Over the last weekend, Johor was visibly the most important political battleground between Pakatan Harapan and BN that carried with it very interesting messages.
On Pakatan Harapan’s side, former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad delivered his first speech as Pakatan Harapan’s newly appointed chairperson – a fact that he noted at the start of his speech – in Kota Tinggi on Saturday (July 15).
The event in the Umno stronghold was organized by NGO Anak and attended by a multi-ethnic crowd of three thousand – a huge crowd for a small town that most consider to be one of the safest Umno seats. Parti Amanah Negara President Mat Sabu, PKR secretary-general Saifuddin Nasution and myself (representing DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang) attended as well.
The day before that, on Friday (July 14), Amanah held its well-attended state-wide Raya open house in Batu Pahat while Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia President Muhyiddin Yassin had his Pagoh constituency open house on Saturday. PKR’s Hari Raya events in Ledang and Pasir Gudang on Sunday were attended by its deputy president Azmin Ali. DAP national publicity secretary Tony Pua also toured the state during the weekend to discuss the 1MDB scandal with ordinary Johoreans.
In Kota Tinggi, I noted in my speech that Dr Mahathir and Harapan leaders “attacked” one of the strongest of Umno strongholds, while Prime Minister Najib Razak was in Johor to defend another Umno’s safe seat of Sembrong – a telltale sign of our times.
Umno’s vote share in Kota Tinggi and Sembrong in the last general election was 82.4% and 63.7%. Kota Tinggi has 86% Malay, 11% Chinese and 2% Indian voters. Sembrong has 58% Malay, 31% Chinese and 9% Indian voters.
I made the comparison of Kota Tinggi and Sembrong in jest, but had a shock when I read the news report of Najib’s event later in the night – that defending Sembrong was indeed very much in the psyche of Najib and Umno top guns. Najib declared that, “We come here today to ensure that the land of Sembrong will remain firmly in the hands of BN”.
Something is very wrong
Something is very wrong if Sembrong needed national reinforcement and such high-level intervention by the prime minister so late into this election cycle. It just means that Umno top guns, particularly Defence Minister and prospective prime minister candidate Hishammuddin Hussein has received intelligence that most seats in Johor, Sembrong included, are vulnerable and can fall into the hands of Pakatan Harapan.
Najib announced three projects at the event – the construction of 1,000 units of public housing in two phases, 500 homes for second generation Felda settlers and the upgrading of Taman Sri Lambak police kiosk into a full-fledged police station.
Malaysiakini reported Najib saying that he would “pay the bills” for the people of Sembrong, but requested that they also repay him:
“Today, coming here should have been free, there shouldn’t be a need to pay anything.
“But looks like Hishammuddin had sent me the bill even before I arrived here… I was cornered,” he said in jest.
“So, with three projects, I have paid the bill for this meeting with the people of Sembrong. I have fulfilled your wishes, now you’ll need to fulfil mine,” he said. (Malaysiakini, July 16)
Never mind that it was a government event funded by the public purse, and not supposed to be used for partisan election campaigns; what this incident shows is Najib’s lack of understanding of the changing landscape of public opinion, especially among Malay voters.
Najib still thinks that the “you help me, I help you” project-funding promises would deliver the votes, when what voters want is a clean government, better jobs and pay, as well as lower cost of living.
Also, if the third in rank in the cabinet, as Hishammuddin is, has to beg for projects for his own constituency in such a public manner months before Parliament is dissolved, it just shows that the government is dysfunctional.
The seat of Sembrong was created by the Election Commission in the 1993 redelineation and very much “designed” for Hishammuddin, who has held the seat since 1995. If Sembrong is in danger of falling, everywhere else is.
I spoke in Kota Tinggi that a change of government at the federal level would happen if Pakatan Harapan manages to win 10 seats each from Johor, Kedah and Sabah.
Both Sembrong and Kota Tinggi were not in my list of 10 seats that Pakatan Harapan deems it has a fighting chance to win. However, gauging from the positive responses in Kota Tinggi and the panicking psyche of Najib and his associates as revealed in the Sembrong event, Johor is probably the most important national battleground in the upcoming general election.
LIEW CHIN TONG is Kluang MP and Johor DAP chairperson