Johor is known as the bastion of UMNO. This was where UMNO was founded and the party has always been in power there.
Within Johor, several places are considered as UMNO’s bastions within the bastion. All have a high percentage of Malay voters. Sembrong is an example. The current Member of Parliament for Sembrong is UMNO Vice President and Minister of Defence, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. This is probably one of the safest seats for UMNO in the country today. Hishammuddin won with a majority of more than 10,000 votes.
Another area that is also considered as an UMNO stronghold is Kota Tinggi, which is not very far from Sembrong. The current MP there is Datuk Noor Ehsanuddin Harun Narrashid, also from UMNO. He won very handsomely in the last general election, with a majority of almost 25,000 votes. That means UMNO’s majority in Kota Tinggi is more than twice that of Sembrong.
Last Saturday saw two giants coming to these two UMNO safe seats, each with a very different agenda.
Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak hosted a Raya open house in Sembrong. He was accompanied by other top UMNO leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Johor Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khalid Nordin, and of course Hishammuddin himself. The event was thronged with people from all over Johor, some of whom came with the free transportation that was provided for them.
At the event, Najib announced that the government will be building 1,000 affordable houses, 500 of which will be for second generation Felda settlers in the state. Najib is spot on with this announcement. Johoreans have been complaining about the affordability of houses in the state, and the recent case of corruption involving the state’s Housing and Local Government Committee chairman does not help Umno’s reputation among voters. By announcing the new housing scheme, Najib is telling Johoreans that he listens and he cares.
About one hour away in Kota Tinggi, Tun Mahathir Mohamad hosted another Raya open house for Pakatan Harapan. The speech delivered by Mahathir that evening was his first as the official chairman of the opposition block. Choosing UMNO’s bastion of Kota Tinggi to make this important speech is a major signal, implying his determination to make an impact not just in Kota Tinggi, but also in Johor as a whole.
When I heard that Mahathir will be in Kota Tinggi, I decided that I must see the event for myself. As I arrived at Kota Tinggi’s Dewan Chon Moi at around 5.30pm last Saturday, I initially thought I was at the wrong place. Since Mahathir is Chairman of Parti Pribumi Melayu Bersatu (PPBM), a Malay party, I was expecting to see a large number of Malays there. But when I arrived, I saw only Chinese uncles and aunties arranging the chairs.
It turns out that they are activists and helpers from DAP. One auntie who must be in her late sixties told me in broken Malay “Melayu jaga itu makanan mau halal punya. Lepas itu mau sembahyang Maghrib. Jadi kami Cina susun kerusi dulu lah.” (The Malays prepare and look after the food because the food must be halal. Then they want to pray Maghrib. So we Chinese do the chairs first.”)
By 8.00pm all 2,000 chairs were fully taken by the crowd from mixed ethnicities, and more were standing. The Malay participants I spoke to told me that they are from the nearby Felda settlements. They came because they have not heard Mahathir speak for many years and they felt he was being unfairly attacked by the current administration. Clearly Mahathir is still a crowd-puller, even in UMNO’s heartland, and despite the ongoing campaign against him. However, the actual result is still yet to be seen because the crowds at ceramahs do not always translate into votes.
When Mahathir stepped into the hall at around 8,15pm, the audience all rose to their feet to welcome him. It is difficult for me to describe the environment in the hall at that time. Even if you are not a fan of Mahathir, I am confident you will still be touched by how this 92-year old man was received. They gave him a standing ovation, and shouts of “Hidup Tun!” was everywhere to be heard.
Johor DAP state chairman, YB Liew Chin Tong, in his welcoming speech immediately compared their event to the one that was concurrently happening in Sembrong. He said that Pakatan and Mahathir came to Kota Tinggi where they are weakest, as a sign that they are on the offensive. But UMNO and Najib were in Sembrong where they are already strongest, suggesting that they are on the defensive.
Of course we must always take politicians’ speeches with a big pinch of salt. They have a habit of over-selling their strengths and downplaying their weaknesses. But looking at Mahathir’s determination last Saturday, I do think UMNO needs to quickly galvanise their efforts to counter the offensive. They certainly should not be complacent with the current situation.
First published for Thinking Liberally, The Star, 18 July 2017