A new Malay protector? PN nips at Umno’s heels


All eyes are on the outcome of the Johor polls today – with Umno/BN expecting victory. From the onset, this was their election to lose, and they have been going all out to secure a decisive victory.

During the last few hours of the campaign, money was going down, aiming both to secure (and, on the part of Perikatan Nasional, thwart) a coveted two-thirds BN/Umno outcome, a return to hegemony.

Going into the election Umno/BN had considerable advantages – their party machinery, long history of party dominance in the state and campaign resources. They also had an oiled and seasoned multi-ethnic coalition which allowed them to extend across communities and a flush state budget that assured a core base through local patronage and financial support.

Increasingly, Bersatu-led Perikatan Nasional (PN) worked to challenge these advantages. Their campaign aimed to undercut Umno’s role as the protector of the Malays, not to just discredit the leadership of Umno’s criminally convicted personalities.

PN will fall short, but it has made gains on the ground, not least of which is an increasing challenge for Umno among Malays.

Rising PN challenge

Umno’s traditional advantages are strong, but not as strong as the past. The party is much weaker than it was. Compared to the Malacca polls, Umno’s machinery was more uneven in Johor, and noticeably, Johor Umno leaders were not prominent in the state campaign, with the exception of caretaker Menteri Besar and state Umno chief Hasni Mohammad.

Hasni’s consultative leadership was a plus going into the campaign, although his meme-worthy Umno-Singapore campaign remark has not been well received outside of the traditional party faithful. Post-Najib Razak, views of Umno no longer contain the sycophantism of the past.

Importantly, in this campaign, the biggest challenge has come from PN, which has openly challenged Umno leadership, especially among Johor Malays. In the campaign, they have dented Umno’s resource advantage with funds of their own. As the campaign unfolded – with prominent visits from Najib-on-high, the appeal of PN gained momentum, especially among younger Malay voters and those concerned with recently announced development projects, such as the Muar port.

PN’s traction has been significant on the ground, but whether it translates into seats is less clear. In Malacca, PN’s gains took from Harapan. This may also happen in Johor, depending on the Chinese turnout and patterns of support. PN lacks strong cross-ethnic appeal and its partner PAS does not win for the coalition any considerable support in Johor, with only a few significant branches across the state. PAS’ campaign in Johor has been much weaker, poorly coordinated by the Kedah chief minister, Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor.

In Johor, as in Malacca, there is a need to win across communities, and PN does not have strong support among Chinese and Indian voters. Gerakan just does not pull large support. Umno (now effectively abandoning its party flag for the campaign) ironically needs BN to shore up its victory, with MIC and MCA now more important for the coalition as a whole.

Umno/BN’s budget advantage

In this context, the core base of Umno/BN is crucial. This is something that is not developed during a campaign but before it. Loyalties are put in place through long-standing relationships at the local level, where the state government is seen as providing needed assistance. This is especially salient during the economic downturn. In this regard, a key tool for shoring up political support is the budget.

There are four states in the country that have sizeable state budgets – Sarawak, Selangor, Penang and Johor. The impact of Sarawak’s multi-billion pre-election state spending was evident in the decisive state results last December. From Sarawak TV to targeted programmes, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) was able to engage directly with voters and showcase their governance to their advantage.

The same dynamic is at play in Johor. In November last year, Hasni’s Umno-led government tabled and passed a budget of close to RM2 billion, of which RM870 million was development expenditure. This excludes additional federal allocations. Two areas anchor political support in the state budget, funds to support the economy, and social assistance.

An important positive national development during Covid has been increased funds for social assistance on the part of state governments. In the last Johor budget, the state government introduced RM21.4 million of programmes for basic necessities and economic assistance, as detailed (above). These programmes may seem to be overall minimal spending, but for those needing this assistance, they can be life-changing. They impact families, not just individuals.

Many recipients continue to see these programmes as ‘given’ to them by the government of the day, rather than as part of governance, and, as such, they should reward those who provide them. Many of these same networks are tapped during the campaign to distribute the assistance as voting incentives.

The economic assistance for the Johor government is even larger. Beyond spending on infrastructure, it included three initiatives – Johor Niaga supporting entrepreneurs at RM32.4 million, Johor Digital at RM21.5 million and Johor Tani at RM18.9 million.

Many of these initiatives involve funds locally, such as programmes for agro-entrepreneurs at RM2.1 million, RM2.7 million for e-hailing food and taxi drivers, RM1.7 million internet packages for students and more. These needed programmes play a vital role in supporting the state economy, but they also have spillover benefits in enhancing political support.

Regularly, on the ground, voters speak about the state assistance they receive. Unlike in the Sabah polls where the failed delivery of assistance worked against Warisan, in Johor, the effectiveness of the state government – and the Johor state government is one of the best in the country in terms of governance – strengthens the incumbent of the day.

Importantly, PN’s campaign challenged this dimension as well. Their focus on ‘Prihatin’ assistance, with posters citing larger figures, aimed to undercut this incumbent advantage to claim the ‘protector’ label from Umno. For many now PN supporters, they give PN rather than Umno credit for assistance.

The results will likely reveal the changing support patterns and their implications.

As in Malacca, PN continued to be the most impactful opposition force on the ground, especially in the Malay community.


First published on malaysiakini.com