Muhyiddin banks on 40-year ties to win Johor town for opposition

Former Malaysian deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on Thursday in the town of Pagoh in Johor that he will defend his seat there, but under the opposition's banner. Having served there as Umno lawmaker for seven terms, locals associate him w
Former Malaysian deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on Thursday in the town of Pagoh in Johor that he will defend his seat there, but under the opposition's banner. Having served there as Umno lawmaker for seven terms, locals associate him with the town's development.ST PHOTO: TRINNA LEONG

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 on a 205ha education hub and an industrial park.

Unsurprisingly the "orang kuat Pagoh" (Pagoh's strong man) drew a packed field of some 3,000 supporters on Thursday night, when 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 on the town's dimly lit main street.

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

Mr Muhyiddin first became MP for Pagoh in 1978, four decades ago. At the last elections 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 polls 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 (Muhyiddin), there are more job opportunities here," said Mr Razak Ahmad, 39, who works in one of the dozens of factories in Pagoh's industrial park.

UMNO FORTRESS NO MORE?

Johor has been called an Umno fortress.

But issues that caused people to suffer have made Johor no longer an Umno fortress.

TAN SRI MUHYIDDIN YASSIN

The former Johor menteri besar is also responsible for a RM1 billion (S$337 million) education hub in Pagoh - the area's biggest development project to date, which was slated to create 25,000 jobs. Currently, 5,000 students are enrolled at the four institutions of higher learning in the university town.

Datuk Seri Najib has also touted continued development for Pagoh. On a visit last month, he highlighted that the Malaysia-Singapore High Speed Rail 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 over rising costs, has led to growing support for the opposition. "There are mostly farmers here. Just making RM1,000 a month is a challenge," said Mr 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 seemed out of touch with rural folk.

BN's Pagoh division secretary Asrap Mokhtar conceded that locals are less than warm towards Mr Najib, but stressed that BN's election campaign has focused on addressing their concerns over issues like the 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 translate into a sea change in the BN fortress of 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," said KRA Group's political analyst Amir Fareed Rahim.

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

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2018, with the headline 'Muhyiddin banks on 40-year ties to win Johor town for opposition'. Print Edition | Subscribe