Prising Johor’s fortress
The biggest takeaway from the 2013 election is that Barisan Nasional no longer has any more fortresses or fixed deposits. Pakatan Rakyat’s breakthrough in Johor signals the beginning of the end for the BN model of politics and economics. If Pakatan is able to capture Johor, then taking federal power will be possible. In order to successfully replace the BN model in Johor, we must present our own credible new discourse of PR’s approach towards politics and economics.
Johor is a shining example of the BN model. Since Independence, the Alliance model has cultivated a ruling class from all races. Post 1970s, the survival of the BN model depended on UMNO obtaining above 60% of the Malay vote, and – before 2008 – BN obtaining at least 40% of the Chinese vote.
After the 2003 constituency re-delineation exercise, most Johor Parliamentary seats are now multiracial. Out of the 26 Parliamentary seats, there are 18 with less than 60% Malay voters or above 40% non Malay voters.
BN had learnt their lesson from the 1999 election scenario where UMNO lost Malay support but BN gained Chinese support. Hence the need to hedge their bets by creating more constituencies with diverse ethnic population. Ironically in 2008 the losses suffered by BN in the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia were all from ethnically mixed constituencies.
In early 2013, I raised the theory of a “chain reaction” or domino effect. I pointed out BN’s weak spots in Johor – that 18 mixed-race constituencies were prime targets to fall, 13 of which Pakatan had better chances in.
We only managed to win 5 parliamentary seats but it was an improvement from the sole seat won in 2008. In fact, eight seats were won marginally by BN: Segamat, Sekijang, Labis, Ledang, Muar, Tebrau, Pasir Gudang, and Pulai.
BN is in a precarious situation, gaining less than 60% of the Malay vote, less than 20% of the Chinese vote and less than half of the Indian vote.
UMNO’s current approach of race-based politics and extremist political logic is unlikely to win many non-Malays back to the fold. UMNO’s biggest challenge is to win the votes of the non-elite Malay and the working class. Increasingly, the party is being perceived as a mutual benefit club for the political elite and crony class. It is seen to be far removed from the daily lives of blue collar citizens, even oppressing their survival.
We can foresee two trends in the future composition of voters.
Firstly, as many as six million new voters could be added to the mix in future elections. According to the statistics, Malaysia’s voters exceeded 10 million in 2008. By 2013, we hit over 16 million citizens aged 21 and above, with a total of over 13 million voters. Every year at least 500,000 people come of age. In addition to those who are eligible but have not registered as voters, the total could exceed 6 million.
Secondly, Malays make up over two thirds of the newly registered voters. Having more Malay voters present a headache for UMNO and BN. The greater the population of non-elite Malays grows, the more job opportunities and social mechanism are needed, and the more voices of dissent will be heard.
Pakatan’s challenge is to ride the wave of dissent while resentment against the government is high, to convince the ordinary Malays that Pakatan’s policies will look after their well-being. We must find ways to assist the largely Malay-dominated semi-urban labour intensive industry without neglecting the largely non-Malay Small and Medium Industries (SMEs).
In the new economic landscape, we must come to terms with the expectations and aspirations of Malaysians working in Singapore, particularly the majority Johor-born cohort. Let us look at five major areas in Johor.
Firstly, if 2008 was a non-Malay tsunami and 2013 was an urban tsunami, can the coming election be a semi-urban tsunami? Some believe that in 2013 Pakatan lost because it did not have the rural vote. I beg to differ. The rural heartland has always been the battleground of UMNO and PAS. Pakatan’s narrowly lost seats were mostly semi urban Parliament seats, this is especially true in Johor.
Secondly, in the 2013 election, Pakatan made gains in urban constituencies of Southern Johor following the successful battle for Gelang Patah. In the coming election, the real battle for Johor will be in its central and northern region. If Pakatan can cast a new vision for satellite towns and villages, if inter-city connectivity is improved through bettering our railway and transport services, this will determine how it fares in the semi-urban areas.
Thirdly, the Federal government and Johor state government only focus on the Iskandar Development regions and the property sector. The central and northern regions of Johor are left out in this respect. The hot property boom runs the danger of trapping itself in a bubble. Despite the focus on real estate development, many ordinary Johoreans are unable to afford the properties mushrooming right before their eyes.
Fourthly, agriculture and farming is a mainstay in the sprawling, land-rich state of Johor. Pakatan must also give thought to upgrading the agriculture and farming industries. The price of palm oil affects rural smallholders, it is more likely to drop than rise in the next two years. Unfortunately for BN, palm oil prices are somewhat of a political bellweather.
Fifthly, 2013 most of the middle class across all races supported Pakatan, but there is room to grow its Malay support among the middle to working class, particularly in the semi-urban areas. Pakatan must strive to understand and find economic solutions for the middle to working class.
The greater vision for the longer haul is to assist the non-Malay dominated SME sector to grow and transform, decrease our over-reliance on foreign labor, provide skills upgrading for the domestic labor market, and strive to create a virtuous cycle of “high skills – high productivity -high wages” in our labor force.
Post-GE13 politics requires a more comprehensive understanding of our economic discourse, we must look beyond the status quo to envision new challenges and opportunities. Johor now finds herself at the frontlines of a political battle like never before, and to go the distance, we need to rethink and strategise comprehensively, covering all angles.