An attractive, 27-year-old ethnic Malay lawyer has suddenly electrified Malaysian politics, running as an opposition candidate in a parliamentary by-election set for May 31. In the process, she has been branded a traitor to her country, race, sex and mother, a former United Malays National Organization division secretary. But mom is on her side and she is also favored to win.
She is Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, running as a member of the Chinese-dominated opposition Democratic Action Party in Teluk Intan, a northern city in the state of Perak. Her opponent, Mah Siew Keong, is a former two-term MP in the constituency and president of Gerakan, a small party in the ruling national coalition. The seat was vacated when the DAP lawmaker holding it died of cancer.
Dyana has seemingly come from nowhere to phenomenal popularity. Her Facebook friends skyrocketed to more than 30,000 in three days. According to the English-language news site Malaysiakini, the name Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud – she was named for the late Princess Diana Spencer ‑ has been the subject of 4.3 million searches on Google.
Beyond her decision to join the DAP instead of UMNO, as two of her uncles and her mother did, Dyana may well represent a new social phenomenon for a country caught in the strait-jacket of rigid religious, ethnic and political squabbling. She lets her hair swing free and usually dresses in conventional clothing instead of the confining hijab worn in public by most of Malaysia’s political women.
As such, she may be as big a threat to the opposition headed by Anwar Ibrahim as she is to the ruling national coalition because she makes the leaders of both seem hidebound and hemmed in by the past. With a growing reputation for seeking practical – and non-political ‑ solutions to problems, she is part of a new, urban, less politically and culturally doctrinaire Malaysia, sharing a mindset with such modern Malay women as Marina Mahathir, the liberal daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. She also is establishing a reputation as a policy wonk as well as a politician.
“It has to be something deeper than her looks,” wrote former New Straits Times Group Editor A. Kadir Jasin. “The fact that she is a young Malay woman representing a Chinese-dominated opposition party is, to me, the real fascination. Just days ago, a former female deputy minister from UMNO noted with alarm that the DAP’s internship programs were attracting many young Malay participants, most of whom are well educated. There be must something particularly strong by way of push and pull factors to encourage a young Malay like Dyana, who hailed from an UMNO family, to join the DAP and be an active member.”
Kadir, a firm UMNO stalwart, also wrote, “When I woke up this morning, I saw five messages from a former UMNO divisional secretary on my cellular telephone. One read: 'Dyana is said to be the latest state of the art Samsung 5S while Mah [her opponent] is Nokia. Sigh!’”
Certainly, the decision is a gamble by DAP leaders in a constituency that could – if recent history is a guide – have easily been won by a Chinese. It is designed to demonstrate that the DAP is committed to evolving into a multiracial party, a difficult slog for a party dominated by party elder Lim Kit Siang and his cadres.
As a Malay candidate in a race where 41.9 percent of voters are Chinese, Dyana has a tough battle ahead. Teluk Intan is dominated by three major ethnic communities, with 25,310 Chinese voters, 23,301 Malays and 11,468 Indians. Traditionally held by Gerakan, the DAP won the seat in the May 2013 general election.
Dyana studied law at Malaysia’s Universiti Technology Mara and runs her own law firm in the Cyberjaya suburb of Kuala Lumpur. She entered politics when she was introduced by the DAP leader, Lim Kit Siang, to the party’s National Conference in January 2012. Her decision has riled Mahathir, who chided her mother, Yammy Samad, for failing to inculcate the contributions UMNO has made to the Malay race.
Yammy answered back that Dyana could do as she pleased. “I tried to raise her a Mukhriz,” she said, in reference to Mahathir’s politician son, “but instead she turned out to be a Marina,” an allusion to Mahathir’s outspoken and independent daughter.
In a country populated by 60 percent Muslims and dominated by often-bitter racial politics, Dyana has also faced a battery of allegations including that she posed semi-nude when doctored pictures of her in a pink bikini were posted on an UMNO-linked blog. The pictures were almost immediately identified by friendly Netizens as hacked pictures of a Filipina starlet, which has worked to Dyana’s advantage.
Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the head of the women’s wing of UMNO, called her a traitor to her race, to which Dyana answered that she wasn’t a traitor to her country. Shahrizat was caught in 2010 in a massive scandal over the misuse of a government soft loan to fund a cattle-feeding operation.
Dyana is expected to win the seat. But the bigger and more ominous question for UMNO is whether she wins the affections of the district’s 23,000 ethnic Malays. If she does, that would send a strong message to UMNO, a party increasingly regarded as corrupt and out of touch. Broadly, since 2008 Chinese and Indian sentiment has already moved to Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat coalition, leaving the national ruling coalition centered in rural Malays and East Malaysian ethnic tribes.
Marina Mahathir is among those who have given a more flattering description of Dyana, She is “a smart girl who can think. She can articulate. She can write,” Marina wrote in a Facebook posting recently. “That's three up over most politicians already.”