'Serving the people is what I was born to do': Johor Crown Prince

An indoor astro turf pitch, part of the Johor Darul Takzim first team's new RM15 million training facility in Padang Seri Gelam. The facility is part of Tunku Ismail's plans to propel the team into the elite of Asian football. Tunku Ismail says footb
Tunku Ismail says football is a powerful tool that can unite "any religion, any race, even age group", and it gives his people "a chance to boast that they are Johoreans".ST PHOTOS: JAMIE KOH
An indoor astro turf pitch, part of the Johor Darul Takzim first team's new RM15 million training facility in Padang Seri Gelam. The facility is part of Tunku Ismail's plans to propel the team into the elite of Asian football. Tunku Ismail says footb
An indoor astro turf pitch, part of the Johor Darul Takzim first team's new RM15 million training facility in Padang Seri Gelam. The facility is part of Tunku Ismail's plans to propel the team into the elite of Asian football. ST PHOTOS: JAMIE KOH

Johor Crown Prince believes his football work can put his state on map and unite his people

On Oct 31 last year, hours before the biggest match in Johor Darul Takzim's (JDT) history, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, Crown Prince of Johor and chairman of the Malaysian football club, found himself on a hotel balcony in Buenos Aires at 5am. "I couldn't sleep. I started having tears in my eyes, I started getting very emotional," he told The Sunday Times.

"My wife asked, 'What's wrong with you?' I said, 'I feel very weird. I feel we're going to be the champions tomorrow.' It's like a fairy tale. I felt... we're going to win it."

The pre-dawn episode in Argentina, where he was at to take part in a polo tournament, proved prescient.

 
 

Hours later, JDT would beat Tajikistan's Istiklol 1-0 to win the 2015 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup, Asia's second-tier club competition. The win made JDT the first South-east Asian team to lift the title and confirmed their position as one of the region's rising powers.

Tunku Ismail, or Tunku Mahkota Johor (TMJ as he is known across the Causeway), said the AFC Cup win has been the highlight of his tenure. Understandable, considering he took over as chairman only in 2012, after football fans approached him at a hockey event and pleaded with him to "save Johor football".

A GALVANISING FORCE

Everywhere you go throughout the whole country now you see people with Johor colours. They're so proud about where they come from, with their rich history and heritage. I think I have orchestrated that through football.

TUNKU ISMAIL SULTAN IBRAHIM, on putting his state on the map through success in the game.


BEING REAL

My intention is not to make others look bad (but) to change what needs to be changed.

I want to be as real as possible, and be myself for one intention - to serve the people. I'd rather be hated for being real than be loved for being a hypocrite.

TUNKU ISMAIL, on criticising sports authorities and even the federal government.

''

Two successive Malaysian Super League titles in 2014 and 2015 are also in the trophy cabinet, a welcomed change since the club's last notable success was the 1991 league and Malaysia Cup double.

But it is not all about winning trophies, said the 31-year-old Crown Prince. He sees JDT as a tool to put his state prominently on the map and to also unite Johoreans.

"Football gives them a chance to boast that they are Johoreans. It's a very powerful tool, (able to unite) any religion, any race, even age group," said Tunku Ismail, the eldest of six children and currently acting as the Regent of Johor as his father, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, is in Canada on an official visit. "Today you can see that clearly. This is the only place where you have Malay, Indian and Chinese all together calling themselves bangsa Johor (people of Johor); you don't see that in any other place in Malaysia," said Tunku Ismail.

More than three years after taking over the club, the Manchester United fan feels football has galvanised his people.

"Everywhere you go throughout the whole country now you see people with Johor colours," he said in an interview last Wednesday. "They're so proud about where they come from, with their rich history and heritage. I think I have orchestrated that through football."

This, he said, is why he puts up with the opprobrium that comes his way with nearly every move he has plotted in the footballing arena.

After all, as the numerous posh cars and swanky boats that line the driveway of his villa at the Istana Bukit Pelangi suggest, he could easily have opted for an idyllic life outside of football.

