JOHOR BARU - With just days to go until the Johor state election, Malaysia's politicians are ramping up campaigning to overcome voter apathy that led to low turnouts at recent polls in Melaka and Sarawak.
In the urban seat of Larkin on Wednesday (March 9), where the once-bustling bus terminal used to send off thousands of Johor workers across the Causeway to Singapore daily, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi urged voters to give a strong mandate for the Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance after years of political instability both nationally and in the state.
"To ensure there is stability in the government, give us a major victory with a two-thirds majority", he said, while flaying the track record of rival coalitions Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Perikatan Nasional.
Political parties have been allowed to hold election rallies, or ceramah, with a cap on attendance at 100 people. But in Larkin, even the presence of Zahid, a former deputy prime minister albeit with dozens of graft charges laid against him, did not fill the seats. Most of the attendees were BN supporters clad in party uniforms, instead of residents from the surrounding low-cost flats of Pangsapuri Larkin.
"I feel the environment is quite gloomy and subdued for this election. You can see, even among the people putting up flags, there is no enthusiasm," said 38-year-old sundry shop owner Kamal Abeen, who listened to Zahid's speech from several feet away while tending to his customers. Mr Kamal said the credibility of elected representatives are also seen as lacking.
"A lot of times, we are not even sure if we will see the candidates after an election. Now we see them only because of the elections," he added.
Other Johor voters The Straits Times spoke to were more concerned about economic hardship. They are also disillusioned with the power tussles in the state, which has seen a revolving door of three different chief ministers, or menteri besar, in less than four years.
A voter from Skudai constituency, who wanted to be known only as Ms Suba, said she was unsure if she would vote this Saturday.
"I feel generally, people are tired and fed up with politics in the entire country, not just Johor. I am no longer interested in voting, especially after all the party defections," Ms Suba, a 38-year-old marketing executive who lives in Johor Baru, told ST. She had voted in all three elections since 2008.
Prolonged border closures and repeat lockdowns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as rising living costs, have rendered some parts of Johor - once thriving with tourism and foreign investment- a shadow of its former self.
Safety inspector Daniel Matthew, 35, said the mood in this election was much more muted compared with the 2018 polls, with there being a deficit of trust in many parties.
"In 2018, there was a sense of euphoria. But now, there are just unfulfilled promises," said Mr Daniel, who is from Kota Iskandar.
In the 2018 General Election, the PH pact led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad swept to victory, ending the Umno-led BN's six-decade grip on power, not only in Malaysia but also in Johor, the home state and bastion of Umno.
The Johor PH government saw a change in leadership less than a year into its rule, as Datuk Osman Sapian was replaced as menteri besar by his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia colleague Sahruddin Jamal.
After the federal PH government collapsed in February 2020 due to defections, the Johor PH government followed suit and was swiftly replaced by an Umno-led administration with the current Menteri Besar Hasni Mohammad.
The death of Datuk Osman - who had allied with the Umno-led administration - late last year meant that the state government was left with a single-seat majority, which motivated incumbent Datuk Hasni to trigger a state election.
In the Melaka and Sarawak polls last year, the record low turnouts - 65 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively - worked in favour of the incumbent state governments.
Johor Umno deputy chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed believes the lack of enthusiasm among some voters might be a positive indication for his party.
"Many people may have already made up their minds about who they are going to vote for and are happy with the leadership of (Chief Minister) Hasni," he told ST.
Other parties say jaded voters could present an opportunity for them to garner supporters.
Parti Warisan chief Shafie Apdal, whose East Malaysia-based party is making its electoral debut in Johor, said: "People are looking for an alternative option (rather than established parties)."
Other newcomers are the youth-based Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, led by former Cabinet minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, and Dr Mahathir's Parti Pejuang Tanah Air.
First-time voters could also add a degree of uncertainty to the outcome. Johor will be the first to hold elections since a new law lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years old came into effect, with new voters making up some 175,000 out of 2.6 million voters on the electoral roll.
Nevertheless, bread-and-butter issues remain at the forefront.
Mr Ain Ibrahim, 33, who works in Singapore as an inspector in an oil and gas firm, said Johor businesses that used to serve Singaporean travellers have passed on the high costs to local consumers. He is unlikely to return to Tiram to vote as he is struggling to secure a bus ticket via the vaccinated travel lane.
Ms Suba said: "Everything is more expensive. From cinema tickets to purchasing a house. Food cost is high compared with other states."
The opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is part of PH, said a change of government could mean better economic policies for the state.
"We hope the voters eventually realise the importance of this state election to their lives and livelihoods," DAP Johor chief Liew Chin Tong told ST.