SINGAPORE: Voter fatigue with politics, particularly in Western Johor's Gelang Patah, is setting in, according to a study on the Malaysian general election presented at a conference at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Wednesday (Dec 13).
The constituency, which saw Democratic Action Party bigwig Lim Kit Siang wrest the seat from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the last election in 2013, had been a longstanding BN stronghold for five decades.
But now, residents complain politicians and political groups no longer walk the ground there, which has fuelled some disenchantment with local politics and created an ambivalence over who wins the elections, the study noted.
The study was based on in-depth focus group discussions and interviews with residents in parts of rural Johor and Kedah.
The prevailing sentiment in Gelang Patah seems to be that whoever provides residents with assistance and handouts will get their vote.
In fact, some voters go as far to say they might not even bother to vote if it rains, the study revealed.
Many voters seem undecided which way to vote, with neither the BN nor the opposition offering a compelling reason to choose them - a national trend that seems to be playing out in Johor, said Dr Francis Hutchinson, coordinator for the Malaysia study programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
According to an ISEAS-Yusof Ishak survey of Johor voters in 2017, the BN still enjoys strong support with 35 per cent of respondents indicating they would vote for the ruling coalition, compared to less than 10 per cent who would vote for any opposition party.
But the huge remainder of more than 55 per cent of respondents were undecided or did not state a preference.
BN’S WANING INFLUENCE IN RURAL JOHOR
Johor - the birthplace of UMNO and a rapidly urbanising state with a large multi-ethnic population of 3.7 million and 26 parliament seats – is widely seen as a bellwether state for Malaysian politics and voting behaviour, Dr Hutchinson pointed out.
Experts at the conference noted that the loyalty of voters towards UMNO has seen a steady decline, as the energetic grassroots movements and strong relationship UMNO had with local leaders in rural Johor have diminished over the years.
In Mersing, there is a growing split between older land-owning rural voters and younger rural voters, according to the same study.
Older voters said they appreciate the generous benefits they receive from FELDA, a land settlement agency, and owe all they have to UMNO. On the other hand, younger rural voters who work in the towns feel differently. They said jobs are hard to come by and “every month is a struggle”.
Keenly felt economic challenges and anxieties among Malaysian youths about making ends meet is likely to be a key issue for the upcoming election, said Dr Meredith Weiss, a comparative politics professor from the State University of New York whose research focus is on Southeast Asia.
She highlighted that concern over the economy has been consistently the number one concern among respondents to a national survey in Malaysia since 2013, and has held steady at about 70 per cent throughout 2017, according to Merdeka Centre surveys.
About 15 per cent of respondents say they skip meals in order to make ends meet,according to Merdeka Centre's latest national public opinion polls on economic hardship.
The IMF has forecast a GDP growth of 5 to 5.5 per cent for Malaysia in 2017but stories of households struggling to make ends meet are commonplace, said experts at the conference.
Salaries have not been always been able to keep up with rising costs of living, experts pointed out. Inflation rates hit an eight-year high of 5.1 per cent in March on the back of higher fuel costs.
Handouts from BR1M, the social assistance scheme that has given out cash handouts annually since 2012 to eligible Malaysians in some 4.7 million households and 2.7 million other single recipients in 2016, have been generally well received by many who see the Malaysian government as sincere in wanting to help those in need defray rising costs of living, Dr Weiss said.
These payments have been used by the very poor for everyday expenses but have done little to reduce inequality, she added.
JOHOR UNLIKELY TO FALL TO OPPOSITION
Yet, Johor falling to the opposition is highly unlikely, said Dr Hutchinson.
“Support for UMNO and the BN may have slipped in recent years, coming down from a high of 70 per cent to 65 per cent in 2008 and 55 per cent in 2013, but it remains strong,” he added.
Still, he admitted that the BN coalition is in danger of losing seats, particularly in the urbanised constituencies of Pulai, Pasir Gudang and Tebrau.
In this context, the royal family may have an important role to play.
Johor residents have great trust and respect for the Johor Sultan and Tunku Ismail Idris, the Tunku Mahkota of Johor, the heir apparent and next in line to the Johor throne, said Dr Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
"The people support them because they do what they say." Some residents even say things will look up if Idris were Prime Minister, she added.
Johor has been underpinned by a strong sultan who has exercised control over aspects of state administration, particularly religion, which includes approving who can preach in the state, Dr Hutchinson said.
“Looking at the level of support for the BN, Johor has traditionally carved out an independent political dynamic different from the rest of Malaysia,” he added.
“The BN’s track record in Johor has been exceptional for many decades. However, in many ways, Johor’s voting patterns over recent years is seeing normalisation with the general trends in Malaysia.”