Johor shows the way forward

Returningto its roots by serving all Malaysians, Umno in its founding state is reaching out to all groupings and communities with the 2012 general election in mind.

WHAT is so exceptional about Umno in Johor that it remains such a stronghold for the party? A good number of national leaders have come from the state, and it will almost certainly be heavily represented in the party polls in March.

The state party has, of course, it’s own ‘dynasties’, but surely that’s not the only thing that prevented it from falling like so many other Umno bastions in the last general election.

Let’s set aside the fact that the party was founded in Johor Baru for one moment – there are in fact subtle differences between the party’s relative strength in the different states, reflecting underlying socio-economic trends.

Political culture: Pulai Umno division delegates casting their votes during the division meeting last month. A key factor in Johor is human capital. Elsewhere in the country, bright, professional Malays have steered clear of the party. Johor is different. Johor still glitters with Umno’s former glory.

Indeed, the story of its survival down south holds lessons that can, if nurtured, be duplicated nationwide.

The depth and breadth of leadership in the southern state is indicative of Johor’s more positive political culture.

There is, for instance, Halimah Mohd Siddique, a hard-working, racially-inclusive and engaging MP. The only thing that has kept her from the front benches is the fact that talent is in abundance in Johor. The same could be said of the independent-minded accountant and Pulai MP Nurjazlan Mohd.

Maverick-turned-party statesman Shahrir Samad sees history and the grooming of talent as key factors. To him, Umno’s dominance in the state is part of a tradition that links him back to the era of Datuk Onn Jaafar, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman and Tun Musa Hitam (Shahrir was himself a protege of the former Deputy prime minister).

To these leaders – who happen to be among the very best that the state has offered to the nation – values remain central. Shahrir sums it up neatly: “We lead, so we have to be responsible.”

An emerging Umno leader, Razali Ibrahim, the MP from Muar (known to be close to Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, also from Johor) states: “Umno in Johor is as much a way of life. We’ve retained our culture – the zapin and the marhaban – and translated this into something where our culture and Islam are integral.”

In terms of race relations, the state’s administration – unlike, say, in the Klang Valley – has always sought to be even-handed, even cautious.

Abdul Ghani Othman, the Menteri Besar, states: “We avoid unnecessary abuses that would make the leadership unpopular. We also make allocations for temples. I give land for churches. It is only fair to do such things because we are also giving to the mosques and religious schools.

“Administration is about fairness. When you get this right, you can deepen and strengthen the state’s racial integration and social cohesion.”

One gets a sense that race-relations, and therefore relations between Barisan Nasional components in Johor, are more stable due to the long-standing ties that exist between the various stakeholders in the state.

This is compared to states such as Selangor where inward migration from Kelantan and elsewhere in the country has altered the social fabric irrevocably.

The anonymity and the constant flux of Selangor’s faceless suburbs has meant that such communities lack the leadership, cohesion and stability enjoyed by Johor.

They are also very difficult to administer. Indeed, Umno’s failure to adapt to the changing needs of urban and suburban Malays – both poor and middle class – has led to the party’s defeat along the west coast.

More importantly, Umno leaders from Johor are comfortable interacting in multi-racial situations.

It is true that they, too, have had their hiccups. But one gets the sense that genuine ties exist among the various Barisan state leaders, and that they will avoid the baiting and mutual sabotage that have bedevilled the coalition elsewhere.

However, it would be a mistake to think that Umno is impregnable in Johor, and this was shown in the last election. Still, the party has benefited from the state’s relative demographic stability compared with states such as Selangor, where population growth rates have shot through the roof.

There is also a possibility that Umno’s comfortable position in Johor will lead to complacency, even parochialism, which as well all know is downright dangerous.

This means that the Johorean model may not prove to be applicable amid the complexities of the Klang Valley or even east Malaysia (which has better race relations anyway), except insofar as decency and fairness in terms of administering between the ethnic groups.

Having said that, Johor still has the capacity to surprise. Last weekend while driving around Johor Baru with Shahrir’s newly appointed political secretary Mohd Ali Salleh, I realised that I was witnessing signs of the party’s renewal.

For a start, Mohd Ali, a forty-two year old architect hand-picked by Shahrir, had been told not to get involved in the Umno polls. That was non-negotiable. Describing himself as a “non-politician” he explained that his boss had tasked him to network with the local NGOs.

“I have to meet all the mosque and surau committees, all the Parent Teacher Associations, sports and recreational groupings, not to mention all the work-related associations, such as for taxi drivers, factory workers and the like,” he said.

“I have to do this across the board – Chinese, Indian and Malay. I meet them, identify the key players, establish contact, assess their needs and see how we can help. In turn, we are hoping to engage with them and prove to them our value and worth.

“We’re being pro-active. We’ve got the 2012 election in our sights. We want to use this network of NGOs as an alternative basis for registering voters and campaigning.”

As I listened to him explain the strategy, I realised that what he was describing was in fact a response to the failure of the ‘cawangan’ (or branch) system with its 40 Umno members supposedly ready to campaign and vote – the much feared party machinery.

Over the past two decades, as Umno activists had become obsessed with chasing for positions within the party and lucrative government contracts, the fabled election machinery had broken down. In fact it was almost totally gutted.

Smart leaders like Shahrir have seen that the only way forward for Umno is to reach out to the NGO movement and other community associations. Shahrir understands that ‘building bridges’, servicing voters and proving their worth – in short, good old fashioned constituency work – will in turn create the goodwill necessary for victory.

In Johor, Umno is in the midst of returning to its roots by serving all Malaysians. Rhetoric and party-politicking aside,the real business of governance is rolling on.

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