Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Ghani Othman is facing the biggest challenge of his political career now that the Opposition have declared Johor their frontline State with an ambitious claim that they will get more seats in the general election.
UP till a month ago, many had believed this would be Datuk Ghani Othman’s final term as Mentri Besar of Johor. He had been telling people in private that he is ready to make way after five terms, which is a record of sorts in Johor where Mentris Besar come and go.
But the latest is that he is staying on. The Prime Minister wants him in charge, the Palace is said to be in agreement, and Ghani will be around to oversee a State that is about to fast forward into an era of economic boom, thanks to the Iskandar regional scheme.
The scholarly politician will lead the State Barisan Nasional in the next general election, and this is where things become interesting.
He will be defending Johor aka “Fortress of Umno” against the hungriest and most aggressive Opposition in history. Pakatan Rakyat have declared Johor their frontline State and have been making ambitious noises about winning. Some analysts think that as many as five Parliament and 12 State seats may fall to the Opposition coalition, a big jump from Pakatan’s current count of one Parliament and six State seats.
Has the tsunami finally reached Johor and is the Fortress of Umno about to crack?
“People think we’ve been sitting around doing nothing since 2008. Everyone has been working extra hard. It’s going to be different this time around,” said Johor Baru MP Datuk Shahrir Samad.
What he means is that the conditions which triggered the 2008 tsunami are no longer there and he, in particular, has taken the wake-up call very seriously.
Shahrir’s name is synonymous with Johor Baru which he has always won with huge margins. In 2004, he won by more than 46,000 votes. But in 2008, his majority plunged to about 25,400 and there were two polling stations where he did not get a single vote. About 43% of Johor Baru voters are Chinese and many of them had swung against the Barisan. Yet, Shahrir is one of the least racial politicians in the country.
He has always been assiduous at courting the Chinese vernacular media to reach out to his Chinese constituents. Sin Chew Daily recently had an extensive interview with him on Johor politics.
No one in Johor is taking anything for granted in the new political landscape and even Malay politicians are taking note of the Chinese vote. The assumption is that Chinese sentiment in Johor is like that in the Klang Valley and the seats deemed to be dangerous for the Barisan are those with 35% or more Chinese voters.
As a result, all the Pakatan parties including PAS are scrambling to ride on the Chinese votes and the side effect to this has been a rather public squabble between DAP and PKR for seats.
Johor DAP chief Dr Boo Cheng Hau has more or less told PKR chief Datuk Dr Chua Jui Meng to go fly a kite when the latter assumed he would be contesting in Bakri where he was MP during his MCA days. Bakri is now a DAP seat and Dr Boo, who is Skudai assemblyman, has made it clear that his party will have primary say on Chinese seats.
DAP peaked in 2008, but to do well again, it needs some heavyweights to contest in Johor. Dr Boo is the only one who shines in Johor DAP. Its three other assemblymen rarely open their mouths during State Assembly sittings whereas the party’s surprise winner in Bakri speaks pasar Malay in Parliament.
DAP has no shortage of Johor-born politicians. Lim Kit Siang and his Chief Minister son Guan Eng, Tony Pua, and Teo Nie Ching are from Batu Pahat. It is understood that big names from Penang like Liew Chin Tong and Jeff Ooi do not mind moving south. But, as of now, no one can quite see these leaders migrating from their comfort zones up north.
“We can gain some seats but it is tough to fight Umno,” said Dr Boo.
Making Johor a frontline State was the brainchild of PKR strategist Rafizi Ramli because Pakatan parties have gone as far as they could in states like Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kelantan. They sounded the war drum at the PKR congress in Pulai last December.
But PKR is struggling to find its footing in Johor. It needs a State chief who can organise the ground and build up an election machinery and Jui Meng is not quite the man to do that.
Moreover, Jui Meng has credibility issues. He is an extremely polished and eloquent man. He is tall, with patrician good looks and speaks beautiful English, Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese. But the man comes with baggage, having been an MCA big-gun and federal minister.
He has been dismissed as a “recycled politician” and Dr Boo joked to friends: “I’m a doctor, I don’t like expired medicine.”
Each time Jui Meng tries to run down the MCA, they run him down twice over. When he dared MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek to contest against him in Johor, the latter snapped back, calling him “MCA’s reject product” and told him off for attacking the ruling coalition after enjoying the perks and privileges as a minister for years.
PAS’ front man Salahuddin Ayob is less controversial. The PAS vice-president and Kubang Krian MP is returning to lead his party’s campaign in Johor. But with the Malay vote shift, PAS is battling an Umno wave.
