Liew Chin Tong’s win in the Johor state party elections is a win for Lim Kit Siang in the coming DAP national party elections.
Usually a low-key affair, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) Johor elections last weekend attracted unprecedented attention. The southern state, the birthplace of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Chinese Association’s former fiefdom, was long a bastion of support for the establishment. In contrast to its early successes in Penang and Selangor, the DAP has had to struggle hard to gain a foothold in Johor.
The party’s first Johor toehold came in 2008 when it won the Bakri federal parliamentary constituency from the MCA. Since, the DAP has gone from strength to strength in Johor, claiming more parliamentary and state seats in 2013 and 2018. At present, the DAP has five MPs and 14 representatives in the state assembly. The DAP contingent in the state assembly is as large as UMNO’s. Given this foothold and Johor’s 26 federal MPs — more than the more populous Selangor’s 22 — the state’s party leadership contest is now a major league one for the DAP.
Compared with other parties, whose internal elections can be unruly and unpredictable, DAP ones are organised affairs. DAP state elections are conducted through a two-tier voting system. To make a shortlist of candidates, aspiring office-holders first must be nominated by at least two DAP branches in the state. Then, based on its membership base, each party branch sends a given number of delegates to vote. From the shortlist, delegates are then allowed to vote for their choices for the 15-member state committee. The votes are tallied, and the top 15 candidates are appointed to the committee. Then, the state committee members decide who occupies key positions such as state chairman, treasurer and secretary. In the recent elections, about 1,500 delegates from the 210 party branches were eligible to cast their vote, and 40 candidates competed for a slot on the 15-member state committee.
The divide between the two camps extends to electoral tactics. Liew’s is seen as more receptive to working with Mahathir come election time …
Broadly speaking, contenders in the recent Johor party elections can be divided into two camps. The first “incumbent” faction is led by the state chairman Liew Chin Tong, who has served three consecutive terms. Originally from Selangor, he was first elected in Johor in the 2013 general election as the federal member for Kluang. In a high-stakes gamble, in 2018, Liew contested a Malay-majority federal seat in Johor, Ayer Hitam. Losing by a mere 300 votes to MCA leader Wee Ka Siong, Liew subsequently was appointed as a senator and Deputy Defence Minister in the Pakatan Harapan administration under Prime Minister Mahathir. Liew is widely regarded as an astute strategist and has the support of all five DAP Johor MPs – including party stalwart Lim Kit Siang. While active at the state level, Liew’s profile and trajectory have been more national in scope.
The second camp comprises the “grassroots faction” led by Tan Hong Pin. Born in Johor and the state assembly representative for Skudai, Tan was in the state government cabinet during the Pakatan Harapan administration. He has gained a reputation for his grassroots work, enjoying the support of a sizeable contingent of DAP assembly members and Chinese-educated Johoreans.
The divide between the two camps extends to electoral tactics. Liew’s is seen as more receptive to working with Mahathir come election time — even after the implosion of the Pakatan Harapan administration following last February’s Sheraton Move. In contrast, the camp aligned to Tan is less receptive to such an alliance.
The 2 May election results were a resounding vote of confidence for Liew, as he received the third-highest number of votes cast. This was in marked contrast to the 2018 party election, where he came 11th. The candidates who received the highest and second-highest number of votes – Yeo Bee Yin and Teo Nie Ching respectively – are regarded as closely aligned to Liew.
Liew retains his state chairmanship, and Teo, MP for Kulai and the former Deputy Minister of Education, was re-elected as the Johor deputy chairman. By appointing an additional five members into the state committee, as allowed under DAP’s constitution, Liew is firmly entrenched. Tan Hong Ping came 16th and did not make it to the state committee.
These results indicate that Liew has successfully consolidated support in the state over the past three years. It also signals that, despite Mahathir’s murky role in the Sheraton Move last year, there could be support for some form of alliance with the elder politician in the next general election to be held in or before September 2023. Last, national DAP elections will be held next month. As a close ally of Lim Kit Siang, Liew is likely to call on DAP Johor to support the party veteran’s preferred candidates.
Kevin Zhang is a Senior Research Officer, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.