The battle for Johor has begun with a galore of dinners and ceramah and the spotlight is on the Chinese seats amid claims that a Chinese tsunami is about to happen down south.
THE affable PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub is enjoying a high profile in Johor. He has been sought out by the media and also the diplomatic corps who are curious about the man being introduced at Pakatan Rakyat ceramah as the “next Mentri Besar of Johor”.
No one really believes Johor is about to fall but Salahuddin’s image has taken a leap and the claps and cheers for him at political events have grown louder as he takes on the role of poster boy for PAS.
He has a naturally smiling face and an engaging personality. Many have noticed he does not make personal attacks or say hateful things about his opponents. He does not play the hate-and-blame game that has become second nature to his DAP friends. He has become a bigger star than Johor PKR chief Datuk Chua Jui Meng who is still trying to shake off his image as a recycled politician.
Salahuddin used to downplay his Chinese heritage when he started out in PAS politics but, nowadays, he stands on stage and loudly declares he is half-Chinese. He is even planning to learn Mandarin. His mother is a Chinese brought up by a Malay-Muslim family and his mixed heritage has become a selling point in the new political landscape.
He is currently the MP for Kubang Krian, Kelantan, but is being slotted for the Pulai parliamentary and Nusa Jaya state seats in the general election. Nusa Jaya is the designated new state administrative centre so Salahuddin’s bid carries a lot of significance. His service centre in the area is up and running and he will play a leading role in Pakatan’s frontline state.
“We have to win at least 10 to 12 parliamentary seats in Johor if we want to capture Putrajaya,” said Salahuddin.
That is when the air starts to hiss out of the balloon – Pakatan won only one out of 26 parliamentary and six out of 56 state seats in the last election. No one can see them going from one to 12 parliamentary seats.
Moreover, Salahuddin will be up against Pulai MP Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed, whose father is the famous “Tok Mat” or Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat and whose mother is also Chinese. On top of that, Nur Jazlan is also seen as a potential Mentri Besar.
But Johor’s reputation as an Umno fortress is not what it used to be. The perception is that a few more seats will fall and this is most likely to happen in areas where Chinese make up more than 40% of the voters.
According to Fui Soong, CEO of the CENSE think-tank, there will be a big Chinese play for seats in Umno’s fortress.
“Nothing can be taken for granted. After Selangor, Johor has the most number of mixed seats,” said Fui.
The seats to watch include Kulai, Gelang Patah, Tanjong Piai, Kluang, Batu Pahat and Segamat. Even Salahuddin’s bid for Pulai and Nusa Jaya – both seats have about 40% Chinese voters – is largely premised on Chinese support.
The Chinese are not deeply dissatisfied; at the same time, they are not adverse to the notion of political change. The big and enthusiastic crowds at Pakatan events are also viewed as a sign of changing times. Some Barisan Nasional leaders still think that people attend Pakatan events out of curiosity but anyone who has been to these events would know that the Johor voters can no longer be taken for granted.
A PKR event in Taman Sutera raised RM13,000 while a DAP dinner in Taman Molek saw paying diners fill up more than 300 tables. It was the biggest affair DAP had ever pulled off in Johor. A Chinese calligraphy scroll was auctioned off for RM50,000, indicating supporters with deep pockets.
“People are not afraid to show their support anymore,” said state DAP chief and Skudai assemblyman Dr Boo Cheng Hau.
But MCA is about to show its arch rival what a big dinner really means. MCA’s mega dinner roadshow will be stopping by at Bakri and Kulai next weekend. The Kulai dinner has already sold 12,000 tickets of RM30 each while some 10,000 are expected in Bakri. The money from the tickets will be donated to education causes.
Johor is one state where MCA has a strong foothold and an organised machinery. The party’s mega dinners, said its president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, will debunk Pakatan’s claims that MCA cannot attract large crowds.
Johor also has 263,000 new voters of which 237,000 or 90% were registered in Gelang Patah (140,000), Pulai (99,000) and Pasir Gudang (98,000). No one can quite tell how these first timers will vote. The numbers are huge and they can determine where these three seats will go.
The Mentri Besar himself has spent much of his turun padang time meeting one Chinese association and group after another.
“Temples, business groups, guilds, residents’ associations – you name it, he’s met them. He does a lot of listening and people like the fact that he goes personally,” said a state official.
