UNTIL a year ago, Shukur Mohamad was in line to carry on the family business.
His grandfather Aziz worked with Umno founder Onn Jaafar in the 1940s; his father Mohamad is the party deputy permanent chairman, Johor state assembly speaker and a six-term MP; and his brother Maulizan is an assemblyman.
But a year ago, Shukur left Umno to join Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). Others have followed the same path from the ruling party to Bersatu and their actions are making Umno uneasy.
More than in any other state, Umno membership in Johor is a family tradition. It is a big reason the party is embedded and invincible in the southernmost state. Until now.
“Umno is like an old man that has diabetes, high blood pressure, gout and all these diseases. It’s time to retire that party and choose a new one,” said the 46-year-old from Batu Pahat.
Like Umno’s first and fourth presidents, Onn Jaafar and Hussein Onn, Umno was born in Johor. The state’s Malays have always had a deep fondness for the party.
No other Malay party, be it Semangat 46 or PAS, has been able to appeal thus to the Johor Malay political mind. The first PAS candidate to win a seat in Johor in 2004 only did so by a fluke.
PAS candidate Dr Mohd Ramli Md Kari won the Senggarang state seat uncontested on nomination day of the 2004 general election after the Barisan Nasional candidate Shamsiah Rasidah Ibrahim was disqualified on a technicality.
Johor Malays have consistently voted for Umno even through its crises that spawned splinter parties, such as during the 1990 Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah-Dr Mahathir Mohamad feud and the 1998 Reformasi period, said DAP strategist Liew Chin Thong.
Bersatu has changed that, he said.
“For the first time in history, Johor’s elite and opinion-makers are split politically,” Liew said, adding that this schism has broken Umno’s grip on Johor Malays.
This does not mean all is smooth sailing for Bersatu. Outsider PAS has indicated it will also contest seats in Johor even if it means creating three-cornered battles. PAS is not in opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan.
Bersatu leader Mazlan Bujang said almost 70% of the Tebrau division’s 26 new branches are led by former Umno division strongmen.
Before he joined Bersatu, Mazlan was the number two in the Tebrau Umno division. His brother Maulizan, is the current Tebrau Umno division chief and the assemblyman for Tiram.
Other Bersatu divisions that are led by ex-Umno division leaders include Johor Baru, Pulai, Gelang Patah, Pontian, Mersing, Labis, Kluang dan Kulai.
Cause and defect
Mazlan’s reasons for leaving Umno are similar to those of Shukur – a nostalgic fondness for the Umno of Dr Mahathir, an era that saw the transformation of the country’s economy and the creation of a class of Malay technocrats.
So when Dr Mahathir quit Umno over allegations of grand corruption and fraud in the party under president Najib Razak, Mazlan, Shukur and others like them followed suit.
“Almost everything – education, healthcare – was free during Dr Mahathir’s time. I come from a poor family and back then, Umno was about helping the poor. Now the party oppresses the poor through things like the GST (goods and services tax),” said Mazlan.
Predictably, their decision to join Bersatu has disappointed their card-carrying Umno member families.
“My father was disappointed that I was leaving the family’s political struggle. And people were saying how could the son of the Umno deputy chairman, six-term MP and Johor speaker join the opposition?” said Shukur.
Mazlan’s brother and mother were equally crestfallen.
“My mother could not accept it at first. But I explained to her how Umno no longer helped poor people like us. She gradually came to terms with my decision,” said Mazlan.
Maulizan is also reconciled to Mazlan’s choice but hopes his brother will change his mind.
“It’s his choice. I hope that one day he will reconsider as I think he made the decision when he was angry at some Umno leaders,” Maulizan told The Malaysian Insight.
To keep the peace at home, politics is a taboo topic when the renegades meet their family members.
“I still meet up with my brothers and we talk about all family matters, except politics,” said Mazlan.
But a serious concern Shukur and Mazlan share is how they would cope when the bruising campaign for the 14th general election begins
The real test will come when Shukur and Mazlan campaign for Bersatu against their closest relatives for Umno for the same constituencies.
Shukur’s stepmother is Parit Raja assemblyman Azizah Zakaria while Mazlan’s chosen constituency is Tebrau, where Maulizan is chief.
Half of the more than 2,000 members of Bersatu Tebrau are defectors from Umno Tebrau.
“I don’t attack him personally. In fact, I freely admit that my brother is one the rare, hardworking assemblymen.
“My campaign is against the policies of Umno,” said Mazlan, adding that his public addresses usually touch on corruption, good governance and the economy.
With GE14 shaping up to be a no-holds battle for the Malay vote, it is hard to believe that Shukur, Mazlan and other former Umno politicians will emerge from the scuffle with their familial bonds intact.