A billboard of a Warisan Party candidate in Pekan Nanas

A billboard of a Warisan Party candidate in Pekan Nanas. Photo: Serina Abdul Rahman.

Parti Warisan in Johor: Making Waves or Merely a Ripple?

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Parti Warisan from the state of Sabah is seeking a foothold in peninsular Malaysia. It remains to be seen whether it will grab the imagination of the electorate.

Parti Warisan (Warisan) will launch its first foray into peninsular politics by standing for six seats in the Johor state elections. Originally Parti Warisan Sabah, the party announced its expansion into the peninsula on 17 December 2021.

Warisan stands as a multi-racial party for all Malaysians, and intends to focus on policy-making and becoming a strong voice for the moderate centre. Dr Rajiv Bhanot, Warisan’s Chief Coordinator, explained that the decision to expand to west Malaysia was in response to Malaysia’s current leadership vacuum and racially-divisive policies.

Party president Mohd Shafie Apdal, a long-standing federal and Sabah state minister, is not new to peninsular politics. Once a vice-president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), he left the party over the 1MDB scandal. Dr Rajiv pointed out that it is unwise to spend taxpayers’ money on an election when the economy is hurting deeply. However, as the Johor state assembly was dissolved on 22 January 2022, Warisan decided to begin making its presence felt in west Malaysia. Warisan is currently not a part of any coalition, but seems to have a loose agreement with Muda, the multi-racial and youth-centric political party.

Dr Rajiv said that the response to the party’s first public engagement in Penang on 20 December 2021 was ‘overwhelming’ and that membership has soared since then. However, Warisan is not expecting to form a state or national government so quickly. Its goal for now is to become a credible ‘check and balance’ and opposition to an elected state government, and to demonstrate its commitment and consistency to voters.

The Johor state elections will be held on 12 March. Before the Johor legislature was dissolved, the state government was helmed by the United Malays National Organisation-led Barisan Nasional coalition and the Perikatan Nasional pact.

But who represents Parti Warisan in Johor?   

Shafie Apdal announced that Warisan’s candidates are Johor locals and professionals who ‘have contributed to their state constituencies.’ Given that they may have done this in their personal capacity, or with another party, would the electorate accept them as politicians under Warisan?

Warisan’s ‘unity’ concept might gel particularly well with the ‘Bangsa Johor’ concept, which was coined by the Johor royal family. Under the latter, all residents are deemed equal citizens, and non-Malays are not deemed as immigrants (the derogatory label ‘pendatang’ used elsewhere). All races are seen as authentic Johoreans who transformed and developed the state together.

The table below provides some information on the six contenders and who they are up against. The candidates appeared to have served their communities either as other political party members, or in their own capacity with non-profit organisations. Two of the candidates are Iskandar Malaysia Social Hero Award winners, a testament to their work with people in need in Johor.

This could be an innovative strategy by Warisan to demonstrate their representatives’ track record of helping citizens, and clear understanding of the everyday difficulties and realities on the ground. If the candidates already have a good support base and are able to convince voters of their capabilities, they may be able to overcome the barriers of unfamiliarity and distrust.

Building on the concept of Bangsa Johor

Parti Warisan’s key phrase is ‘perpaduan’ (unity). It is contesting Pakatan Harapan seats, which might endear them to voters who want the coalition’s multi-racial offering, but have become disillusioned by politicking by the PH coalition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Democratic Action Party.

Warisan’s ‘unity’ concept might gel particularly well with the ‘Bangsa Johor’ concept, which was coined by the Johor royal family. Under the latter, all residents are deemed equal citizens, and non-Malays are not deemed as immigrants (the derogatory label ‘pendatang’ used elsewhere). All races are seen as authentic Johoreans who transformed and developed the state together. Religious moderation and ethnic inclusivity are also principles regularly stressed by the popular Johor monarchy.

Warisan might be able to make a link between their platform and ‘Muafakat Johor’ (Johor consensus, a state tagline for inclusive programmes and initiatives). They may be able to harness the votes of those who believe that unity has always been the foundation of the state’s existence. Muafakat itu Berkat (Concord is a Blessing) is enshrined in the Johor Constitution of 1895.

But there will always be conservative voters who are uncomfortable with Sabahans’ more inclusive approach to the practice of Islam, and Shafie Apdal’s willingness to attend or officiate church events, for example, regardless of Johor’s official stand towards ethnic and religious tolerance. There will be some Malay voters that cannot be won over.

Shafie Apdal always stresses that Malaysia needs to ‘transition from ethnicity and religion-based systems to something that focuses on inclusivity’. With Undi18 voters known to be less accepting of racial propaganda and weary of the old guard, Warisan hopes that their messaging will offer a positive alternative to voters.

Warisan the way forward?

For many, the Warisan platform is too new and distant (given its anchor in Semporna, Sabah), but others want to see Sabah’s brand of religious inclusivity practiced on this side of the South China Sea.

The response of Warisan’s opponents has been relatively guarded. For example, Lim Guan Eng, the secretary-general of the DAP, says it is up to Johor voters to decide whether they [Warisan] ‘have been consistently fighting for their rights, or if they only come in during elections, not before elections.’

While it remains to be seen whether the party will take west Malaysia by storm, there are some voters who see it as the ‘third force’ as voters tire of the same old faces in different shirts.

The Johor state elections are happening in a complicated state of flux, with the Omicron wave, a weak economy, and widespread disgruntlement with political entities. Add to that a totally revamped electoral landscape with myriad multi-cornered contests and new players. There is also no guarantee that youth voters will bother to vote and there are doubts of a high voter turnout.

The expectation is that low voter turnout and a split opposition will benefit UMNO and that it will regain its home state. Many voters still reminisce about how easy it was to get aid and financial assistance during the reign of ‘Bossku’ Najib Razak.

However, given that some feel that long-standing parties have little to show for their presence, it will be interesting to see whether Warisan will be the breath of fresh air and glimmer of hope that grabs the imagination of the electorate.

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Serina Rahman is Associate Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.