Tough juggling act for Johor MB

HIS friends have teased him as the “surprise mentri besar” and Datuk Onn Hafiz Ghazi (pic) did look somewhat shell-shocked during his early weeks as the Johor Mentri Besar.

His rise to the most important post in the state government caused shockwaves all round and he could feel the animosity, especially from Umno leaders who considered Datuk Seri Hasni Mohamed a more worthy choice.

As a result, the biggest moment in Onn Hafiz’s political career was also the most awkward.

For instance, several days after the Johor polls, he had to sit through the Umno general assembly and listen to Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi praise Hasni to the sky while delegates gave the former MB a standing ovation.

The 43-year-old boyish-faced MB was the Johor Palace’s pick and Umno leaders who are all too familiar with the dynamics between the palace and party have accepted it without a murmur although not without some bitterness.

Onn Hafiz said to his friend and Umno Youth exco member Bastien Onn that he was just as shocked as everyone.

“I never dreamt I would be here but here I am, sitting in front of you as the MB,” he told Bastien during a meeting in the MB’s office last week.

Bastien admitted to being equally stunned because he had gone around during the Johor election campaign promoting Hasni as the poster boy.

“Initially, I also saw it as a betrayal of the people but there is a lesson to be learnt here. The changing of the guards in Johor should be seen as leading the way into the future.

“The way I see it, Tuanku Johor is providing an opportunity for younger talent. The wisdom of the sovereign has prevailed,” said Bastien who is also Segamat Umno Youth chief.

The country has faced so much instability with three prime ministers since 2018, likewise in Johor, Onn Hafiz is the fourth MB in as many years.

Onn Hafiz comes from Johor’s most famous political family - his grandfather was a former prime minister and his uncle is Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

As is typical of the Gen X cohort, Onn Hafiz has been communicating largely via Facebook. He seems to have gotten off to a flying start, going by his Facebook posts.

His days are packed with programmes, he has been to different districts to break fast with local groups and makes statements on a variety of issues. He has made affordable housing his priority and crossed the causeway to meet with the Prime Minister of Singapore.

He is deeply indebted to the palace and his Facebook is also full of acknowledgements to the Johor royal family, be it birthday greetings or congratulations on the birth of a new royal baby.

The syawal period next month will mean more opportunities to mingle and for people to see their new MB up close.

For now, he has more to learn than to share but he intends to continue what Hasni started and give due credit to senior Umno leaders.

“He aims to represent the younger generation and to deliver for bangsa Johor. As for his ties with Hasni, it is entirely between the two gentlemen,” said Bastien.

But the MB’s relations with the media have yet to take off and he has not given any interviews to the media.

On the day the state exco members were sworn-in, he summoned a few select journalists to his official residence at Saujana. They thought they were finally getting an interview, instead they got a lecture.

The MB said certain media people had twisted what he said on Facebook and he was aware of people labelling him as an “office boy of the palace”.

However, he promised them a special interview but did not want any “trap questions”.

Onn Hafiz was recently co-opted into the state Umno committee of which Hasni is still the chairman. The MB is usually the state Umno chairman but the party wants Hasni to manage Johor Umno for the time being.

His relationship with the Umno establishment is still uneven because Umno leaders in Johor have yet to get over what happened.

Pulai Umno chief Datuk Seri Nur Jazlan Mohamed’s recent announcement that he would not be contesting the next general election is believed to have stemmed from his disappointment over the unfortunate episode.

Many in Umno believe the electorate will punish the party in the general election for not delivering what was promised and Nur Jazlan has told people that Barisan Nasional has no hope of winning Pulai.

There was speculation that several senior assemblymen declined to join the state exco resulting in a line-up comprising only new faces. It has led to concerns over whether the newbies can cope with the complexities of running the state.

There were also unsubstantiated claims that many of the exco members are aligned to Hishammuddin who wants to strengthen his Johor base.

Onn Hafiz took over the hot seat with limited goodwill and had to endure all kinds of social media commentary. Visuals of his first day in office when he bowed to kiss the hand of the state secretary as well as his weekly pre-exco briefings with the sovereign in the palace kitchen have gone viral.

Apparently, it is not unusual for audiences to be held in the palace kitchen.

The Sultan of Johor is a larger-than-life personality and can be quite unconventional. He is known for meeting people in the posh and beautiful kitchen where the cabinets are painted in Tiffany Blue and filled with expensive crystalware and crockery while the wallpaper and cooking hood bear the royal crest.

Dealing with the palace is never easy for any MB. Onn Hafiz will have to juggle the people’s expectations, his party’s interests and the needs of the palace.

The Johor Sultan is a proactive sovereign when it comes to issues affecting his subjects and his state. He will stand up for them or put his foot down, whichever is necessary.

Does Onn Hafiz have what it takes to perfect the juggling act?

“Give him a chance. He will give his best for bangsa Johor,” said Bastien.

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