Indeed, he said with disarming frankness: "With my position and what I have, I can be anywhere in the world right now. I can be in Cuba probably having fun. Just relax, being in Barbados. But (serving the people) is what I was born to do."

Dressed in jeans and a black polo T-shirt, his hair neatly gelled, Tunku Ismail wore a charming smile as he talked about football, clearly a passion of his. Yet, there are aspects of the game in Malaysia that he is disappointed with - namely the inability of fans and officials to see the big picture.

Among the accusations levelled at his project, which he addressed in a post on the JDT website: that he is killing Malaysian football by buying star players of other teams, that he bribes referees and that he likes to show off his wealth. Signings which have generated buzz include former Argentina international Pablo Aimar and Spanish striker and European Championship winner Daniel Guiza. JDT has also plundered rivals and signed Malaysian internationals Safiq Rahim and S. Kunanlan.

"This is where education and mentality come into place," he said when addressing his detractors. "Sadly, the education of my country is zero. If there is a white wall and a black dot, they don't see the white wall, they see the black dot. Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Germany, France, Qatar - all these countries see that I am doing well for football, but Malaysia thinks I'm killing football."

His fiery passion for the game has seen him criticise sports authorities and even the federal government on several occasions.

"My intention is not to make others look bad (but) to change what needs to be changed," he said. "I want to be as real as possible, and be myself for one intention - to serve the people. I'd rather be hated for being real than be loved for being a hypocrite."

He did not hold back when asked for his opinion of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).

"I think a lot of people are trying to cover up for FAM being responsible for (the decline) of national football... The problem is people in FAM don't care," he said.

He also had harsh words for the country's Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. After Malaysia fell to a historical low (174th) in the Fifa world rankings this month, the minister declared that he was not surprised, given the lack of quality in the national set-up.

Tunku Ismail, who served in the Indian armed forces as part of a family tradition and is a brigadier-general in the Johor Military Force, disagreed. "As a general, when you lose a war, you lose a war. Not your soldiers. I was born and raised to take responsibility and it's sad to see someone in that position pointing fingers and blaming others."

The turmoil in the sport's leadership, he said, is why he is not considering a role in the FAM. "We have ideas and opinions that have been put to them but at the end of the day, the horse has to drink the water," he said. "I cannot do anything to help them but what I can do is I can try to change what I can here."

Change is certainly sweeping through Johor football. A RM15 million (S$5.2 million) training facility for the JDT first team was opened recently, while a new 40,000-seater stadium will be built in Iskandar Puteri. That new stadium is part of the RM200 million JDT Sports City blueprint, which will include a hotel, shopping centre and apartments.

Partnerships with prominent European clubs Borussia Dortmund and Valencia have also been established, because he believes "when you run a country you need allies, (similarly) you need relationships in football clubs".

He likened his work in football to what his father is doing with the state. The Sultan has signed on big-name developers and thrust Johor into the luxury property market with projects like the RM4.5 billion Princess Cove and the mammoth RM100 billion Forest City.

While these properties are priced beyond the average Johorean's reach, Tunku Ismail said his father is giving RM500 million to the Sultan Ibrahim Foundation to build cheap housing for the people. "I have the drive to put JDT in the eyes of the world... He has the same vision for the state of Johor. So in terms of economy, development that is coming into Johor, whatever way that we can improve the well-being of people in Johor," he said.

He did not conceal his hope of being remembered as the man who revolutionised football in Johor, if not the country.

Comparing the Roman and Mongolian empires, he said: "People need to see something in front of their eyes to be reminded.

"Genghis Khan conquered (more territories) than the Roman Empire. No one remembers him but people remember the Roman Empire... That's exactly what I want to do. When people drive by, I want future generations (to) say this was during my time; (it's) what I have given to football of Johor."

SEE SPORT: Crown Prince eyes AC Milan

MORE ONLINE

Highlights of interview with Johor Crown Prince. http://str.sg/4ZsV
Tunku Ismail talks politics. http://str.sg/4Zsj

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline ''Serving the people is what I was born to do''. Print Edition | Subscribe