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Whenever I thought about Langakwi, what always came to mind were the island’s swathes of green padi fields. But Langkawi has changed so much over the years. Its padi fields have receded over time and given way to hotels and other development. For about RM7 per square foot, you can buy vacant lots that can still be found in Padang Mat Sirat or Ulu Melaka. The locals still talk about the legend of Mahsuri and the island’s million-year-old rainforest—and the two million tourists that these features draw—but it is the beauty of Langkawi’s padi fields that will always be etched deeply in my mind.

I always thought that what defines a Malay is his attachment to the land, as his culture revolves around the activities that are tied to the land where he grows rice all year round. These are just the sentimental musings of an old man who grew up on the padi fields of Kelantan, for the world of the Malays has changed very much since independence. Unlike the Japanese, Malays do not plant padi any longer and don’t care much about culture. Now they worry more about the afterlife.

Last week I was in Langkawi for a few days, chatting with the locals in the hope of getting a sense of what will happen to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after 9 May. Many spoke fondly of his time as Prime Minister and the many things he did for Langkawi. A middle-aged lady almost cried when she spoke about those who will not vote for Tun at the coming polls, and described them as ungrateful Malays.

Younger Malays were less interested in the subject, saying they had no time for politics. When asked what they did for living, they said they transported tourists for island-hopping activities. That was all the work they seemed to have. There seems to be one set of activities for local tourists, where these young people can find work, but they do not participate in the high-end tourism business because they have no capital, speak no English or Mandarin, and have no special skills to serve tourists in 5-star locations.

There were some Indian youths who lamented the lack of job opportunities on the island. The government departments and local authorities largely employ Malays and Indians are feeling left out. There is an estate in Bukit Raya where many of them find work, but the jobs don’t pay very much. I told them that perhaps if Tun Dr Mahathir became Prime Minister again, he would be able to give them a different kind of help, in the form of training. He would also be able to get government departments and agencies to employ more Indians. Maybe they just have to help him first and hopefully things will change.

Tun Dr Mahathir is the person many people talk about nowadays, and judging by the massive crowd that assembled at the rally at Padang Mat Sirat where he spoke on Sunday, he has a good chance of winning in this constituency. Whatever the outcome, it’s going to be a historic polling day on 9 May, and that’s why I have decided to remain in Langkawi for the next three weeks. I want to be a participant and a witness to this moment in history, and see for myself if there is such a thing as gratitude in the annals of Malaysian politics.

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