AS Umno gathers to celebrate its 71st anniversary with a massive rally, some of its leaders are casting a worried look at Johor, the southern state where the party was born.
The real possibility of losing more state and parliamentary seats in the Umno bastion has been discussed by Johor leaders behind closed doors.
The reason for the downbeat sentiment: anger among Johor party members towards the central Umno leadership under president Najib Razak and the belief that his administration is not dealing with bread-and-butter issues, such as runaway inflation and youth unemployment.
The rebellion, said one Umno insider, is translating into more Malay support for the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, especially Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).
Johor Umno information chief Samsol Bari Jamali, however, refutes this, saying that the momentum being built by “Team Johor” under Menteri Besar Khaled Nordin will not be broken by PH and Bersatu’s advances.
Bersatu is positioning itself as an alternative party for Johor Malays, which is no small feat considering that Umno was formed in the state and its elected representatives have been undefeated until the 2008 elections.
“Umno will be hit hard in the next general election but it probably won’t sink,” was how one party source described Umno’s prospects in the 14th general election (GE14).
A local saying about Johor Malays is that they will continue to smile at a person even if they are angry with them, especially if that person is family, said Shukur Mohamad, an Umno-turned Bersatu member.
Family is a metaphor that Umno Batu Pahat member and local poet Ramlee Wahab uses to describe the bond forged between the party and its members.
Umno was born in Johor in 1946 at a conclave of all the main Malay associations at the time to protest against the Malayan Union.
Many Johor Malay families have generations of activists who go all the way back to the heady days of the 1940s.
Shukur is a prime example. His father is former Sri Gading MP Mohamad Aziz, while his grandfather was an activist who worked with Onn Jaafar.
“Johor Umno members are taught that even if you are unhappy with the party, don’t talk openly about it. It’s a family affair,” said Ramlee.
What this means is that disgruntled Umno Johor members and supporters are less likely to criticise openly and rise up against or abandon the party compared with members from Kedah, Selangor or Perak.
But the Johor Malay vote will be divided in GE14, said Ramlee, indicating that the hidden anger will surface at the ballot box.
Shukur of Bersatu said his party and its coalition PH are counting on that anger to capture more political territory.
PH parties, DAP and PKR, currently hold four parliamentary and 14 state seats. PAS has three seats.
About half of the 26 parliamentary and 56 state seats in Johor were won by majorities of fewer than 6,000 votes in the 2013 general election because of u rban, non-Malay voters.
Bersatu predicts that it has a 50-50 chance of capturing them by appealing to Malay voters.
About a third of the seats were won with majorities of fewer than 3,000 and Shukur believes PH has a good chance of winning them.
“We just have to work five to six times harder than BN (Barisan Nasional),” Shukur said.
The number one issue fuelling this disenchantment with Umno is the rise in cost of living.
Government statistics show that food and non-alcoholic beverages component of the consumer price index (CPI), which tracks inflation, had gone up steadily from January 2014 to October 2016. This is even when the price of petrol at the pump dipped several times during that period in tandem with world oil prices.
Shukur said the prices of goods in Johor were higher than other states because of the influx of Singaporean shoppers. As a result, Johor traders and retailers tend to hike their prices to exploit the higher Singapore dollar-to-ringgit exchange rate.
Issues affecting young adults and graduates, such as the lack of jobs and affordable housing, are also an issue, said Shukur.
Another Johor Bersatu leader, Tariq Ismail said school-leavers have been especially hard hit by employers in the state who tend to prefer low-wage foreign workers.
Another Umno insider said most of the seats on Johor’s west coast – which make up more than half of the 56 state assembly seats – were in danger because of the high concentration of young voters.
Shukur said PH is confident of capturing close to all of the votes from Johoreans under 40.
“It’s the ones above 50, who still remember the old Umno that we have a problem convincing.”
Johor Umno’s Samsol Bari disputes this assessment, saying that the state government will not be lost in “a blink of an eye” over bread-and-butter issues.
“The state government is confident in our approach to these concerns and we don’t think that voters will be swayed by how Bersatu and the opposition play up these issues,” said Samsol Bari, who is also Semarang assemblyman.