There is no denying that many Malays are uneasy with DAP’s leading role in Pakatan, unsure whether their identity as Malays and Muslim will prevail in such a set-up.
On paper, a number of seats especially on the western-coastal belt look like they are in danger of falling to Pakatan. But the reality on the ground is quite different.
For a start, Johor Umno is not the excessive or chauvinistic creature found in many other States. Its education system – secular as well as Islamic – has resulted in a different calibre of Malay politicians who do not have to beat the ethnic drum to be noticed. They are, by and large, moderate people.
“You don’t see politicians in Johor living lavishly, with palatial homes or having a fleet of flashy cars. We are better off than when we started out and that’s about it,” said Shahrir.
Chinese sentiment is there but it is not as heightened as in other urban States. In fact, MCA in Johor enjoys a reputation as a party that performs and delivers, and a lot of it has to do with the Mentri Besar’s political style. Ghani believes in consultation even if it is at the expense of delayed decision making.
“It’s the Johor way. There is no high-handedness in dealing with community issues, there is a lot of engagement and persuasion. No matter what, sincere politicians will always be welcomed by voters in Johor,” said Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Gan Ping Sieu.
The bastketball-playing politician, who was defeated in the Mengkibol State seat, decribes Ghani as someone who believes in social justice and who has worked to level the playing field for the haves and have-nots.
“No matter what, sincere politicians will be welcomed by voters rather than those who only indulge in political rhetoric,” said Gan.
There are few local issues for the Opposition to ride on in Johor, so much so that DAP has jumped on the Lynas bandwagon and tried to politicise the oil and gas storage project in Penggerang as an environmental hazard. Yet, this is an RM5bil investment that any other State would crave for.
Then there is the Singapore factor. Johoreans south of Muar watch a lot of Singapore TV and the island State’s political economy has several types of effect on Johor Chinese. Many older Chinese in Johor admire Lee Kuan Yew; his authoritarian style was stifling and old fashioned but it brought stability, good governance and progress. They see a clean and efficient government that delivers what it promises.
Of late, Malaysia’s paid TV has been running advertisements showing former Miss Malaysia Andrea Fonseka, looking leggy and spectacular, beckoning them to go over to the island’s Marina Bay Sands casino and hotel to gamble, shop and dip into that fabulous infinity pool up in the sky. If only they could have that in Johor, they think.
Many Johoreans see Singapore as more happening than their own State but just as many prefer the balanced pace of development at home. They also think the Chinese across the causeway enjoy equal treatment and that is a source of some envy. But they appreciate the quality of life in Johor where cost of living is lower and life is less stressful. There is always some sort of comparison going on between Johor and Singapore and it is good for Johoreans to measure themselves politically or otherwise against a different yardstick.
Ghani has often been described as too slow and careful and rather boring. But he has actually been the lynch pin to the stability and civility in Johor. He focused on a holistic development policy during his first two terms in office, tackling rural development, squatters and low cost housing – all of which is now holding him in good stead.
Since the start of last year, he has been on a conscientious turun padang mission, going to the ground, covering every constituency at its most local political level. He does it without media fanfare or protocol, accompanied only by the local wakil rakyat and a few political officials and Government officers.
He turns up in simple attire, meets villagers in small groups, sits with them at almost touching distance, listens to their grouses, gets feedback and sometimes when the complaints are serious, the errant officer may get a glimpse of his temper.
His aim is to secure the vote, sort out issues, and weed out any reason for angry voters to take it out at the ballot box. No other Mentri Besar has gone down to the ground like that. He has covered the constituencies categorised as “black” twice and he has met with numerous Chinese groups.
“The Chinese have no real issues with him, they seem to like him, but you can never tell what is in their hearts,” said an insider.
Ghani is also the only Mentri Besar who has been conferred the State’s highest award, DK (I) or Darjah Kerabat Mahkota Johor Yang Amat Dihormati by the Johor Palace. It is normally given only to royalty and Prime Ministers. The late Sultan Iskandar was sceptical and even critical of him when Ghani parachuted in as Mentri Besar. By the time Tuanku passed away, however, he had reportedly grown quite fond of Ghani.
Ghani is a low profile politician in a big State but with a critical general election around the corner, his rather unpolitical style of politics seems to be working quite well amid all the big noise from Pakatan about taking over. The Federal Government has a lot invested in Johor and they need to win well.
At a closed-door meeting with the Prime Minister recently, Johor Umno politicians reported that they are confident of recovering lost ground and even taking back the parliamentary seat of Bakri.
The Opposition know they cannot take Johor in the next election but they want to add to their collection of seats after making it through the door in 2008.
Meanwhile, Ghani and his team are trying to shut back the door of Fortress Umno.