‘Blue Battle’ in rural Johor

Among the many electoral fights in Johor is a contest over the rural areas.

There are two areas where the rural battle is most intense. The first is in the ‘Blue Belt’, which stretches from Pengerang through Kota Tinggi to Mersing. This area refers to the Umno/BN control over the east coast of Johor, where the party has won consistently when in other regions of the state – notably the ‘wild west’ and southern core – have they have experienced losses.

The second area is in the ‘rebel north’ stretching from Batu Pahat through Muar and Ledang to Segamat. The latter is the area where the president of Perikatan Nasional (PN) and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin is based, an area that secured Pakatan Harapan-Bersatu-linked victories in 2018.

Importantly, it is also the area where Umno was born, in the district of Batu Pahat but near to the town of Senggarang, with a tradition of taking anti-establishment political positions.

Felda battleground

Rural areas in Johor comprise 29 percent of overall polling stations. Voting in rural areas can shape the outcome of nearly half of the seats, given patterns of delineation. While containing a few (charming) towns, most of these areas are dominated by Felda/Felcra estates producing palm oil.

There is a total of 72 Felda settlements located in 20 of the 56 state constituencies in Johor, with a cumulative population of around 180,000, excluding those who have ties to Felda communities and moved away. With family connections, the Felda settlers easily involve ties to over half a million voters.

No coalition can win a majority of seats in Johor without securing at least a few seats in this rural heartland. Harapan’s 2018 win, for example, came in part from winning seats like Gambir and Bukit Permai.

The rural battle is largely between two ‘blue’ parties Umno (using the BN symbol for their campaign as they did from Sabah) and Bersatu this state election, with PKR, Pejuang and Muda contesting in these seats. This campaign has been heated – arguably the ‘hottest’ battle of the Johor campaign. Muhyiddin and Bersatu are resting their political fortunes on retaining/securing rural seats, with Umno aiming to wipe out the party and, in realising this ‘old’ dream, secure a return to dominance.

Taking credit and sharing blame

Three main issues have been prominent in the ‘blue battle’: delivery of promises to address outstanding concerns, palm oil prices and, more broadly, contested ideas of representation.

Few may recall that in GE14, Felda’s protests and concerns had emerged around that campaign. They involved disgruntlement with the privatised listing of FGV Holdings in 2015 by the Najib Abdul Razak government, seen as selling Felda land and making settlers even more vulnerable to market forces, and concerns with conditions in the estates and livelihoods, especially for second-generation Felda settlers and their families.

These issues underscored a decline of support nationally in Felda areas, estimated by Yu Leng Khor and Jeamme Chia in their 2020 research (published in Round Table) to lead to the loss of 27 out of 53 Felda seats nationally.

Among the most important Felda areas nationally is Johor, where the fight for support from Felda settlers continues in the state election.

In the current 2022 campaign, Muhyiddin has stressed his strong record of addressing concerns of Felda settlers when he was in government – including a re-acquisition of an over-80 percent stake in FGV Holdings portrayed as a re-investment in Felda, a massive relief package of RM8.6billion of debts of Felda settlers and provision of at least 8,000 affordable houses for second-generation settlers in Johor alone.

These measures began during the Harapan government as part of the promise of their manifesto, but Muhyiddin is taking the credit for their delivery for Bersatu as they were largely implemented during his tenure in government.

The salience of Bersatu’s messages has evoked responses by Umno/BN, with the caretaker government with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yakoob at his side, announcing 3,200 lots for housing for the second generation and the availability of 14,500 more lots this week.

Comparatively, Umno is on the back foot in delivering for Felda settlers. It has not done much while leading government recently since last year and its pre-2018 track record was severely marred over recent decades. The concentration of poverty, estimated by the Department of Statistics last year at six percent for Johor, and lack of social mobility is still in Felda areas.

There has also been debate over the management of palm oil prices. Currently, the global price of palm oil has reached over RM6,000/tonne, doubling from RM3,000/tonne last June.

The primary drivers of prices are global events, weather conditions and overseas markets, most recently affected by the war in Ukraine. Local conditions such as availability of (largely migrant) labour for the plantations during Covid-19 affecting supply and bilateral agreements impacting the availability of markets are important but less so.

Umno/BN has tried to take credit for the higher prices, with one candidate, MCA’s Lee Ting Han contesting in Paloh, going as far as blaming Harapan for the low prices during their 22-month tenure. This continues a spat between MCA Wee Ka Siong and DAP’s Teresa Kok over palm oil prices earlier this year on the eve of polls being called.

While politicians bicker among themselves and unrealistically try to simplify blame and credit, on the ground that there is noticeable relief for higher prices, especially among smallholders after a difficult period (further compounded by the Covid-19 contraction of the economy locally). The end result is that Harapan is now comparatively weaker in Felda areas than they were in GE14 when they were able to channel resentments toward Umno.

Now, the blue parties of Umno and Bersatu are vying over who is the better representative for Felda settlers.

Umno/BN lauded its fielding of children of Felda settlers in the campaign, including Muszaidi Makmor in Sedili, Norliza Noh in Johor Lama, Fauziah Misri in Penawar, Anuar Abd Manap in Pemanis and Mutalif Rahim in Layang Layang.

Bersatu has similarly responded in kind, touting their own representatives with Felda roots.

Prominent among them is Tosrin Jarvanthi, incumbent for Bukit Permai, and at 71, the oldest candidate contesting. Other parties such as Pejuang and Muda have also stressed their Felda ties and activism. The latter has fielded local activist Azrol Rahani in Bukit Permai, for example, bucking the impression that Muda is only contesting in urban areas.

The representation battle extends beyond candidates to a Felda standoff between the president of Bersatu, Muhyiddin, and Umno. Bersatu is openly challenging the notion that Umno represents Felda settlers, and, by extension, Malays. Quietly, Umno’s legitimacy as representing the Malay community is under assault.

The response from Umno has been to woo over (encourage frogging of) Bersatu representatives, such as yesterday’s announcement of former Mersing Bersatu chief that he is quitting Bersatu (surrounded by senior court-cluster Umno leaders). Rather than signal a sign of strength, it is one of Umno’s weaknesses. Umno’s ‘Blue Belt’ is under siege.

Felda electoral decline

The erosion of support for Umno in rural areas has also been ongoing for some time, with the results most apparent in GE14. The excellent 2020 research by Yu Leng Khor & Jeamme Chia, tracing both Felda areas and nearby kampungs, found that support dropped 18 percent in Johor.

My own study looking at Johor Felda polling station data found similar findings. Harapan gained the most, increasing its support by an estimated 11 percent, with PAS winning an estimated seven percent.

My further research looking into voting patterns by age in Felda areas found that the shift was disproportionately among younger voters, from 40 below, the second generation of Felda settlers that Bersatu is aiming to win over.

In 2018, over a quarter of younger Felda settler voters were estimated to change their political loyalties away from Umno. Harapan/PKR would like to retain the share of younger voters in the Felda area, but this is being challenged by Bersatu and, to a lesser extent, PAS.

The battle in Felda areas is most concentrated around younger voters, reinforcing the broader point of my earlier piece that the Johor election is a youth election.

Voters in the Felda areas are keenly aware that they are being wooed. Some are awaiting the rain of resources coming down in the last week of the campaign. Others have made up their mind, either resting on old loyalties or adopting new ties. From Endau to Bukit Permai, the ‘blue battle’ is on; it remains to be seen which of the parties will have the most blue (and blues) when results are counted.


First published on malaysiakini.com