Mahathir, Muhyiddin and bringing it on in Johor

Their Parti Pribumi just turned one and faces tough fights to reel in Malay votes.

Mr Mahathir Mohamad (second, left), wife of jailed former Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Madam Wan Azizah (centre), and ousted former Malaysian deputy prime minister, Mr Muhyiddin Yassin (third, right) along with other oppostion leaders a
Mr Mahathir Mohamad (second, left), wife of jailed former Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Madam Wan Azizah (centre), and ousted former Malaysian deputy prime minister, Mr Muhyiddin Yassin (third, right) along with other oppostion leaders attend the media after submitted their forms to register the opposition coalition to the Registrar of Societies (ROS), on July 28, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

The Selangor Menteri Besar was waiting to pay his last respects to the late Sultan of Kedah when someone whispered to him that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in the other holding room in the Istana Anak Bukit.

Datuk Seri Azmin Ali made his way there because "I just wanted to say hello".

It was the first time the two had come face-to-face since that sharp retort from Mr Azmin a week earlier over Parti Keadilan Rakyat's (PKR) plan to engage Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) in the general election.

In a stern voice and with a stony face he had said: "I wish to remind Tun Dr Mahathir that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is not only the ketua umum (supreme leader) of PKR but also of Pakatan Harapan. He has the right to his views and proposals."

All eyes were on them as they stood making small talk at the royal funeral. Mr Azmin has made a seamless transition from fringe to centre and the only thing amiss about his appearance that day was that his black kain samping did not sport the white border that seemed to be part of the dress code for the men.

But the PKR deputy president was a no-show at Parti Pribumi's first anniversary in Bakri a few days earlier. The top guns of Amanah and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) were there but the PKR leaders were nowhere in sight.

Parti Pribumi put up a good show, turning the conference hall into a sea of red. The mood was upbeat and the signal is that they intend to play a leading role in Johor in the general election.

"We had some teething problems but after one year we felt the mood to face the general election," said Mr Faizal Azumu, the party's Perak chief.

Dr Mahathir was born to be on the big stage and he relished every bit of the spotlight and adulation. As Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali picked up a piece of the yellow pulut cake and made as if she could not decide whether to feed her husband or her son, Dr Mahathir playfully pushed her hand towards Datuk Seri Mukhriz.

The audience loved the antics of the party's first family but one could not help but read into the subtext - papa nudging mama to feed their son while Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin looked on from the side.


Mr Muhyiddin is the party president but everyone knows Dr Mahathir is the "top dog" both in Pakatan as well as Parti Pribumi. Mr Muhyiddin needs to get out of his second fiddle role given that his party is projecting itself as the new wadah or repository of votes in Johor.

He is the Pakatan's leading man in Johor. DAP has won all the Chinese-dominant seats there are to win in Johor and any further inroads depend on capturing the Malay seats.

The Pagoh MP has yet to indicate whether he will defend the seat or move on to contest in Muar, which has a bigger Chinese electorate. But running from Pagoh to a seat with more Chinese would make a mockery out of their claim of a Malay tsunami sweeping them to power.

Mr Muhyiddin has been quite a hit at DAP events in the smaller towns in Johor where many Chinese are getting a close-up look at the man who used to be their Menteri Besar. He has learnt to let it all hang out, he is less formal, he cracks jokes in colloquial Malay and explains that DAP leaders whom he used to regard as kooi (devils) are now his friends. He told the crowd at a coffee shop ceramah (political talk) that Mr Lim Kit Siang had come to his house for dinner the previous evening.

Once slammed by DAP for his "Malay first" label, he is now seen as Pakatan's passport to the Malay seats.

"Muhyiddin's survival hinges on his influence in Johor. If he cannot make an impact, then it's over," said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.

But, said Mr Khaw, the room for Mr Muhyiddin to manoeuvre in Johor is quite limited.

"The state is associated with a man seen as a future prime minister (Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein) and it is public knowledge that the Johor palace does not like Mahathir," said Mr Khaw.

Dr Mahathir is not an asset in Johor and Pakatan will have to ride mainly on Mr Muhyiddin to win the state.

There have also been growing calls for Dr Mahathir to contest the general election. His age does not seem to deter his supporters and he has played along, telling a news portal that Langkawi or Putrajaya would be his preferred choice.


Dr Mahathir's appeal is strongest in Kedah; his party will have the most traction there. He has a poor image in states like Sabah, Kelantan and Johor. But in Kedah, it is not Umno but PAS which is standing in his party's way. PAS has an established presence in the northern state.

"If he goes on quarrelling with PAS, he will only alienate them. PAS members have never liked him because he has been fighting with PAS all his life," said Datuk Wan Albakri Mohd Nor, an Umno politician from Terengganu.

Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man recently gave Dr Mahathir a shelling for dismissing PAS as a "spoiler" party. In an open letter, the PAS deputy president basically told the older man not to talk big because PAS has been fighting Umno longer than any other party and did not need a one-year-old party lecturing them on how to fight Umno.

PAS politician Mustafa Ali said there is absolutely no more cooperation or understanding with Parti Pribumi. It is for real and his party will take on Dr Mahathir's party in the general election.

Datuk Mustafa also claimed that Pakatan would not be able to defeat Barisan Nasional in the general election. His prediction is that Pakatan will win only 75 parliamentary seats in a best-case scenario and only 50 seats in a worst-case scenario. He said PAS could get 20 to 25 parliamentary seats while Amanah will not win a single seat.

There are 222 seats in Parliament and any side needs 112 seats for a razor-thin majority.

The two parties were sharing the same stage at ceramah just a few months ago but now they are trading insults. Parti Pribumi says that a vote for PAS is a vote for Umno. PAS returned fire saying a vote for Pakatan is a vote for DAP.

But how far really has Parti Pribumi come after one year? Have they got what it takes to give Umno a run for their money? Can their ceramah crowds translate into votes? What sort of inroads have they made into the Malay heartland where Umno and PAS hold sway?

Will they end up like Amanah which began with such high hopes but went downhill after failing in the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar by-elections? And given that the party is supposed to deliver the Malay votes, can they match Umno and PAS in reassuring the Malays about their concerns on Islam and Malay rights?

"It's pretty much an untested party. The hype about them is mainly because of the three Ms," said Mr Khaw.

For instance, not many people are aware that Parti Pribumi has not only been fishing for members from Umno but also from Perkasa.

The party's Penang chief Marzuki Yahya was the former Perkasa chairman for Penang. The Selangor Parti Pribumi chief Abu Bakar Yahaya was the former Perkasa chief in the state. Kedah deputy chief Mejar Annuar Abdul Hamid was also a former Perkasa leader.

The biggest name from Perkasa to join Parti Pribumi was Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, who is now a party vice-president. Pakatan's condemnation of Perkasa's right-wing Malay politics is now a thing of the past.

But there was an overwhelming number of Malays in their 30s and 40s at the party's anniversary gathering and that is a good sign even if their chairman is old enough to be their great-grandfather.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2017, with the headline 'Mahathir, Muhyiddin and bringing it on in Johor'. Subscribe