The Chinese vote is going to count for a lot and Johor Baru MP Tan Sri Shahrir Samad has been talking about Johor’s “Nine Jewels”, a reference to the Chinese cultural activities and institutions which range from the Chinese heritage museum and Southern College to the Chingay procession and mid-autumn festival.
Chinese make up 44% of the voters in Shahrir’s area, where his majority of win shrank from 46,000 to 24,000 votes between the 2004 and 2008 elections. He said the Chinese have confidence in the Johor administration but admitted they are not immune to national issues.
“I’ve been reaching out, talking to them, I know them by name, I’m doing things for them and I want to win them back,” he said.
But as some have pointed out, the Chinese in Johor are discerning and shrewd. They can tell between the good, the bad and the mediocre in politics. Besides, Johor is generally well managed with few issues or scandals.
Johor Umno leaders, said Fui, are among the most educated and sophisticated. They are not extremists in matters of religion and race. The Mentri Besar is also not controversial and has no baggage even after five terms, which is quite a political feat. He is competent and clean even if his scholarly personality makes him rather bland and boring.
The other unusual thing about him is that he does not like publicity. His response to a request for an interview was that he has not given an interview to The Star for three years.
It is fortunate that Johor is the beneficiary of so many federal initiatives because many visitors to the state are not impressed with the rather messy and congested city centre. Parts of the city centre are quaint, sort of caught in a time warp, compared to the international style urbanisation taking place across the causeway.
But there is now a transformation plan for Johor Baru’s city centre that may bring energy and aesthetic style to this great capital.
Pakatan had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find an election issue to ride on, hence their attempt to paint the proposed petrochemical refinery in Pengerang as an exploitation of Malay villagers and an environmental hazard. The Lynas issue was a success for them and they want to create more Lynas type issues in other parts of the country.
But Pakatan is also at risk of coming across as anti-investment and anti-development. The multi-billion ringgit project known as Rapid is the biggest thing in Johor after Iskandar Malaysia and will turn the remote south-western tip of Johor into an industrial hub.
Pengerang MP Datuk Azalina Othman Said is furious that the issue has been twisted out of proportion and was on the warpath in Parliament recently.
“I know Salahuddin wants to be MB but don’t be over-zealous and slander me. My constituents are not being exploited. I want them to get fair compensation and some of them have received a few million ringgit. I don’t want them and their children to be fishermen forever. The whole landscape will change when the project is up, their children will benefit and we will provide training to prepare them for the jobs created,” said Azalina.
Slamming Pakatan for claiming that she is afraid to face them, she said she is ready to debate any of them, any time.
“Where were they during the oil spill (in 2010) and the fishermen could not go out? Where was Salahuddin when seven fishermen were detained and I had to take a boat to Batam to release them? When my people are in trouble, they are nowhere to be seen. They come just to protest and Salahuddin claimed his car was vandalised. I have been there two terms and not once did anything happen to me,” she said.
It was evident Pakatan had not done much homework. At their protest two weeks ago, PKR’s Chua declared the project would be scrapped if they came to power. Salahuddin said it should be relocated elsewhere. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said the project should be postponed until a fair resettlement plan is done. They are at risk of coming across as protesting for the sake of protesting and seem unaware that the average Johorean appreciates what the project will bring to the state.
The question now is whether DAP is ready to make the big push. The party had been split between two warlords – Dr Boo and Gwee Tong Hiong.
Gwee who enjoyed the backing of DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng has been sidelined after complaints regarding party accounts. The final straw came when Gwee was denied entry to a DAP dinner in Muar and pushed to the ground. Chinese language newspapers carried a photo of him lying flat on a hospital bed, still clad in his red DAP T-shirt with the Ubah hornbill mascot.
Dr Boo has moved to centrestage even if he has yet to reconcile with the party. He also has trouble working with PKR and has publicly argued with PKR’s Chua over seats.
Chua is still trying to find a seat to contest. He is still handsome and eloquent but has too much baggage. Each time he attacks MCA, people are reminded that he quit MCA after failing to become MCA president.
Pakatan’s claims about Putrajaya have more disbelievers than believers these days. When a DAP strategist told a Singapore forum that they could win 120 seats, even the Singaporeans did not believe him. Johor is the country’s southern gateway but Pakatan is hoping that it will be their gateway to Putrajaya.
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