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Why it's a high-stakes battle for Fortress Johor

The state's historic status and Umno's loosening grip make it a big prize in the coming GE

Will the opposition capture Fortress Johor?

As political parties gear up noisily for Malaysia's 14th general election (GE14), Johor is one state to watch for a variety of reasons.

It is economically vital, with large manufacturing operations, a growing number of healthcare and education facilities, and a substantial number of prestige projects such as Iskandar Malaysia and the Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex.

Johor is also very important for historical reasons. The United Malays National Organisation (Umno) - Barisan Nasional's (BN) primus inter pares component party - is deeply and inextricably linked to the state. It was founded in Johor in 1946, and the state has produced a disproportionate number of senior political figures and Cabinet ministers. Should it fall, the ruling coalition's hold on power could be seriously compromised, and incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak placed under additional pressure.

Up until 2013, Johoreans overwhelmingly voted for BN, with the coalition regularly winning all of the state's 26 parliamentary seats and at least 90 per cent of state seats. A number of national and local-level factors account for this extraordinary electoral performance. Johor is quite an ethnically diverse state, with Malays comprising 60 per cent, Chinese 33 per cent and Indians 7 per cent of voters, respectively. Thus, the state is fertile terrain for the coalitional politics that BN excels at.


By bringing parties from the country's different ethnic groups into one coalition, BN can usually field candidates from a target constituency's predominant ethnic group. Voters from other ethnic groups will also support the BN candidate, reasoning that their communities' interests are still represented within the grouping.

This strategy's effectiveness is amplified by two aspects of Malaysia's political system. The country's first-past-the-post electoral system means that even modest levels of support can translate into crushing parliamentary and state majorities. And, malapportionment has created a substantial number of sparsely populated rural, largely Malay constituencies as well as a smaller number of large urban multi-ethnic seats. This benefits Umno, much of whose support base is in rural and Malay-majority areas.

In the 2013 elections, support for Barisan Nasional fell to 54.9 per cent, down from 65 per cent in 2008. And while GE14 may see lower levels of support for BN than in the past, its fortress in Johor is likely to hold - for now, says the writer. ST FILE PHOTO

Yet, because these dynamics operate in all parts of the country, they can only partly explain BN's dominance in Johor. This is because BN's performance in the state is higher and more consistent than anywhere else in the country. Therefore, at least part of the explanation must be found at the local level. Three aspects stand out.

First, Umno's birth and early development in Johor meant that it contributed a disproportionate number of the party's founders who, in turn, became independence leaders of then Malaya. They include Hussein Onn, Abdul Rahman Yassin, Mohamed Noah bin Omar and Ismail Abdul Rahman.

More than elsewhere, Umno in Johor is associated with a tradition of state-building and public service, enabling it to attract more supporters and entailing more competition for political positions. At an estimated 400,000, Umno Johor's membership base is said to be largest of all states.


Second, the high level of control exercised by Johor's sultans on religion has meant an environment that is not hospitable for Umno's traditional rival for Malay voters, the Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

Johor's traditional rulers were among Malaya's first to claim their prerogatives over religion and the religious bureaucracy, which they zealously defended during the colonial period. This influence remains today, through the Sultan's authority to: appoint the mufti and leaders of the religious bureaucracy; oversee the religious police; and license preachers active in the state.

Thus, the type of Islam practised in Johor and its close identification with the state authorities have prevented PAS from making inroads. The Islamist party has contested in Johor since 1959, without a single success until 2004. That year, PAS fielded candidates for 36 state seats, winning only one - on a technicality.

Third, Malaysia's large-scale rural development scheme, Felda, was implemented on a massive scale in Johor. The state received the second-largest number of settlers in the country. The overwhelming majority were from Johor itself, as opposed to other states.

The state government leveraged its connections to Felda through two of its chairmen - Johoreans Taib Andak and Musa Hitam - and was able to house the settlers in record time. Due to its close involvement with the scheme, Umno has come to be associated with Felda's achievements.

These settlers and their families, housed in 11 largely rural sparsely populated parliamentary constituencies, are a bastion of support for Umno today.


Despite these structural advantages, however, BN is looking vulnerable in Johor.

In the 2013 elections, support for the ruling coalition fell to 54.9 per cent, down from 65 per cent in 2008. Indeed, every parliamentary constituency and 55 out of 56 state seats registered a decline in support relative to the previous elections.

Five large urban parliamentary constituencies fell to the opposition, which also won 18 state seats. Nine parliamentary seats were retained by BN with majorities under 55 per cent.

The momentum for change could be bolstered by the birth of two new political parties, Parti Amanah Negara and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).

Due to their Islamic and ethnic focus respectively, these organisations constitute new rivals for the Malay vote. PPBM, in particular, is well-positioned in Johor as its president Muhyiddin Yassin served as menteri besar of the state from 1986-1995. In 2016, the Umno state assemblyman for Jorak crossed the floor to join PPBM, causing BN to lose its two-thirds majority in the state assembly for the first time.

Also, recent survey data indicates that support for BN in Johor is far from rock-solid. A survey commissioned by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of 1,000 Johorean voters in May last year revealed that 34 per cent of those polled indicated they would vote for BN, 45 per cent did not know or were not willing to respond, and 10 supported an opposition party or the Pakatan Harapan coalition.


A survey of 1,000 more voters in different parts of Johor found support levels for BN were particularly low in the southern and north-west regions.

However, more specific questions to respondents about the other parties showed that this vulnerability does not automatically translate into support for Pakatan Harapan, the reconfigured opposition alliance.

Relative to BN, all other parties showed lower levels of support and higher levels of negative ratings. Pakatan Harapan received positive ratings from only 19 per cent, and negative ratings from almost 50 per cent of respondents.

Of key interest, the two new parties received low levels of support, most notably among Malay voters and respondents living in rural areas. Only 21 per cent of Malay respondents surveyed had a positive opinion of PPBM while 60 per cent had a negative opinion.

The survey data thus indicates that while the majority of Johoreans are not committed BN voters, they have yet to be convinced by Pakatan Harapan in general or either of the two new parties in particular.

In addition, because of BN's support base and the way state seats are drawn, the ruling coalition has an unassailable grip on 26 out of the 37 constituencies it holds. Consequently, it could lose eight more seats and still retain a majority in the state legislative assembly.

Parliamentary and state constituencies are being redrawn, and the changes are likely to be approved when the Lower House sits next month. The alterations affect 11 parliamentary and 34 state seats, and seem designed to consolidate BN's hold over narrowly won seats or tip the balance in those lost by a small margin - further complicating Pakatan Harapan's hopes of securing a majority.

Consequently, while GE14 may see lower levels of support for BN than in the past, its fortress in Johor is likely to hold - for now.

• The writer is senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia and regional economic studies programmes at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2018, with the headline Why it's a high-stakes battle for Fortress Johor. Subscribe