THE DANGER ZONE IN JOHOR – CAN UMNO-BN HOLD ONTO IT?

THE ground has been rather too quiet for comfort.

People are less keen to voice their political views as opposed to four or five years ago. Back then, people would share their political opinion without being asked and even force it on you.

The mood is no longer like a volcano about to erupt and political fatigue has been blamed for it.

“It is like something under the water. It is there but it is not clear,” said MCA’s Bakri deputy chairman Datuk Chris Lee.

But quiet is not always a good sign and no one can say for sure whether the subdued ground favours this or that side of the political divide.

That is the situation along the western belt of Johor, covering some seven parliamentary seats and 17 state seats. It stretches from Segamat and Sikijang at the northernmost part, down through Ledang, Pagoh, Bakri and Muar to Batu Pahat.

This stretch is what Johor Barisan Nasional politicians privately call the “danger zone” and which Pakatan has labelled as the Achilles Heel of the ruling coalition.

The west coast belt is like a necklace of small and medium-sized satellite towns where a string of seats with a sizeable Chinese population fell to DAP in 2013. PAS also made inroads in the area thanks to the Chinese tsunami.

DAP’s Johor chief and Kluang MP Liew Chin Tong has been vocal and confident that Pakatan will capture Johor. He is the sort of politician who wants to give a more Malaysian flavour to DAP.

With Lim Kit Siang suffering from cancer, Liew will emerge as DAP’s key leader in the south and he will be calling the shots. Liew is also the prolific author of articles arguing why Johor will fall.

The trouble is that his arguments tend to be based on “ifs” – Johor will fall if there is a 15% vote swing. It is like Barisan claiming that it can win Penang if Pakatan loses another 11 state seats. It is not an analytical prediction but a wish list premised on “ifs”.

Analysts and also surveys done have reached a different conclusion from Liew. They say that Johor will not fall to Pakatan Harapan.

The state Barisan has also conducted its own independent survey and it is confident of holding on to Johor but things are far from perfect. It is not 100% sure that more seats will not slip to the opposition.

Their concern is not about the Chinese vote because they believe that DAP has maxed out on Chinese support in the state. Barisan’s worry is the Malay vote because of Parti Pribumi, the new Umno splinter party.

There has been so much hype over the party headed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. But it is still very much a new unknown that has not been tested in an election.

The party is going through the honeymoon period that Amanah experienced after it was formed three years ago until it was tested and failed in the two by-elections.

“Mahathir’s party is an alignment of strong personalities, you can’t take it lightly. It will be a Malay fight this time. You can see it among the young Malays, they want a change,” said Lee who runs the biggest law firm in Muar.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is Pakatan’s anchor figure along this belt. There was speculation that he would contest in neighbouring Muar where he has an extensive family network but party sources confirm that the former Deputy Prime Minister will be staying put in Pagoh.

Gelang Patah was the headline news in 2013 but the spotlight has swung to Pagoh which will occupy centrestage in Johor this general election.

Parti Pribumi will be riding on the Chinese vote but the big question is to what extent it can cannibalise the Umno vote. It may not get enough Malay votes to win in a Malay seat but it can be the spoiler that delivers the seat to PAS.

As such, seats like Segamat, Muar and Ledang which were won with a majority of less than 2,000 votes may be in danger. All it takes is a shift of some 1,000 votes or so for the seats to fall.

That is the role Pakatan wants Parti Pribumi to play in Johor –bringing in that additional handful of votes to tilt the balance.

Labis, which Barisan won by only 353 votes, looks even more dicey. DAP is contesting the seat and it wants to bring down Labis MP and MCA vice-president Chua Tee Yong before he can rise further and become a threat.

DAP had initially wanted to contest in Ayer Hitam where MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong is the MP. The DAP strategy is that to kill off the party, you need to chop off the heads of the generals. But Ayer Hitam is a Malay-majority seat and DAP has been pressured to give the seat to Amanah to contest.

Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS Wan Saiful Wan Jan, in a survey paper on Parti Pribumi’s impact in Johor, pointed out that the party has succeeded in drawing support from the below-35 age group, a cohort that is somewhat disenchanted with Umno.

But the survey also found that Parti Pribumi is struggling with support among Johor Malay voters, especially the womenfolk. According to the survey, Umno commands 67% of Malay support, followed by PAS with 48%.

Only 21% of Malays favour Parti Pribumi, 13% are all right with Amanah and a mere 5% favour DAP.

It is quite shocking that 85% of Malays in the state are suspicious of DAP. DAP has become the stumbling block for Pakatan in Johor where Malays are concerned.

Up to 62% of Malays believe that Pakatan is controlled by DAP and 71% regard DAP as anti-Malay and anti-Islam.

Johor Malays have often been seen as modern and progressive but some things remain constant. For instance. Wan Saiful’s study found that 90% of his Malay respondents are for greater religiosity, 84% favour more Malays in the Government and 81% think that the religion of a candidate is important. And there you have it – identity politics still rules in Johor.

There is also one of those supreme ironies at play here. For years, DAP has demonised Umno as racist and corrupt among its Chinese base while Umno and, of late, PAS has painted DAP as anti-Malay and anti-Islam.

All that slandering has come home to roost in this southern state.

However, Umno politicians like Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed have been working closely with Chinese guilds, associations and temples.

“Among all the Umno leaders, he is closest to us. He always starts his speeches speaking some Chinese, he likes to say his grandmother is Teochew and he also looks Chinese when he wears a red Batik shirt,” said Datuk Seri Tey Kim Chai, the Tiong Hua Federation of Johor Baru president.

Nur Jazlan, whose mother is Chinese, makes it a point to attend any event of Teochew groups and if he cannot attend the endless rounds of Chinese association dinners, he sends his assistant.

“The Chinese realise now that they cannot change the Government without significant Malay support. The young people in Batu Pahat are still not with BN but I can also see that their intensity for Pakatan is not the same as before,” said former minister Tan Sri Dr Chua Soi Lek whose political career began in Batu Pahat.

Dr Chua said the opposition will still do well but predicted that DAP would not be able to hold on to all their seats in Johor. However, he was unable to name the seats of danger for DAP.

Some of the Chinese politicians in the state have noticed that even the Chinese associations are rather quiet compared to the run-up to the 2013 polls.

A number of these senior community leaders apparently think it is a mistake for Pakatan to work with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. But is that going to affect their vote?

“Politics is difficult to predict. All I can say is that Chinese voters are more mature now and the candidate will be an important factor,” said Tey.

The last two general elections have been crushing for the Chinese parties in Barisan. This time around, it is as though they are starting from scratch, trying to rise from the ashes so to speak.

Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin is making his second round of constituency visits and will be visiting constituencies in the “danger zone”.

Johor is not an easy state to govern. The state has a Sultan with a big personality and strong views on how he wants to see the state develop.

Khaled has managed to work with the palace and he has guided his party through the political rumbles caused by the sacking of Muhyiddin.

A few months ago, there was talk that the Sultan was considering Datuk Seri Daing A. Malek Daing A. Rahman, the Kota Tinggi Umno chief, for the Mentri Besar post. But it turned out to be mere rumours and Daing had personally met Khaled to deny it.

Khaled’s problem is not about warding off potential challenges to his office. He not only needs to hold on to Johor, he needs to do better than in 2013. To accomplish that, he needs to neutralise the “danger zone”.

– ANN

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