JOHOR BAHRU: Johor, the birthplace of the ruling UMNO party, is no longer a safe bet as the southern Malaysian state morphs into a major battleground in the coming general elections that must be called by August.
Opposition leader and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has trained his sights on wresting Johor from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, of which UMNO is the largest component party.
“Johor UMNO’s political dominance is under threat and is at a worrying phase,” said Hisommudin Bakar, executive director of independent research firm Ilham Centre.
“UMNO has lost its teeth, especially amongst the new generation of Malays. UMNO can only count on FELDA settlements and Malay villages in not changing their voting patterns. If there are any changes, it will be disastrous for UMNO Johor and BN in Malaysia,” said Hisommudin.
Malays comprise of 53 per cent of the population in Johor followed by Chinese at 39 per cent, Indians at 7 per cent and others, 1 per cent.
BN won 21 out of the 26 parliamentary seats in Johor in 2013.
According to Associate Professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi for Malay socio-cultural studies at University Malaya, there are eight Parliamentary seats which are not safe for BN.
“The results of the 2013 general elections showed there were eight seats which were seen as red zones, which is very dangerous for BN Johor,” said Prof Awang.
“Those eight Parliamentary seats polled 3,500 votes and below,” Prof Awang added. “BN will retain Johor. But it is not easy. (They) need to work very hard with very powerful strategies."
The high cost of living, stagnant wages and corruption have turned segments of Malay voters against UMNO, which holds the second largest bloc of seats in the country’s 222-seat Parliament.
BN WILL PREVAIL IN JOHOR: DEPUTY HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER
Opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP for Kluang, Johor Liew Chin Tong sees a potential 15 per cent vote swing for the opposition in the state.
“In Johor, I think it is not impossible to see a 15 per cent vote swing from people who voted for Barisan Nasional in the last round to (opposition) Pakatan Harapan. Should that happen, Barisan Nasional may lose up to 10 Parliamentary seats,” said DAP’s Liew.
Deputy Home Affairs Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed dismissed the gloomy outlook, saying the opposition is not going to get the "Malay tsunami" that they hoped for from Malay voters.
“At every election, there's always the same campaign by the opposition, which is corruption, corruption and corruption. I think people will listen to them but I don't think they will act upon the allegations and vote for them,” Nur Jazlan told Channel NewsAsia.
“At the end of the day, voters want a safe pair of hands. And with the opposition in disarray, and the opposition having Tun Mahathir at the helm, which means returning to the old style of politics, less freedom, slower economic growth, I think people will still prefer BN in the end,” said Nur Jazlan.
SOME YOUNG MALAY VOTERS ANGRY ABOUT CORRUPTION
While the scandal-hit state-owned firm of 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) may be too distant for many voters, some young Malay voters said they are angry with corruption in government departments which they have personally encountered.
Mohamed, 28, worked as a marketing personnel for a medical supply company in Johor.
He recounted how an official at the state Health Department asked him to mark up the medical equipment he was supplying by RM400 (US$102) per piece.
“I refused. The official got angry with me and kept texting me to demand to know why I refused to mark up the medical equipment,” Mohamed told Channel NewsAsia.
According to Mohamed, the incident was just one of several he had encountered in his job.
“After six months, I quit. I worried that if I continued, I might end up doing something wrong,” said Mohamed. “For us Muslims, it is about avoiding temptation. Those officials are abusing their power … this is not halal (permitted).”
Mohamed, who got married recently and has a baby girl, is currently looking for work in Singapore to "broaden" his horizons.
“I really don’t like this current government. I will be voting for the opposition,” he said.
Such anecdotal experiences are backed up to some extent by official inquiries and action.
In January this year, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) arrested 27 public officials for corruption followed by another 21 in February, according to MACC’s official website.
On Tuesday, MACC said it is keeping watch on government bodies for money leaks.
MACC deputy chief commissioner (operations) Azam Baki was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying that money leaks are still prevalent in ministries and government departments, adding that most cases involve wastage and discrepancies in procurements.
He reportedly cited a case where a ministry “lost” 40 per cent of its funds due to leakages.
Last November, MACC arrested a senior civil servant in Johor for receiving a RM8,000 bribe from a petroleum engineering company, just one of a number of arrests of civil servants, policemen and employees of government-linked companies.
In July last year, Johor Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim raised concerns about rampant corruption in a Facebook past reported by Malaysian media.
