SINGAPORE: One conventional wisdom in Malaysian politics is that Johor is a guaranteed win for Malaysia’s ruling party.
The birth place of UMNO, Johor has been an ardent supporter of the Barisan Nasional for many years. Government initiatives, especially the creation of a federal land development and resettlement authority (FELDA) have benefitted rural smallholder farms in this state for decades.
But this year’s general election won’t be so clear cut. Experts are split which way it’ll swing.
In fact, the only consensus among analysts is that the Johor vote is no longer cast in stone - the state will be hotly-contested, making it one of the more interesting to watch.
In focus group discussions, interviews and conversations that I’ve had with Johor voters about the upcoming elections over the last six months, it seems there’s no guarantee of winning for either the ruling Barisan Nasional or the opposition.
It is especially unclear which side the rural vote will go towards.
FELDA VOTERS IN THE BAG?
While rural voters who have benefitted from FELDA traditionally vote for UMNO, news reports of graft investigations involving FELDA Global Ventures and more recently the Jalan Semarak land scandal have not gone unnoticed.
Yet, years of community engagement by the UMNO Women’s Wing (Wanita UMNO) and government aid to FELDA settlers make it difficult for the opposition, especially leading party Party Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) to penetrate this stalwart bank of voters.
In Mersing, for instance, residents seem resolute in their support of UMNO and dismiss allegations of corruption as the complaints of a few disgruntled people who have left the FELDA system.
Some are also quick to dismiss scandals like the 1MBD allegations as fabrications from the opposition.
Many older rural residents in my focus groups expressed tremendous gratitude to Prime Minister Najib Razak for his generosity and attribute the success of FELDA to him and his father Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second prime minister.
For them, rising costs of living and petrol will continue to be key issues that determine votes at the ballot box.
But UMNO can breathe easier, for FELDA elders see these as the fault of Chinese businessmen and global economic conditions.
The story is vastly different for younger FELDA voters and second-generation settlers, who do not benefit directly from FELDA schemes and assistance. They feel more keenly the rising costs of living, especially those who have moved to urban areas to study or get married.
While there is clear familial pressure to maintain support for the ruling party and second-generation rural voters generally acknowledge some level of support from UMNO, the cracks in their conviction seem apparent.
But a loss of the rural youth vote by UMNO in Johor doesn’t necessarily translate into a win for the opposition.
Many do not think the opposition credible or capable of properly managing a state.
For these voters, if they had to identify a second choice, it would be PAS because of their perceived consistent stance on Muslim issues.
Interestingly, semi-urban and urban voters in Johor seemed way more supportive of their political leaders compared to rural youths.
Many are satisfied with the way local authorities have gone about governing Johor and are happy with the state’s improved economic standing, according to a survey commissioned by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
But a dissatisfaction with the federal government is acute. Voters in this group attribute increases in costs of living and petrol to them, and say they’re tired of the allegations of corruption and incompetence.
In all this, the Johor state leadership is completely exonerated.
For now, many voters in urban and semi-urban areas are taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding who to vote for.
DISENCHANTMENT AND CONFUSION
Perhaps indecision finds its roots in gender?
Younger women say they’re more concerned about how to make ends meet than who wins the next election. Older women reminisce about Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s term as Prime Minister with fondness yet feel that his alliance with old foes in the opposition has poisoned him and his party.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, it seems neither the Barisan Nasional nor the opposition offers a compelling choice.
Even a keen interest in politics doesn’t necessarily translate into a decision on which party to support.
Male UMNO supporters in West Johor have gone through the gamut of emotions in recent times.
From unflinching support for the ruling party to confusion when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned, to anger when former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was dismissed.
The frustration is deeply visceral.
In recent focus group discussions I conducted, many have expressed disgust at both the ruling Barisan Nasional and the opposition, citing a lack of honesty, transparency and good governance at all levels.
This frustration is also turning into disenchantment where village and party heads are blamed for their lack of access to assistance and benefits that male voters know have been allocated to them by the government.
Many say only cronies and family members with the right connections will gain anything from any government. Some fishermen tell me time is better spent going out to sea than bothering to vote.
The yearning for a central figure to emerge from the sea of politicking and politics of patronage is strong.
Some say they want to see a younger leadership rise to the occasion.
Others opine that what is needed for the nation is someone like the Johor Sultan or the next in line to the Johor throne Tunku Ismail Idris who do what they say and have no qualms about putting their foot down if the people suffer or the state is put in a disadvantageous situation.
All said, only the final ballot count will reveal the true verdict.
UMNO’s hold on Johor has been so strong that even with reduced support and a lower voter turnout, the ruling power will likely maintain control of the state, albeit with a smaller majority.
Given Johor voters’ general satisfaction with state governance and economy and their profound respect for the Sultan, Mahathir’s tumultuous history with royalty and his disdain for the Bangsa Johor identity might be the opposition’s undoing in this state.
The conflict between voters’ support for the state’s UMNO government and their aversion for federal political antics will make Johor an interesting state to watch once the elections are announced.
Serina Rahman is a Visiting Fellow at the Malaysia Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Read other commentaries on Malaysia’s impending general election:
1. Why Mahathir's leadership of the opposition confuses Kedah voters.
2. Why Mahathir’s prime minister candidacy moves the opposition one step closer to toppling the Barisan Nasional.
3. Why UMNO and PAS have become complicit partners.
4. Why the Malaysia general election is an uphill battle for the opposition.