Updated 16 April 2013, 11am
THE Nut Graph speaks to political scientist Wong Chin Huat on the exciting contest in Johor this coming general election. Will the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) make significant inroads in this Barisan Nasional (BN) bastion? Or is the BN support in Johor just too strong to overcome?
TNG: What accounts for the BN’s strong support in Johor?
Johor’s colonial history is unique compared with other Malay states. Thanks to Sultan Abu Bakar’s modernisation and diplomacy, Johor managed to delay British “protection” till as late as 1915 and, hence, maintained more autonomy. One outcome of that is a competent and confident Malay aristocratic-administrative elite. Umno’s founder and first president, Datuk Onn Jaafar, is from Johor, making Johor the party’s birthplace and creating a special bond between the two.
Additionally, the influx of Chinese immigrants was engineered by Sultan Abu Bakar and his father, Temenggung Ibrahim, rather than the British. This resulted in close ties between the Malay feudal class and the Chinese capitalists, which partially translated into an Umno-MCA bond in modern politics. While there were incidents where Chinese Malaysian cultural heritage or religious freedom were allegedly suppressed, Johor MCA generally delivered what the community expected. Like Johor Umno, Johor MCA is strong within the party. So far, four out of nine MCA presidents have been elected as parliamentarians in Johor: Tan Sri Lee San Choon, Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik, Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting and Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek.
Johor BN’s strength comes from both a strong state Umno and state MCA, resulting in a balance of power. But Johor BN also benefited from the “exit” strategy adopted by many Chinese Johoreans. While Chinese Malaysians elsewhere may translate their disaffection with the Umno/BN hegemony into a vote for the opposition, many Chinese Johoreans simply disengage by migrating to Singapore, physically or mentally. Political conservatism – arguably a disguise for apathy – hence made an easy claim to Chinese politics in the peninsula’s southernmost state.
What are the DAP’s chances of improving their performance in Johor? If so, why will it be different this time?
The DAP’s chance is tremendous as they are counting on the Chinese Johoreans “catching up” in terms of voting the opposition. When their ethnic cousins in Sarawak did that in 2011, BN component party SUPP was almost wiped out. It won only six out of 19 state seats, with only two Chinese candidates surviving the onslaught. In comparison, the party won five out of six parliamentary seats in 2008.
Out of 56 state seats in Johor, 33 or 59% have an electorate that is at least one-third ethnic Chinese. The same goes for 17 or 65% out of the 26 parliamentary seats there. Assuming the same turnout rates across voters of different ethnicity, and Chinese Johorean support for the PR at 80%, all the PR needs to win these seats is 35% support among the non-Chinese Malaysians comprising the Malays, Indians and everyone else. If the Chinese Johorean support for the PR goes up to 85%, then the required non-Chinese support drops correspondingly to 32.5%.
The DAP will only contest in six federal seats and at most 15 state seats, with the rest going to PAS and PKR. So a stronger Chinese swing towards the PR would also benefit Malay-Muslim candidates from PAS and PKR. This would include PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub, who is tipped to be the menteri besar (MB) should the PR take Johor.
It is quite likely. Abdul Ghani is sure to leave his MB-ship as he has reportedly fallen out of favour with both the palace and ordinary Malay Johoreans who suffer rising living costs thanks to the Iskandar Malaysia project. The project has benefited mainly Singaporeans, other foreigners and the Malaysian upper-middle class rather than ordinary Malay Malaysians. According to The Malaysian Insider, Umno doesn’t want to risk an unpopular MB being rejected by the Malay Johorean electorate, as was the case in 1999 with Terengganu MB Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Ahmad, who was MB for 25 years.
Unless he retires, which appears unlikely, having Ghani defend Gelang Patah is good for both Umno and the MCA, whatever the outcome. Ghani losing to Kit Siang in a mixed seat with a Chinese majority will mean neither Umno nor the MCA was rejected by the ethnic community they claim to represent.
