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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

The tide moves south and east


By Ooi Kee Beng

Cover story in Penang Monthly, (published as “Much at stake over BN’s Johor fortress, in The Straits Times, 13 April 2013)

WHEN an army becomes restless, the general must fly into decisive action to signal that the waiting is over, and that battle plans are in place.

Wearied by months, if not years, of waiting for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to dissolve Parliament and call for elections, impatience had been setting in on both sides of the political divide.

This was more obvious in opposition ranks, for they had to watch and wait while Mr Najib announced and implemented a series of expensive populist instant measures designed to tempt fence-sitters.

Unavoidably, some bickering was bound to set in within the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat, and serious cracks in the ranks began showing.

Democratic Action Party (DAP) Johor state head Boo Cheng Hau voiced his suspicion that party ally PKR’s state head Chua Jui Meng was behind anonymous attacks on the DAP. This soon took the form of jostling over which party and which candidate was to contest in Gelang Patah.

This was probably the trigger that decided DAP leader Lim Kit Siang’s mind to contest in his home state of Johor, the seat that Chua is known to have been seeking to run for.

The problem for Mr Chua is that despite being head of PKR Johor, he lacks support within the party or the PR coalition, being a relatively new member. He was a transport minister under the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional but defected from BN partner Malaysian Chinese Association in 2009 after two failed attempts to become MCA president.

The 72-year-old Mr Lim had been unwilling for many months to agree to a move away from Ipoh Timor – his present seat in Perak state – to his home state of Johor. This seemed partly due to family concerns about his health.

His move has certainly strengthened his party’s position in Johor. In the process, it ended the squabble over which member of the PR coalition would contest Johor and has energised opposition supporters significantly. The move is consistent with Mr Lim’s long political career as he had given up safe seats to contest in strategically more important but less predictable seats before.

A major tenet in the ancient Chinese war classic, Sunzi Bingfa (Sun Tzu’s Art of War), is that one should choose the battleground, and let the enemy react. Gaining the initiative is the key to a successful campaign.

The ruling BN should hold the upper hand given its incumbent control of election timing which allows it to time its own vote-getting measures. But it has lost that initiative through Lim’s move.

The depth of BN’s anxiety can be seen in the actions of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the United Malays National Organisation’s long-term and most effective strategist.

The 87-year-old former prime minister, who seems intent on leading the BN campaign whether the present prime minister likes it or not, has taken to attacking his long-term opponent fervently, calling on Johoreans to end Mr Lim’s long political career; and threatening the country once more with the scenario that a victory for the DAP’s Mr Lim would “bring about conflict and antagonism between the races”.

Mr Lim’s decision to raise the stakes by moving to Johor brings into focus some trends pushing Malaysia towards a new political order.

Johor has not only been a fixed deposit state for the Barisan Nasional’s two major parties, Umno and the MCA. It is also the state whose political structure influenced much of the country’s political structure.This is the state where Umno started and where its coalition partner MCA has had its strongest support; and where many in the country’s first Cabinet came from. The active and innovative political consciousness and acumen of its elite were responsible for the founding of Umno, which has contributed to today’s brand of Malay politics.

The coming elections will pose a fundamental challenge to the BN model of coalition politics with Malay-based Umno and Chinese-based MCA as key partners. For one thing, MCA’s position as the party representing the Chinese vote bank is under full frontal attack from the DAP.

The DAP has already won hugely in the northern urban areas in 2008, reaching as much support as the Chinese population there could realistically give it.

The Sarawak state elections of 2011 saw it gaining more ground in urban seats there as well. The decision to assail the Umno-MCA fortress is therefore a predictable and potent stratagem.

Though Johor is not likely to fall to the Pakatan Rakyat, the MCA will most likely be taking quite a beating in its strongest state, and may nationally be reduced to irrelevance.

Already, MCA president Chua Soi Lek has demonstrated a remarkable lack of confidence by announcing that he will not be contesting at all. Some of the party’s traditional seats throughout the country are being “loaned” to its allies in the BN.

Malaysia has to be ruled by a coalition representing all major ethnic groups, and the coalition that fails to project that image cannot be stable. For Umno and its allies, a new formula will have to be found even if they get the majority of seats.

If the MCA loses most of its parliamentary seats in the coming elections – it has 13 in Johor and across the country – then BN will be without proper Chinese representation.

Much is at stake in Johor.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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