JOHOR BARU, April 22 — While Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders on their campaign trail have been feted like rock stars in the Chinese-majority areas across Johor, the muted response from the Malay-dominant neighbourhoods shows the opposition has a long and uphill road to victory in the May 5 polls.
Several PR leaders have acknowledged so.
“I’m seeing positive signs but Ghani still has the advantage,” DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang told The Malaysian Insider last night after wrapping up a night ceramah in Pulai Perdana, a fringe Malay residential neighbourhood chock-a-block with car service workshops.
The 72-year-old Gelang Patah MP candidate is up against four-term Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman in the parliamentary constituency where Chinese make up 52 per cent, while Malays and Indians account for 34 per cent and 12 per cent of the registered voters there.
Another DAP hopeful, newcomer Wong Shu Qi, shared similar sentiments with The Malaysian Insider when speaking about her Senai state seat.
“So far we have a very good response from the Chinese community,” the journalist-turned-politician said in a phone interview.
She said while the party had managed to sway Chinese support towards PR, it had a tougher time to convince Malay voters that PR’s policies were better, even in suburban areas like Senai and Kulai that are also part of Iskandar, Malaysia’s southern economic corridor.
The Iskandar region, which had already brought in investments worth over RM100 billion since it came into the picture in 2006, is seen as a key driver of Johor’s economy but has also been blamed for pushing up the cost of living in the state lying north of Singapore.
“We do need more time to make the Malay voters more familiar with us,” Wong said, claiming that many Malay voters have been “cornered by Umno into a very small area like Felda and they can only watch TV3”.
Unlike some states to the north, the opposition parties have been repeatedly thwarted from gaining more than a toehold in Malaysia’s southernmost state.
Political observers have said that Johor’s resistance towards PAS and PKR was largely historical. Malaysia’s southernmost state had been used to running things its own way for a long time as it was among the last to be incorporated into colonial British rule.
It had built up a strong religious wall that did not give room for PR’s Islamist partner, PAS, to grow since Johor’s Islamic schools are well-funded and are state-run. In addition, PAS was seen as a northern influence, Ibrahim Suffian who is executive director of independent research house Merdeka Center, had said.
“The Malay parties in the opposition have a tougher time trying to get support from the Malay community in Johor, so Kit Siang’s presence in southern Johor especially has tilted the situation,” Ibrahim had told The Malaysian Insider on Nomination Day, at the start of the formal campaigning period for Election 2013.
But in the five years since Election 2008, a perceptible change has been felt in Johor.
In Pulai Perdana, some 100 people turned up to hear Lim speak, a distant cry from the thousands that thronged the open air carpark of Sutera Mall — a boulevard filled with shops that stay open till after midnight and a popular hangout with south Johor Chinese — just two nights ago.
Despite the locale, the audience seemed evenly distributed among Malays, Chinese and also Indians and looked to consist largely of working adults on the older side of their 30s and upwards.
The Malays there who spoke to The Malaysian Insider said they were tired of the same old politics in BN-run Johor and were willing to give PR a chance.
“We want change, want new people... we want it to be like Singapore, where people that can give good ideas rule,” said a tudung-clad Malay woman in her 30s.
The woman, who declined to be identified as she was an undergraduate and said her family were stout Umno supporters, said she believed PR had a fighting chance as the Malays too were willing to give the other side a chance.
When pointed out that there did not seem to be many Malays present at the nightly ceramahs, and that Abdul Ghani, Lim’s rival for Gelang Patah, appeared to enjoy widespread support on his rounds in the Malay areas, the woman claimed her community was disinclined to be committal to questions from outsiders.
“Itu kata mulut saje,” she said, using the Malay phrase meaning “lip service”.
Pulai Perdana resident Mohd Ridwan Talib said a key issue in Johor is the sky-high prices of property in the state, a point the PAS speakers had latched onto in their speeches before Lim took to the stage.
He said there should not be “selective development” in Johor, pointing out that homes in Nusa Jaya, one of the gateways to the Iskandar region, cost RM3 million and upwards and were beyond the affordability of regular working Joes.
PR has been relying on Lim to drive the opposition’s charge into Johor’s Malay heartland and has been selling his “new politics” of multiracialism to draw the younger generation to his camp.
“If we love the country, it’s not possible that we fight for only one race.
“We fight for all races, all religions in Malaysia,” the multi-lingual seasoned politician told his Malay, Chinese and Indian audience last night, switching effortlessly from Malay to Mandarin and English to convey the same message.
Rumbles of discontent made their presence felt even in the southern state’s Malay heartland in the state capital, Kampung Melayu Majidee, where PKR’s candidate for the Johor Baru federal seat, retired Gen Md Hashim Hussein, pleaded for their support.
Several residents there claimed the BN incumbent Tan Sri Shahrir Samad did not spend enough time here, signalling that they wanted a representative to be closer to their grounds than one who spent his time in the national capital in Kuala Lumpur.
“Shahrir is too busy outside of this area, his time with the residents is quite limited. We try to give opportunities to those that are bersemangat (spirited),” said Anggerik Abidin, a 41-year-old who said he had been a member of the Johor Baru Umno division executive committee from 2004 to 2008.
Anggerik said he would choose Johor-born Hashim as he believed the ex-military man would continue to serve the country.