If the 33.7% Malay electorate in Gelang Patah does not solidly rally behind Ghani due to the reasons stated above, Ghani will have to rely on heavy support from the so-called CIMB (Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh) community. He is likely to lose after putting up a good fight.
MCA president Chua has dismissed challenges for him to stand against Kit Siang. What are the MCA’s chances of defending their parliamentary seats against the DAP in Johor?
Chua will not contest anywhere anyway, so that his past will not make him a lightning rod. The problem is that other MCA leaders may not do better even without scandals. At the end of the day, the utility of the Chinese voting the MCA hinges on the certainty of Umno’s dominance. The MCA’s primary role is preventing Umno’s ethno-nationalist advance to ensure that so-called Chinese interests are not sacrificed. But if Umno is merely an option, and not a given, the MCA’s usefulness becomes diminished.
I predict that the DAP will garner at least 80% to 85% support [updated: amongst Chinese Malaysians] in most of the seats they contest. A comparable point of reference would be the 86% Chinese-majority constituency of Seputeh in Kuala Lumpur, where the DAP’s Teresa Kok won 81% of total votes in 2008. The wind in the south is much stronger today.
The MCA’s best chance lies in Tanjong Piai and Labis, where Chinese Malaysians constitute 46.5% of the electorate. If Chinese support for the PR is 80%, the MCA will need to keep non-Chinese support for the PR below 24%. I doubt that the support for the DAP even among Malay Malaysians can be so low. The MCA’s survival hence may really hinge on CIMB voters.
Is this strategy of targeting Johor for a “tsunami from the south” a sound one for the PR’s Putrajaya bid? If Kit Siang loses, what will that signify?
I think Kit Siang, Salahuddin and Liew Chin Tong contesting in the south is a brilliant strategy. If Johor ceases to be a BN bastion, even without falling straight away, then the PR is likely to do better elsewhere, and may win some 90 to 100 seats in the peninsula alone. This will seal their conquest of Putrajaya as the traditional political elites of East Malaysia actually act like vassal lords to Kuala Lumpur. They will not sink with Umno but would rather jump ship immediately to the PR.
Kit Siang’s loss is highly unlikely looking at the passion his campaign has triggered and the advantage he enjoys from the demographic composition. If he loses, it would mean either massive fraud or that vote-buying through government handouts has really worked. What is more interesting is, can Kit Siang win substantial Malay votes against Ghani?
Can the changing sentiment in Johor towards the BN be indicative of a greater shift away from the BN across the country?
Very much so. The result will signify two interesting possible trends.
The first is the nationalisation of Chinese politics – in the past, Chinese Malaysians in Sarawak, Johor, Pahang and at times, Penang, supported the BN through SUPP, the MCA and Gerakan because of so-called communal representation. Often Chinese voters voted for the opposition at the federal level to check on Umno, but for the BN at the state level as a form of insurance for communal representation.
In 2008, Chinese Penangites went all out for the opposition. Chinese Sarawakians played catch-up in 2011. A disastrous MCA defeat in Johor and Pahang would mean the completion of this nationalisation of Chinese politics. In Johor, this shift is national in another sense – disaffected Chinese are switching from “exit” (to Singapore) to “voice” (in Malaysia).
The second possible trend is the desertion of Umno by Malay voters on socioeconomic grounds. This has happened before in Penang and Singapore, where Gerakan and PAP defeated Umno in Malay constituencies.
If Kit Siang can win substantial support from the Malay electorate to defeat Ghani, it would be a strong nail in the coffin of ethnic politics. It does not mean that Malay voters – much like others – are becoming disinterested with their cultural identity or economic interests. But it means the articulation of ethnic interests – which could be defined more by class or geography – can be separated from the ethnicity of the articulator. One need not be Malay to defend the Malays. That would be an important step away from sectarian politics.
Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and was a journalism lecturer prior to joining the Penang Institute, a Penang government think tank. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected]
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