Anti-pothole road warrior revs up Malaysian election race

Frustrated by dangerous potholes and slow-moving public works officials, Azlan Sani Zawawi decided to become an unofficial road warrior and fight for Malaysian motorists.

Armed with a sack of tar and a bag of tools, the film producer from Selangor has become a local hero for his impromptu campaign to even out Malaysia's dangerously bumpy roads.

The rebel with a cause, fed up with red tape, is now lining up for Saturday's general election race in the Southeast Asian nation of 33 million people.

Azlan, better known as Lando Zawawi, is the charismatic founder of a nationwide crew of about 250 volunteers that carries out unofficial road repairs and calls out the sluggish officials whose job it is meant to be.

The 47-year-old with chest-length hair has built a massive following on social media, where his regular criticisms often vex authorities.

"We’ve been fighting this from outside the system. Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes (authorities) call us for meetings, sometimes they close the door on us," Azlan said on the campaign trail northwest of Kuala Lumpur.

"I thought this was a good chance to change the system."

Kuala Lumpur-born Azlan began his DIY road safety campaign in 2007 after several friends and an uncle were killed in road accidents. He learned how to seal roads and even formed his own asphalt-making company.

His campaign has hit its share of speed bumps along the way, though, with Azlan saying he has been locked up by police eight times.

Yet his swagger and can-do attitude have won him a cult status, with many considering him a folk hero.

-Bumpy ride-

Damaged roads are common in Malaysia, where potholes and uneven streets that can cause accidents are often left unfixed for months.

Malaysia’s works ministry said in December 2020 that nearly 200,000 potholes had been found and repaired the year before.

That report was only made after a federal minister hit one of those potholes and crashed his bicycle.

Almost two years since that report, Azlan's convoy was stopped last weekend by a small pothole in the middle of a road cutting past palm oil plantations and paddy fields in the Tanjong Karang countryside.

His assistants poured a glob of tar from a sack into the hole, which he then flattened out with a steel tamping tool.

"That’s all! Just one minute, brother!" Azlan said after finishing the job.

Campaign manager Zariwan Iqmar Zainol Abidin said the group, whose name translates roughly as "We Work for the People", could only do so much on its own and that it was important to fight from the "inside".

Azlan is the underdog in a five-sided battle for the semi-urban seaside federal seat of Tanjong Karang, about 90 km (55 miles) northwest of the capital.

Running on ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad’s Homeland Fighters’ Party ticket, he faces a stiff challenge from the ruling National Front bloc that has held the seat since 1974.

"If I don’t win, the next day will still be the same," Azlan told AFP.

"I will still make sure Malaysian roads are much safer."