The Asian Voice

The palace factor in Johor politics : Star columnist

In her commentary, the writer says the palace will have a strong role to play in who will be the state's next Mentri Besar.

There has been talk in the last few months that Johor will have a new Mentri Besar.

And no, the new man will not be from Pakatan Harapan despite all the hype that it will form the next state government.

The local political chatter is that Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin will be returning to the Federal Government because of "the palace factor".

There is also talk that the palace prefers Kota Tinggi Umno division chief Datuk Seri Daing A. Malek Daing A. Rahman, a multimillionaire and Sultan Ibrahim's personal friend.

The speculation intensified when news leaked that Khaled would defend his Kempas state seat as well as contest the Pasir Gudang parliamentary seat.

According to gossip in Johor political circles, it was Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's way of giving him a "soft landing" out of the top post.

But Khaled is likely to remain as Mentri Besar. The Prime Minister is satisfied with his performance, particularly given the way Johor Baru has transformed from an ordinary town to a boom city in the last six years or so.

The Forest City development has become a growth catalyst, and skyscrapers have gone up in the city centre. The creme de la creme is the Bukit Senyum tower that shoots up into the sky like a silver bolt of lightning. The locals claim it is so tall that its peak is draped in clouds on some days.

Khaled is quite reserved for a politician but he was in an ebullient mood at the launch of the Barisan Nasional machinery in Pasir Gudang, where he is the Umno division chief.

It was a sign that he was feeling quite confident about Johor as well as his own standing in the state.

The reason why he is contesting a parliamentary seat has also become clear. There were rumblings about the incumbent MP who has grown quite unpopular, and Khaled was urged to step in and secure the seat for Barisan.

But all that political chatter surrounding the Mentri Besar's post is a lesson for political parties in states where there is a Malay Ruler. Whoever wins, the candidate has to be agreeable to the palace.

This is particularly crucial in Johor where the Sultan has a larger-than-life presence. His personality looms over everything. He is seen as a shrewd businessman and even shrewder observer of politics.

Johoreans have wholeheartedly embraced the Bangsa Johor concept promoted by him.

"It gives them a sense of belonging and pride. The Sultan understands his state and his people. He has gone to every corner of the state to meet his subjects; he sits and eats with them," said political risk analyst Amir Fareed Rahim.

The Chinese, said Amir, loved it too because it meant people were not segregated into class or race. It also gave the Chinese a sense that as Johoreans, they were regarded as equals.

"The Sultan is concerned about stability. He does not want politics to affect religious tolerance in our state. He wants Johor to be harmonious and continue to grow," said Datuk Tey Kim Chai, president of the Tiong Hua Federation of Johor.

The Johor royal family, said writer and political commentator Eddin Khoo, had become a unifier for Johoreans.

Rightly or wrongly, the Sultan is seen as closer to the ruling coalition, especially Umno. A lot of it has to do with his criticism of Pakatan chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad over the past year.

He has made it quite clear that he has not forgiven Dr Mahathir for what he did to the Malay Rulers when he was the prime minister and that he does not agree with what the elder politician is doing.

He had also granted Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin an audience shortly after the latter was sacked from Umno, a move that sent shivers down the spine of party leaders.

Stories have also begun to trickle down about dialogues he has held with local groups, including government servants, and his advice to them in connection to the general election.

Sultan Ibrahim has taken decisive stands on religious issues where politicians have dithered such as the Muslim-only laundrette issue and more recently, a dispute involving a Hindu temple that was demolished by a developer.

A DAP politician had tried to get involved in the issue but the Sultan stepped in with funds for the temple to be rebuilt elsewhere and its committee said he had told them they would not find a better state government elsewhere.

"The Sultan is very influential although I am not sure about his effect on the casting of votes. He is not saying vote for this or that; he goes on issues and it's across the board.

"He has become the voice of the people's discontent with politics and politicians. He has called out politicians who made insensitive or stupid statements; he doesn't allow them to get away with it," said Khoo.

There is no denying, though, that many people see him as a key figure in the power play taking place in the state. In that sense, he is a factor to be considered by all sides.

On the other hand, Johoreans are mature enough to think for themselves and decide who they want to vote for. It is common to hear people say that their vote is a secret.

It is their way of saying that they have the right and power to vote as they wish.

Besides being an astute observer of politics, the Sultan understands public sentiments and he knows how not to overplay his hand.

The trouble is, no one is quite sure how the Sultan will play his hand on election night when the winning side names its Mentri Besar candidate.

The writer is a regular commentator on Malaysian political affairs. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.