SUNGAI PETANI, Nov 14 — Syerleena Abdul Rashid was among the wave of Malay recruits who gained prominence in DAP as part of its bid to undo its vilification by political rivals with the country’s dominant ethnic community

Demonstrating its faith in her, DAP was promoting the first-term Seri Delima assemblyman for a run in the Bukit Bendera constituency for the 15th general election.

But while she has been able to fit in with the mainly Chinese party, Syerleena, 42, said she continued to be viewed with suspicion by her own community.

“Hate will continue to follow people who try to do something a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. Such mindsets of hatred will follow people who go against the status quo, meaning PAS-Umno,” she told Malay Mail when met while campaigning.

In 2018, Syerleena won the Seri Delima seat in her electoral debut with a majority of 13,211 votes.

Among her rewards, she said, were messages of hate and death threats from those accusing her of being a race traitor.

“I don’t think anyone wishes this happens to them and how do you tackle such things? It’s sad we live in an environment where it’s almost expected, even the other reps receive death threats on the regular and that type of violence needs to be addressed.

“I’ve learnt to cope with it, grow a thick skin and I have the support of my friends, family and party members whom all share a common goal with me which is to create a country that allows all Malaysians irrespective of race and religion to live and share the same benefits as everyone else,” she added.

While she said she has grown numb to the abuse, Syerleena explained that this was not the case with others around her. As much of the abuse was posted on her official Facebook page, the vitriol was publicly visible to those such as her father.

Pakatan Harapan’s Bukit Bendera candidate Syerleena Abdul Rashid greets local residents during a walkabout session in Tanjung Bungah, Penang November 11, 2022. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

As a politician, she has learned to expect that a lot of the negativity was the work of so-called “cybertroopers” — online propagandists — but this was not the case of the older generation, like her father, a former teacher.

Syerleena credited her father for encouraging her political awakening at an early age, saying he taught her to be curious and inquisitive rather than blindly obedient.

“It destroys him and it’s hard for me to take as now I’m getting angrier because my parents are hurt. But they are learning to understand what it’s all about.”

Syerleena married an American last year and when asked if this had worsened the racial abuse, the former kickboxing instructor said it did not noticeably increase at the time.

“Even after that, I got messages saying I’m a race hater, married a pendatang (foreigner) and am a traitor to my race and religion; it’s recently we came across such hatred,” she said.

According to Syerleena, she would rather not spend time on the hate but deliberate on ways to improve the state of the country’s healthcare and education, which she said should be topics of central importance for any government.

But despite the importance of discussing these topics, she said Malaysian politics remained inevitably mired in race and religion, singling out PAS president Tan Sri Abdul Hadi Awang as one such culprit.

At the start of the general election campaign, Hadi quickly fell back to his party’s reliable trope that DAP was a communist party, and challenged it to sue after it accused him of defamation.

“He (Hadi) just spreads so much hate to the point it’s mind boggling,” she lamented.

Still, Syerleena said she could see why such tactics were effective, adding that it was prevalent in both urban and rural seats for voters to feel obliged to support a candidate based, first and foremost, on race.

Changing this would be difficult, she said, but not impossible if PH were to be voted back into power.

However, Syerleena said that no matter what emerged after polling day on Nov 19, she hoped to see a Malaysia where all Malaysians were treated equally.

“I have people ask me on my walkabouts all the time, ‘Are you a Malay?’ To which I always answer I’m Malaysian because one’s race, religion or name should not matter.

“I want us to be defined as Malaysians.”

In Bukit Bendera, Syerleena is competing against Teh Yee Cheu (Parti Rakyat Malaysia), Hng Chee Wey (Perikatan Nasional-Gerakan), Richie Huan (Barisan Nasional-Parti Cinta Malaysia) and Razalif Mohd Zain (Independent).

In the previous general election, DAP incumbent Wong Hon Wai won a majority of 40,731 votes.