GELANG PATAH, Johor: As a boy, Rosli grew up swimming, playing and working in the waters around the jetty down the road from his house in the Kampung Tanjong Kupang area. He saw first-hand how local fishermen suffered in the last few years just going by their daily haul: If once they used to bring in 10kg of crabs, these days it's just one or two to show for an entire morning’s work.
He sat and listened to them complain about having to spend more on petrol, and risk life and limb, to explore further, uncharted waters away from their usual stomping grounds - which were rapidly deteriorating due to land reclamation projects.
Then he went home and without warning, the forest directly opposite was hacked down to make way for makeshift workers’ quarters. One dormitory became two, then became a hundred, and soon a mini-town sprung up to service a foreign workforce estimated at 12,000 - and still growing. Wandering about inebriated in the night, the workers started helping themselves to the mango and coconut trees on his porch, forcing his late father to “tumbuk” - or punch, in Malay - them, to protect his family.
Then there were the trucks and lorries and cement mixers, barrelling down narrow paths, driven by workers without licences. With neighbours on motorcycles and kids on bicycles, accidents happened and the odd death or two occurred. There was not a morning he woke up without fearing for his mother’s daily cycling - and even walking - commute.
And amidst the clouds of dust whipped up by the heavy vehicles Rosli, now 20, could see the cranes sitting on top of the buildings in the Forest City project, rising to the skies floor by floor, day by day.
Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking in the region, the US$100 billion Forest City mixed development was launched in 2014. When completed in 20 to 30 years the entire project will occupy four artificial islands south of Johor, spanning 1,400 hectares and housing some 700,000 people.
The joint venture - involving Chinese developer Country Garden, the Johor government and Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar - is expected to yield RM30 million yearly for the state and create over 60,000 jobs, including a quota for locals.
At one stage Chinese nationals comprised up to 80 per cent of apartment buyers, but the number dropped after Beijing imposed capital controls on outflows in 2017. Still, late last year former prime minister and now-opposition leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad tossed Forest City into the political fray ahead of Malaysia’s election on May 9, when he argued that the Chinese buyers would eventually become citizens and thus alter Johor’s demographics and voting patterns.
“Simply put, Dr Mahathir raised the fear that Malays would lose clout in Johor due to the influx of Chinese residents in Johor,” said Saleena Saleem, a researcher at the University of Liverpool.
“WE CANNOT STOP DEVELOPMENT”
Last week, Country Garden announced that as part of its CSR programme, it would allocate RM100,000 to help local communities nearby, and that its impending Forest City Golf Hotel would be staffed by locals only.
The developer had previously offered Mandarin classes for youths and supported entrepreneurial efforts. It also gives a yearly handout of RM3,000 per fisherman, in view of their affected income from decreasing catches.
Some long-standing local hawkers in the area have also seen an uptick in business from the droves of arriving foreign workers. But others trying to do business in the surrounding new mini-town - which boasts a bus and taxi depot, barber, electronics shop and countless food options - have not been as fortunate.
A Malaysian running a clothes store there said he pays RM2,000 rental a month to a Bangladeshi, who had in turn paid an undisclosed sum of money to the developers.
“I don’t understand. That land is supposed to be ours. It’s our country,” said a local fisherman. “We find it odd, but maybe some local leaders didn’t do their job properly to have allowed something like this to happen.
“Shouldn’t it be that locals get to benefit from some kind of business from their presence here?”
Asked about the effects of the Forest City project Jason Teoh, Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate for the overseeing Iskandar Puteri federal seat, told Channel NewsAsia he recently worked with the developer’s security head to enforce a curfew: Shops in the mini-town will now shut by 11.30pm and no workers will be allowed to leave their quarters after midnight.
“If I’m elected I will definitely need to solve this issue … in a smart way,” he said, referring to Forest City’s collective repercussions. “We cannot stop development, but how that and personal interests of folks are taken care of - this balance must be present.”
“BAD TIMES, GOOD TIMES”
In nearby Kampung Pendas, a BN-supporting villager asserted that Iskandar Puteri, and its state seats of Kota Iskandar and Skudai, were sure wins for the ruling coalition.
“People around here like Jason very much,” he said. “He grew up here, he comes from a poor family - his father was a taxi driver - and he knows what the locals need.”
Word on the ground is that during the 2013 election, locals were angered by BN’s decision to drop Teoh at the last hour in favour of then-Johor chief minister Abdul Ghani Othman - so they voted for the incumbent, opposition veteran Lim Kit Siang, instead.
This time, things are quite different, said Dr Serina Rahman of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“Jason has been working the ground. People care that he comes during bad times and good times, not just during the election – he has been a constant and consistent presence in the area for years,” she added. “He’ll give away things - for example to local women for their household needs - and seems to have tried to genuinely help the locals with their problems.”
On the other side of the contest, Lim and other Democratic Action Party (DAP) members have repeatedly raised concerns over Forest City since 2014. They most recently pressed the Johor state assembly to reiterate how the project would benefit the state, prompting chief minister Khaled Nordin to clarify that 70 per cent of all its workers were locals.
But villagers said they have yet to see their member of parliament - and know nothing of Lim other than his name.
Ms Saleena explained that while the opposition’s criticism of Forest City stems from nationalist concerns, BN has defended Malaysia’s China projects and investors for bringing development and jobs to Johor.
“BN may seek to capitalise on Mahathir’s race-tinged criticism of the Forest City project, which didn’t go down well with voters in Malaysia, especially with some Chinese voters,” she speculated. “Coupled with knowledge of the Johor royals’ open support of Forest City, voters will have to decide which of the two opposing arguments makes most sense.”
NEEDED: "IMMEDIATE SALVATION"
With royal involvement, talk of Forest City is usually laced with sensitivity and explains why the public has not been as vocal, said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst with BowerGroupAsia risk consultancy.
“But the undercurrent is strong, as many Johoreans cannot afford increasing property prices and cost of living,” he noted. “The project is a reflection of the economic disparity in the state.”
For rural voters, disgruntlement centres around rich people - both local and foreign - benefiting from a project like Forest City more than they do, said Dr Serina.
“There is a general mistrust of Chinese businessmen. The rural Malays place the bulk of the blame for the introduction of GST on them and the federal government leadership - in Johor, people do not like prime minister Najib Razak,” she added.
But Dr Serina also acknowledged that there were many generational supporters of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party leading the BN alliance. And in a ward like Gelang Patah, rural Malays would not mind voting for a Malaysian Chinese Association member like Teoh because he would have the backing of UMNO.
“So the confusion is that the state BN government is very popular but Najib is not at all - it can be quite perplexing. In the end they might go with the safe vote and just choose BN to ensure that their Malay rights are protected,” Dr Serina said.
At the same time, the choice made by rural voters might have nothing do with politics, said the expert.
“Handouts work because they are struggling to survive and what they need is immediate salvation. They rarely look at conditions long term,” said Dr Serina. “Some say that while the government might have allocated assistance, those higher up in the hierarchy distribute those benefits to their friends and families.
“Many conclude that no matter who you vote, the community has no real power, and get no real benefits from either side," she summed up.
"So if there are better things to do, like good fishing, or if there’s bad weather - they might just choose not to vote to save themselves the headache.”