Malaysia: Why it’s a high-stakes battle for Fortress Johor

  • As political parties gear up noisily for Malaysia’s 14th general election (GE14), Johor is one state to watch for a variety of reasons.
  • It is economically vital, with large manufacturing operations, a growing number of healthcare and education facilities, and a substantial number of prestige projects.
  • Johor is also very important for historical reasons. The UMNO is deeply and inextricably linked to the state. It was founded in Johor in 1946, and the state has produced a disproportionate number of senior political figures and Cabinet ministers.
  • Up until 2013, Johoreans overwhelmingly voted for BN, with the coalition regularly winning all of the state’s 26 parliamentary seats and at least 90% of state seats.
  • A number of national and local-level factors account for this extraordinary electoral performance. Johor is quite an ethnically diverse state, thus the state is fertile terrain for the coalitional politics that BN excels at. By bringing parties from the country’s different ethnic groups into one coalition, BN can usually field candidates from a target constituency’s predominant ethnic group.
  • This strategy’s effectiveness is amplified by two aspects of Malaysia’s political system – the first-past-the-post electoral system and malapportionment.
  •  Yet, because these dynamics operate in all parts of the country, they can only partly explain BN’s dominance in Johor. This is because BN’s performance in the state is higher and more consistent than anywhere else in the country. Therefore, at least part of the explanation must be found at the local level. Three aspects stand out.
  • First, Umno’s birth and early development in Johor meant that it contributed a disproportionate number of the party’s founders who, in turn, became independence leaders of then Malaya.
  • Second, the high level of control exercised by Johor’s sultans on religion has meant an environment that is not hospitable for Umno’s traditional rival for Malay voters, the Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
  • Third, Malaysia’s large-scale rural development scheme, Felda, was implemented on a massive scale in Johor. The state received the second-largest number of settlers in the country. The overwhelming majority were from Johor itself, as opposed to other states.
  • Despite these structural advantages, however, BN is looking vulnerable in Johor. Five large urban parliamentary constituencies fell to the opposition, which also won 18 state seats. Nine parliamentary seats were retained by BN with majorities under 55%.
  • The momentum for change could be bolstered by the birth of two new political parties, Parti Amanah Negara and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). Due to their Islamic and ethnic focus respectively, these organisations constitute new rivals for the Malay vote. PPBM, in particular, is well-positioned in Johor as its president Muhyiddin Yassin served as menteri besar of the state from 1986-1995.
  • Also, recent survey data by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute indicates that support for BN in Johor is far from rock-solid.
  • However, more specific questions to respondents about the other parties showed that this vulnerability does not automatically translate into support for Pakatan Harapan, the reconfigured opposition alliance. The survey data thus indicates that while the majority of Johoreans are not committed BN voters, they have yet to be convinced by Pakatan Harapan in general or either of the two new parties in particular.

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