Like evergreen hits, the feuding parties in Johor’s state elections are rehashing old formulations in the form of multi-racial coalitions with Malay-nationalist entities at the helm.
Many Malaysians growing up in the 1980s will have poignant memories of Michael Jackson’s Beat it and Billie Jean. Songs by ABBA or Billy Joel would ring some bells too. Indeed, many of these popular 1980s tracks are being replayed on popular FM radio stations across the country. Like these radio stations, Malaysian politicians on the campaign trail in Johor are also rehashing old and worn political ‘tunes’ of that era.
In all, 239 candidates are eyeing 56 seats in the upcoming Johor election. To be sure, the strategies and issues raised by the contending parties demonstrate that the country’s political culture has not changed much since the 1980s. Parties both old and new are contesting in the election. Ultimately, however, feuding Malay elites from the last generation continue to shape the narrative. The outcome: personality attacks between these elites continue to dominate the campaign instead of local issues facing Johoreans.
The election is between three coalitions: Barisan Nasional (BN), Perikatan Nasional (PN), and Pakatan Harapan (PH). All these are led by Malay-nationalist party bigwigs. And like evergreen 1980s tunes, their structures repeat the same formulae: they tout multi-racialism, and have Malay-nationalist parties at the helm backed by compliant junior partners who have to accept these parties’ demands for Malay supremacy.
The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the country’s largest Malay nationalist party, is the leader in BN. It is in a ‘first-among-equals’ relationship with the Chinese and the Indian parties — Malaysia Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) respectively. For PN, Bersatu, an UMNO splinter party, plays the same role. It is also in a coalition with the multi-racial, Chinese-dominant party Gerakan and the Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
Across the political divide, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is the anchor party for PH. It is led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former UMNO deputy president. Anwar, however, has shed the image of a Malay-Islamist leader after he was sacked from the party in 1998. Like BN and PN, PH also comprises a dominant Chinese party and an Islamist one, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) correspondingly.
The three coalitions understand that to win in Johor, they must conform to the Malay-led multi-racial model. In a sense this is Malaysia’s political history coming around full circle. Historically, Malay nationalism had its roots in the state. Still, Johor has seats that the Chinese dominate too, such as Yong Peng, Mengkibol, Bukit Batu and Bukit Permai.
The cause of optimism is that Johor will see younger voters participating, as the voting age has been lowered to 18 years. Assuming the younger voters are pro-opposition, they can thwart BN’s rise.
While BN, PH and PN are the three visible coalitions contesting in the election, there is arguably a fourth, and it follows the same Malay-led multi-racial mould too. Mahathir’s Pejuang is contesting 42 seats. Pejuang is a splinter party of Bersatu, and not different ideologically from UMNO. After all, between 1981 and 2003, Mahathir was UMNO president. While not in any coalition, Pejuang is strategically avoiding any contest with Warisan, which is originally from Sabah. The upcoming Johor election is Warisan’s first venture outside Sabah. Led by former UMNO vice president Shafie Apdal, Warisan is a Bumiputera party rather than a Malay one, and its opponents are mainly DAP, MCA and Gerakan. It is fighting these non-Malay parties in Bekok, Johor Raya, and Pekan Nenas. The only constituency where Warisan meets Pejuang is in Permas.
So far, national party and coalition leaders have been fronting the campaign in Johor instead of the local chiefs. The only exception is the incumbent Johor chief minister from UMNO, Hasni Mohammad who is more visible than his local opponents, with concrete development and economic plans for the state. But former prime minister Najib Razak, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and deputy president Mohammad Hassan are stealing his thunder. Since his bosses at the federal level continue to remain active in the campaigning, their participation sought to divert voters’ minds to national level issues. Consequently, Ahmad Zahid and Najib have become targets for Muhyiddin Yassin (president of Bersatu) and Anwar. The 1MDB scandal and court cases involving Ahmad Zahid provide political ammunition for PN, PH, and Pejuang. Muhyiddin has accused Ahmad Zahid of asking him to interfere with the courts to clear his name. Ahmad Zahid rejects the notion that the conversation ever happened.
On 3 March, even the ailing Dr Mahathir got on the bandwagon. He reversed an earlier stand not to campaign in Johor on the advice of his doctors. In January, Mahathir was hospitalized several times and at one point there were rumours that he was in critical condition. His presence at Pejuang’s campaign at the Ayer Hitam Felda is a morale booster, according to Pejuang grassroots, but whether this helps their campaign is questionable. His short 20-minute speech contains one message: do not vote for ‘Najib, the thief’.
Before nomination day, the Johor election presented both concerns and optimism for opposition parties. Many feared Johor would see a repeat of the Malacca and Sarawak elections, which saw BN wiping out its rivals, due to low voter turnout and fears of Covid-19 spread. The cause of optimism is that Johor will see younger voters participating, as the voting age has been lowered to 18 years. Assuming the younger voters are pro-opposition, they can thwart BN’s rise.
However, with coalitions still led by leaders who have been on the scene since the 1980s and singing the old tunes, there is very little motivation for change. As long as the poster boys of the coalitions remain Najib Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for BN, Muhyiddin Yassin for PN, Anwar Ibrahim for PH, and Mahathir for Pejuang, there is little young voters can do. Even MUDA, which is contesting in the polls by aligning with PH, has not brought significantly new proposals to Johoreans to alleviate their problems resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment, and border closures. It might be too late to change the tracks in Johor; but for the sake of the country’s future, the old boys and their coalitions need to refresh their playlists.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.