Johor all geared up for intense three-way contests

BN supporters out in full force in Yong Peng, Johor, yesterday.
BN supporters out in full force in Yong Peng, Johor, yesterday.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Opposition hoping to wrest control of state that is birthplace of Umno by fielding top guns

Their supporters made sure they were heard before the candidates were seen. The nomination centre for the parliamentary seat of Pulai across the Causeway was a sea of blue, red, green and a spot of purple as flag-waving supporters of Barisan Nasional (BN), Pakatan Harapan (PH), Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and an independent cheered their candidates on.

Similar enthusiasm was on display across the state, and country, as MP-hopefuls filed their papers.

Deputy Home Affairs Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed is eyeing a fourth term as MP for Pulai, which his father - former information minister Mohamed Rahmat - had represented for 25 years till 1999.

"I'm confident as I've been working the ground for the last five years. My only concern is the national issue... that 'elephant in the room'," Mr Nur Jazlan, 52, told The Sunday Times, referring to the scandal at state fund 1MDB that has made the headlines and become a campaign theme for the opposition.

He will have a rematch with Mr Salahuddin Ayub, 56, deputy president of Parti Amanah Negara, one of four parties under the PH opposition alliance. In 2013, both were in a straight fight for Pulai. Mr Nur Jazlan secured 52 per cent of the vote against Mr Salahuddin, who was then with Islamic party PAS.

Mr Salahuddin said: "I lost by 3,226 votes in GE2013 but in the last few months, I sense a change of mindset in Malay voters. In the past, I wasn't able to penetrate six or seven areas (in Pulai), but now they welcome me. This is a good sign."

But this time round, both men are joined by two others: cardiologist Mohd Mazri Yahya of PAS and surprise independent candidate Yap Keng Tak. Dr Mazri did not file his papers in person, as he was at the nomination centre for Simpang Jeram state seat, where Mr Salahuddin is also running.

Mr Yap, whose supporters wore purple, told The Sunday Times he was not against PH or BN. He said: "I will work for my constituents 24 hours a day if they vote for me. Just give me a chance."

Johor will be a key battleground state in Malaysia's general election on May 9 as the opposition has steadily amassed state seats here in the last three elections and has set its sights on capturing BN's prized jewel. PH has only 16 of the 56 state seats, but hopes its all-out effort to woo the Malay vote in the birthplace of Umno, by fielding top guns like former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, could also trigger a "Malay tsunami" in its favour across the country.

BN's charge in Johor is led by Menteri Besar Mohamed Khaled Nordin, who is upbeat about retaining the state where BN won 38 of the 56 state seats and 21 of the 26 parliamentary seats in 2013. However, several of these seats were won by slim margins, and PH is setting its sights on making gains in the southern state.

These include seats that BN won by larger margins, like Ayer Hitam, which will see two political heavyweights in battle. Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Wee Ka Siong, 49, deputy president of BN member Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), is eyeing a fourth term and is up against the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party's Liew Chin Tong, 40, its Johor chairman who has moved from neighbouring Kluang.

Both candidates were surrounded by supporters as they travelled from their local party offices to the nomination centre.

"I've been here three terms with a track record in my constituency," Mr Wee told The Sunday Times. "I'll let my constituents evaluate my performance for the past few terms."

He won the seat with a thumping majority of over 15,700 votes in 2004, which narrowed to a 7,310 majority in 2013 against PAS' token Chinese candidate Hu Pang Chaw.

Ayer Hitam is considered one of MCA's last remaining strongholds. Mr Wee is regarded by locals as a hands-on lawmaker. "We don't need seasonal politicians who only show up during election time," said BN supporter Yusof Dahlan, 80. "Wee is often here, he comes to the mosque and doesn't play favouritism."

Mr Liew has been dubbed "the giant slayer" after having defeated strong incumbents twice before. He hopes to tap unhappiness over bread-and-butter issues, saying: "It's a tough seat but the economy is the unifying factor here."

The duo have a third contestant to contend with - little-known PAS candidate Mardi Marwan.

But Mr Wee was confident as he exited the nomination centre.

"Our biggest hurdle now is the next 11 days," he said.

"The opposition is very aggressive… but we'll continue our agenda for Ayer Hitam to upgrade infrastructure and ensure it becomes an important tourist destination in the region."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 29, 2018, with the headline 'Johor all geared up for intense three-way contests'. Print Edition | Subscribe