Convicted Malaysian ex-premier Najib is main attraction of Johor campaign trail

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak speaks to a crowd of mainly Chinese voters during a rally at the town of Labis in Johor. ST PHOTO: RAM ANAND

JOHOR BARU - Despite multiple graft convictions, Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak has become the biggest crowd puller throughout the Johor election campaigning, as his Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) heads into Saturday's (March 12) crucial polls as a favourite to retain the state administration.

Najib's troubles with the law has become the rallying point for both opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and another former premier, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who are leading Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Perikatan Nasional (PN) respectively against BN.

Najib faces jail time if he is unable to overturn his graft convictions at Malaysia's highest court.

However, his promise of stability and continuity of administration should his party win is finding traction among many voters in Johor - the home state and bastion of Umno - who are still reeling from the economic fallout of a prolonged border closure with Singapore and the multiple lockdowns.

Najib's involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal almost single-handedly caused Umno to lose federal power in the 2018 elections. However, despite being subsequently charged and sentenced to 12 years' jail, his popularity has only increased in the past four years as a vocal critic of both the PH and PN federal administrations.

The message from Najib - who is on bail pending appeal against his convictions - and his Umno colleagues is a simple one: both PH and PN had their shot at being the ruling government over the past four years, and those unhappy with them should now return power to BN.

Najib, who goes by his "Bossku" (my boss) persona, has retained his loyal base within Umno despite losing the premiership and the party presidency in 2018. Although he is not contesting in Johor, he seems to be finding traction among Chinese voters, who almost entirely shunned his leadership at the last elections.

In the Chinese-majority semi-rural constituency of Labis - one of the BN strongholds that fell to PH in 2018 - scores of voters took turns to get a photo opportunity with Najib. They chanted "Bossku" and cheered at his narration of economic prosperity during his tenure as prime minister.

"If you like Bossku, vote for these BN candidates," Najib told the mainly Chinese voters during a rally at Labis.

Rallies have been allowed in Johor with a maximum cap of 100 people.

The crowds Najib attracts stand in contrast to low turnouts in many PH rallies. Their biggest crowd puller remains Datuk Seri Anwar, who has aspirations for the top office in the country. He spent the campaign reminding the voters of the corruption scandals that brought down the Najib regime, and how PH's ruling mandate was short-lived due to defections in early 2020.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim waving to the crowd in Ulu Tiram in Johor on March 6, 2022. PHOTO: BERNAMA

Mr Muhyiddin, who is a Johor native, has also been campaigning on good governance and anti-corruption, although PN is more focused on the rural and semi-rural heartland in north Johor that are generally Umno's bastion. 

But the anti-corruption platform is not finding as much resonance with voters, who are looking for jobs, economic growth and some form of stability in the state which had three Menteris Besar since 2018.

A Johor native, former Malaysian premier Muhyiddin Yassin has been campaigning on good governance and anti-corruption. PHOTO: OFFICE OF MUHYIDDIN YASSIN

Mr Lim Hee Yong, a 65-year-old tractor driver in Labis, told The Straits Times that while he was disillusioned with Malaysia and Johor's politics, he still believes Najib to be a better leader when compared to others who have come after him.

"Najib is actually good, the problem (with the scandals) was the people around him," said Mr Lim.

He was critical of fiscal policies during the PH and PN rule. "PH did not do anything here (after they won the seats). In fact, they did even worse than BN," he added.

The two state seats in Labis - Bekok and Tenang - were won by Mr Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), then a part of PH, and Democratic Action Party (DAP), in 2018. BN also lost the Labis parliamentary constituency that year, which was held for decades by its component, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). Najib has said he believes the Chinese vote is slowly returning to BN.

Former prime minister Najib Razak speaks to a crowd of voters during a rally at the town of Labis in Johor. PHOTO: RAM ANAND

Malay voter Kamal Abeen, a 38-year-old sundry shop owner in Johor Baru, also said current hardship faced by Johor voters meant that corruption is not as important as local issues.

"What's important is who can do a good job for the people. Who can help the less privileged among us. Many have become homeless. People who are doing agriculture in Johor are struggling," said Mr Kamal.

A total of 2.6 million people are eligible to vote on Saturday. A lower turnout has generally benefited incumbent governments, and both PN and PH leaders have admitted that a low turnout in Johor will benefit BN.

The voter turnout in both Melaka and Sarawak state elections late last year were poor - at 65 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.

Another factor working against the opposition parties is the highly polarised opposition electoral field. Several smaller but prominent parties are making their debuts in the Johor election. Among them are Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) and Parti Warisan.

Pejuang, led by Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is contesting 42 seats on its own. It believes a higher turnout is possible only if voters are presented with options other than BN, PH and PN, who have all held federal power previously.

"Because we are a new option, we hope that those on the fence may now feel motivated to vote and bring up the voter turnout percentage," said Pejuang president Mukhriz Mahathir on Thursday (March 10).

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