The appointment of a relatively junior assemblyman to be Johor’s Menteri Besar is curious. But there are deeper undercurrents at work.
Following their state elections on 12 March, Johoreans learned three days later that their Menteri Besar (MB) had been sworn in by their Sultan. However, in a plot twist worthy of a Netflix series, the person sworn in was not Hasni Mohammad, the well-regarded and popular incumbent, but Onn Hafiz Ghazi, a relatively junior assembly member.
Hasni has an unrivalled reputation within his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that it heads. This is rooted in his 18-year trajectory as an MP and then state assembly member for Johor. As the Head of BN Johor, Hasni was the Opposition Leader during the Pakatan Harapan administration, before helming the state following the February 2020 Sheraton Move which led to the ouster of the PH government. In the ensuing months, he took a proactive approach to the state’s Covid-ravaged economy, targeting local small and medium enterprises for priority attention. Unusually for a BN leader, Hasni was also able to establish consensual relations with the opposition.
Keenly aware of voters’ dissatisfaction with the state’s frequent leadership changes, BN framed the election as one geared towards restoring stability. Consequently, the coalition’s formidable election machinery centred on Hasni himself and his ability to helm the state. BN’s 35-page coalition manifesto featured no less than 14 photos of Hasni interacting with Johor residents, businessmen, and national leaders. But, the end result was rather different.
Who, then, is Johor’s new Menteri Besar, Onn Hafiz Ghazi?
The 43 year-old is a member of a distinguished political family. Onn Hafiz’s great-grandfather Onn Jaafar was the founder of UMNO, his grandfather Hussein Onn was the third Prime Minister, and his uncle Hishammuddin Hussein is the Defense Minister. In his capacity as the state cabinet member for Tourism, Sports, and Youth, the new MB also established a close relationship with the Crown Prince of Johor.
However, Onn Hafiz’s foray into electoral politics began rather inauspiciously. First fielded in the Layang-Layang seat in 2018, Onn won the seat by a mere 364 votes. In recognition of his electoral vulnerability, he was moved to run in the safer Machap seat in the polls. Riding on BN’s ascendancy and the seat’s more amenable characteristics, he was able to seize a comfortable 6,500 vote majority.
The unorthodox process of naming the Menteri Besar raises questions about his mandate and ability to govern. It is likely that BN assemblymembers will make their displeasure felt in various ways — both visible and invisible.
While Barisan Nasional netted an impressive 40 seats in Johor’s 56 seat assembly, the victory could be said to have been marred by this unexpected and last-minute substitution. But there are strong indications that this appointment is at the behest of the Johor palace. UMNO party insiders have talked about the wishes of a ‘higher power’, and the speed with which Onn Hafiz was sworn in indicates that the Palace had no objection to this change.
In contrast, it would seem that UMNO leaders are unhappy with the situation. In the run-up to Onn Hafiz’s swearing in, there were rumours that 38 of BN’s 40 assemblymembers had signed statutory declarations supporting Hasni as their choice. Onn Hafiz and Hasni were the only persons not among this group — with the latter declaring his intention to make way for someone younger. UMNO stalwart Shahrir Samad has said that he is ‘embarrassed’ by the situation, and Party President Zahid Hamidi stated that Hasni remained the ‘poster boy’ even if voters had ‘ordered’ one thing and were delivered another.
The unorthodox process of naming the Menteri Besar raises questions about his mandate and ability to govern. It is likely that BN assemblymembers will make their displeasure felt in various ways — both visible and invisible. And, Onn Hafiz is unlikely to find much support on the other side of the aisle, as senior opposition figures have criticised the appointment as a ‘violation’ of parliamentary democracy.
Yet, there is another much deeper issue at stake, and that is the relative power of Malaysia’s traditional rulers vis-à-vis its elected representatives. The Sultans predate the Malaysian constitution and their state equivalents. While these foundational documents provide for a constitutional monarchy and ceremonial rulers, the wording on the appointment of the Prime Minister and Menteri Besar leaves considerable room for manoeuvre. Thus, the rulers are tasked to appoint the person that, in their opinion, commands the confidence of the majority in parliament or the respective state assembly.
In the immediate post-independence period, Sultans sometimes made their displeasure over the choice of Menteri Besars known, with particularly unpopular MBs being encouraged to resign. However, in recent years, this practice has evolved to include rejecting aspiring MB candidates outright or requesting a short-list from which to choose. This latest episode takes this process to a new level, where a clear nominated leader supported by a large majority in the state assembly is bypassed in favour of someone else.
However, it is unlikely that UMNO and BN will push back further. Both party and coalition are trying to generate momentum for early federal elections. To pick a fight with a sultan and by extension all of Malaysia’s royal houses at this juncture would divide energies and potentially derail the election train.
And there is more. Based on the rotating sequence for sultans to serve a term as the country’s Agong or King, it is Johor’s turn in 2024. Not only will the Sultan of Johor be Agong at the national level, during the period he serves in his position, his son would serve as Regent of the state. In addition to having two members of the Johor royalty to deal with concurrently, the last three years have shown that — in circumstances where the country’s elected leadership has a narrow majority or questionable legitimacy — the monarchy becomes very influential.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.