nawawi Ahmad, who has gained a reputation for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. His problem is what Malays call mulut celupar (indiscreet). The long and short of it is that he is not seen as a worthy opponent to Dr Mahathir.
The days when Dr Mahathir could walk on water are over, but the legend is still strong. The most heard response to a Mahathir-Nawawi face-off was: “Aiya, Mahathir sure win la.”
Will Nawawi be replaced? The talk in Kedah Umno is that “Najib likes him”, although no one can explain why. The trouble with Najib is that he has a soft spot for loyalists and that clouds his judgement. For instance, people in Kedah Umno said two of his aides were not winnable in 2013, but Najib insisted on them consisting in Kedah and they lost.
The stakes have never been this high and he may have to put aside friendship and loyalty if he wants to stop Dr Mahathir. Langkawi folk felt neglected after Dr Mahathir retired. They had been pampered by him, but the subsequent Prime Ministers had different priorities and commitments.
The islanders hanker after an era when their island was the golden child. But can anyone ever really recapture what has gone by?
Hard choices lie ahead. Will they vote for the past or for the future?