"Corruption is a serious crime. Do you know what is the punishment for committing it? Nothing ... if you are a member of certain organisations,” he wrote.
DISCONTENT IN FELDA SETTLEMENTS
In the verdant village of Ulu Belitong on the outskirts of Johor, some two dozen people gathered at the home of 61-year-old Mohd Noh, a Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) farmer.
He played host to Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party president Muhyiddin Yassin.
“I am hosting Muhyiddin because I support the opposition. I believe many people in my settlements quietly support them too but they are afraid to publicly show it,” said Mohd.
FELDA is the land-development scheme founded by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s late father, the country’s second Prime Minister Razak Hussein, to help poor Malays own land.
Spread across 54 parliamentary seats, with the majority of the settlements located in Johor and Pahang, the 1 million-strong FELDA settlers have long been a vote bank for BN.
In the past, it was inconceivable for the opposition to step foot into a FELDA settlement as they would be physically chased away, settlers told Channel NewsAsia.
But with discontent rippling through the settlements following discoveries of several financial scandals within FELDA, the opposition is finding welcome and support from some settlers.
“When we went down to many FELDA settlements ... people welcomed us. Before, you can't even enter if you're not an UMNO member,” PPBM’s Muhyiddin Yassin told Channel NewsAsia.
FELDA SETTLERS FACE SERIOUS DEBT: MUHYIDDIN YASSIN
In another FELDA settlement in Ulu Tebrau, farmer Ghazali Jamion, 57, is upset with the financial scandals that have hit FELDA. The scandals are being investigated by the MACC.
“There are so many financial scandals – 1MDB, Jalan Semarak, FGV – we feel cheated by the government. Many settlers are angry,” said Ghazali.
FGV refers to Felda Global Ventures Holding Berhad, a unit of Felda that listed in 2012 at RM4.55 per share to raise RM9.93 billion.
FGV’s share price has since plunged by more than 60 per cent following acquisitions of loss-making companies, leading many settlers to incur heavy debts as they had borrowed money to buy the shares. On Thursday (15 March) FGV traded at RM1.81 per share.
“They (FELDA settlers) are saddled with debts. Every single Felda settler owes 100,000 to 200,000 ringgit. That's a very serious problem … good governance is no longer there (in FELDA),” said Muhyiddin who was a former Johor chief minister.
“They (FELDA settlers) have lost a lot of money because (FGV) share (prices) have gone down,” Muhyiddin added.
Last November, FELDA’s chairman Sharir Abdul Samad dismissed complaints of massive debts, saying that settlers owed the agency less than RM60,000 and only 141 owed more than RM160,000, according to a report by the Malaysian Insight news portal.
RISING COST OF LIVING
In a downtown market, chicken seller 56-year-old Abdullah Idris wants change. He will vote for the opposition as he feels the impact of the higher cost of living.
“People use to buy two to three chickens weekly for the entire family. Now they are only buying one or one and a half,” said Abdullah.
“Restaurant operators which used to buy 20 to 25 chickens at a time are now buying 15 as their business has dropped. The economy is not doing well for the past two years. People are struggling with the higher cost of living,” he said.
Another Johorean feeling the pinch says, he too, will vote for the opposition.
"The cost of living, GST (goods and services tax), weak currency, 1MDB are important issues for me. I will vote for opposition," said lawyer John Fernandez.
Malaysia's inflation rate rose 3.5 per cent year-on-year in December 2017 as transport costs climbed on higher fuel prices, according to official figures. This brings full-year inflation to 3.7 per cent, up from 2.1 per cent in 2016. Analysts are expecting the inflation rate to decline in 2018.
But housewife Natrah Majid, 42, expressed enthusiastic support forJohor Bahru’s veteran Umno MP Shahrir Abdul Samad, the FELDA chief.
“He is our Godfather. He does a lot to help the people. For example, he holds a monthly bazaar where basic commodities like rice are sold at cheap prices,” said Natrah.
“Those people who talk about change should first look at themselves,” Natrah added.
While the high cost of living is an issue for Chinese voters, the community is most upset with the recent attacks by UMNO against its most famous son, Johor Bahru-born billionaire Robert Kuok.
Some UMNO members had accused Kuok of “forgetting his roots".
"These attacks against Robert Kuok really hurt the feelings of the Chinese community, not only in Johor but the rest of the country," said Lee, a member of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which is part of the ruling coalition.
“All of MCA’s hard work in winning back the Chinese votes has gone to waste,” Lee added.