Johor: the big battleground

The Johor ground was still quite unsettled over the Cabinet sacking of one of their own when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak arrived to open the new Muar Umno headquarters.

The Umno president knew many party members in Johor were still unhappy that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was dropped from the Cabinet. But rather than keep his distance, Najib wanted to reach out to Johoreans, and being present at the Muar Umno's new pride and joy last Sunday was one way of doing that.

Johoreans regard Muar - the locals pronounce it "Muor" - as where it all began for the Malays and Najib was sending a signal on the importance of Johor Umno.

Moreover, Muar is Muhyiddin's kampung. The former Deputy Prime Minister was born and schooled in this quaint riverine town and his ustaz father is buried there.

Najib's own grandfather on his mother's side had also been a famous Umno personality in Muar. Family ties in Muar is something the two men have in common even if they are no longer on the same page.

"The PM looked happy, smiling from the moment he got out of his car," said Muar vice-chief Muhammad Yazed Muhain.

Najib later told the gathering that he had had an audience with the Sultan of Johor that morning and that it took place in a cordial and conducive atmosphere.

"Tuanku informed me that he is very pleased with this building and that he is planning to make a visit. Beyond that, I cannot say anymore about our meeting," he said.

The newly-completed structure is a multifunctional building with an auditorium, ballroom, surau, rooftop facility, cafeteria and a grand-looking staircase.

The Sultan adopted Muar as the royal town after ascending to the throne and had reportedly donated RM2mil to the construction of the Umno building. The Muar division has also invited him to officiate at the elaborate grounds which has been named Dataran Mahkota.

What Najib did not tell the Umno gathering was that after the hour-long royal audience, the Sultan had hosted lunch for him at a Chinese Muslim restaurant in Danga Bay.

A potential crisis seems to have passed. For a while, it looked like the "Palace factor", as some called it, was about to add to Umno's problems in Johor, especially given the rather political comments emanating from the Palace in recent weeks. But, as they say, it is time to move on.

"We have always believed that Umno is special to Tuanku because of the historical ties between Umno and the Palace," said Yazed.

The air has also cleared over remarks made by Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin in the wake of Muhyiddin's sacking. He had asked Umno members in Johor to continue to show respect for Muhyiddin and reminded everyone that friendship is not about status or posts. He had said that in front of Najib during the Pasir Gudang Umno division AGM.

"We cannot run down another Johorean when he is down. Our MB calls it the Johor way. He did the right thing because Tan Sri Muhyiddin is still our deputy president, he is still with Umno," said Yazed.

The cyberspace community immediately painted it as Johor Umno revolting against Najib.

Khaled was basically trying to walk the fine line between his president and deputy. He had to manage the wave of sympathy for Muhyiddin while respecting Najib's prerogative to reshuffle his Cabinet.

He was also being strategic because Muhyiddin can make things difficult for him if he wants to. The Mentri Besar managed to soothe the political ripples in Johor, and he passed an important test of leadership.

Khaled may look like a stern school teacher but there is a political animal lurking beneath the banal looks.

But managing the undercurrents in Umno is only part of his troubles.

The first-term Mentri Besar's headache is that Johor is once again the frontline state for an ambitious opposition, this time in the form of Pakatan Harapan.

Johor is no longer the fortress of Umno. The state is only one seat away from losing its two-thirds majority in the state assembly. The opposition grabbed 18 out of 38 state seats in the general election. DAP was the big winner with 13 state seats, PAS won four and PKR one.

Is the fortress about to fall?

"Johor is going to be the biggest and fiercest battleground for both sides. Most of the non-Malay seats have already fallen. It's going to boil down to the Malay votes. It will be an all-out war for the hearts and minds of the Malays," said former think-tank head Khaw Veon Szu.

Umno's problem, said Khaw, is that the Malays are not as predictable as before. Education and progress has opened up their world view and priorities. Politics, especially for the millennials, does not necessarily revolve around the Umno pillars of "bangsa, agama dan negara" (race, religion and country).

Politically speaking, the Malays also have more choices now and it is no longer about choosing Umno or PAS. There is also PKR and the new Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah).

"If you look at history, the Malay sense of rebellion has always been there. They are not adverse to change as long as they are assured that political power lies with the Malays. Hence, they still see PAS and Umno as the real parties," said Khaw.

PKR's Malay appeal is limited because they think the party's agenda is being set by the non-Malays. They are not sure how such a party will handle the all-important question of Islam because many Malays see themselves as Muslims first and Malays second.

The Iskandar regional development has made Johor a happening state in terms of foreign investments but Khaled's immediate priority as Mentri Besar is to tackle outstanding issues affecting the Malays and lower income groups.

Johor Baru MP Tan Sri Shahrir Samad admitted as much when he said that the state leadership has placed emphasis on the needs of Islamic organisations, the administration of religious schools, issues affecting Malay Reserve Land and the demand for affordable housing.

"The MB is down-to-earth, he has both feet on the ground. The opposition in Johor goes on and on about national matters but the MB knows he needs to take care of things that impact the lives of Johoreans," said Shahrir.

One month ago, not many Umno politicians would have confidently predicted that Barisan Nasional will continue to rule in Johor after the next general election.

But several events in recent weeks have lent them a confidence boost.

One was the exclusion of PAS from the new opposition coalition. Umno politicians see PAS as their real opponent. They do not think that the leaders who left PAS to form Amanah will have much traction among the Malays especially in the Felda areas and Malay villages.

"It's a selfish image, forming a new party because you lost. Their hashtag should be #losers," said Shahrir.

The Amanah leaders like Johor's Salahuddin Ayub are personalities in their own right but they are struggling to shake off their image as minions of the DAP.

They are also trying to adopt the DAP modus operandi which is not to spend too much time on groundwork but to go big on national issues and maintain a high visibility on social media.

According to a Johor lawyer, a number of the young DAP YBs in Johor have been quite successful in doing that.

"They are absentee YBs who live in the Klang Valley. They go back to their constituencies once every few weeks but they are keyboard warriors and are very active on social media," said the lawyer.

Another event that bolstered Umno's confidence was the Malay rally last week. Apart from the numbers, they saw a sense of oneness and a raw energy that had not been evident for a long time.

Some had claimed that Johor Umno boycotted the rally. That was untrue because Umno members from Muar alone went in 10 busloads.

The DAP seats are still unshakeable. The Chinese tsunami in Johor is not ready to roll back yet. The Chinese anger towards Umno has evolved into a taste for greater political say and power.

There is also speculation about where DAP leader Lim Kit Siang will go next. His arrival in Johor in the last election had sparked off a Chinese frenzy that swept in 15 assemblymen and four MPs.

Few think he will stay on in Gelang Patah where the Chinese still love him but where the Malay reception has ranged from cool to outright hostility.

The speculation is that Lim's political secretary Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud could be the next candidate while he heads off to another state to create yet another wow-factor.

The Chinese love affair with the opposition parties is still in full bloom. But for Johor to fall, the opposition coalition has to make the Malays fall in love with it and that is not happening or at least not yet.

>The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.