Malaysia election: Ex-DPM Muhyiddin banks on 40-year ties to win Pagoh for opposition

Former Umno leader Muhyiddin Yassin announced he will again defend his seat in Pagoh but under opposition pact Pakatan Harapan.
Former Umno leader Muhyiddin Yassin announced he will again defend his seat in Pagoh but under opposition pact Pakatan Harapan.ST PHOTO: TRINNA LEONG

PAGOH - Former deputy prime minister turned opposition leader Muhyiddin Yassin needs no introduction in the laid-back town of Pagoh in Malaysia's southern state of Johor. Having served here as lawmaker under ruling party Umno for seven terms, locals associate him with the agricultural town's development over the last two decades, centred around a 205ha education hub and an industrial park.

Unsurprisingly, the "orang kuat Pagoh" (Pagoh's strong man) drew a crowd of some 3,000 supporters to a packed field on Thursday night (April 19) where he announced he would defend his seat yet again, but this time under the opposition banner of Pakatan Harapan (PH).


Townsfolk of all races turned up, creating a 2km traffic jam in the town's dimly-lit main street.

"Johor has been called an Umno fortress," Tan Sri Muhyidin, 70, told the crowd in his home state. "But issues that caused people to suffer has made Johor no longer an Umno fortress."

Mr Muhyiddin first became MP for Pagoh in 1978, four decades ago. At the last election in 2013, he won Pagoh for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) by a whopping majority of 13,432 votes, and hopes to repeat his performance in the upcoming poll on May 9 despite having switched sides.

He was sacked from the Cabinet in 2015 after disagreements with Prime Minister Najib Razak over the fund misappropriation scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and later dismissed as Umno's deputy president.

Mr Muhyiddin moved on to form Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) with former premier Mahathir Mohamad in 2016. PPBM is now part of opposition pact PH.

"Because of Tan Sri, there are more job opportunities here," said Razak Ahmad, 39, who works in one of the dozens of factories in Pagoh Industrial Park.

The former Johor Menteri Besar is also responsible for a RM1 billion (S$337.2 million) education hub in Pagoh - the area's biggest development project to date that was slated to create 25,000 jobs. Currently, 5,000 students are enrolled at the four institutions of higher learning in the university town, with the figure expected to double by the end of this year.

Not to be outdone, Datuk Seri Najib has also touted continued development for Pagoh. On a visit in March, he highlighted that the Malaysia-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) link will go through the area, bringing with it significant economic benefits when it is completed in 2026.

While Pagoh has long been an Umno bastion, Mr Muhyiddin's departure from the party coupled with residents' unhappiness with rising costs of living has led to growing support for the opposition.


"There are mostly farmers here. Just making RM1,000 a month is a challenge," said Abu Hashim, 63, an army veteran turned grasscutter.

Many of the villagers The Straits Times spoke to were disgruntled with Mr Najib's administration, which they blamed for their financial woes. They cited the unpopular 6 per cent goods and services tax (GST) implemented in 2015, and complained that Mr Najib and his family seemed out of touch with the rural folk.

BN Pagoh division secretary Asrap Mokhtar conceded that the local people are less than warm towards Mr Najib, but stressed that BN's election campaign has focused on addressing their concerns on issues like GST and the 1MDB scandal.

"We campaign with the party's name, not an individual's name. Response has been good," Mr Asrap told The Straits Times.

Whether Mr Muhyiddin's popularity and voter discontent in this one town translates into a sea change in BN fortress Johor, however, remains to be seen.

BN holds a formidable lead, commanding 20 of the 26 parliamentary seats, and 37 of the 56 state assembly seats in Johor.

"(Muhyiddin) has name recognition among the Malay voters and a good understanding of the local Johor political landscape, much more than the parachuted-in candidates," said Amir Fareed Rahim, political analyst at KRA Group.

But it's a tall order to expect Mr Muhyiddin alone to ignite a wave of change among longstanding BN supporters in the state, he said.