As Najib seeks re-election, Johor may no longer be the jewel in the crown

PARIT RAJA: A few days before he triggered the countdown to an election last week, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak headed to the state of Johor with a pocketful of promises: a railway revamp, the widening of a jam-plagued expressway and a new sports stadium.
The coalition government led by Najib’s United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled the Southeast Asian nation since its independence in 1957, is widely expected to return to power in the election that will be held in the coming weeks.
But UMNO is feeling the heat of an offensive by opponents in Johor, and the prime minister – having survived a long-running financial scandal – could be severely weakened if the government wins fewer than half of the state’s 26 parliamentary seats.
“If control of Johor slips into (opposition) hands it would damage Najib’s political power and credibility within UMNO after the election,” said Peter Mumford, director of Asia at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
Many voters here are angry over corruption and the cost of living after the introduction of a national goods and services tax, and many of the palm plantation “settlers” in Johor who have benefited from an affirmative action programme for Malays believe the government is now abandoning them.
Johor, which sits beside Singapore at the tip of peninsular Malaysia, has been one of UMNO’s jewels – even its name originates from an Arabic word meaning precious stone. It is the country’s third-richest state and has become a hub for investment in recent years, including a $100 billion real estate project being built by China’s Country Garden Holdings .
It sends the second-highest number of members to the 222-seat lower house of parliament from Malaysia’s 16 states and federal territories after Sarawak state.
An opposition coalition led by Najib’s former mentor and Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has made Johor the focus of its push to exploit Najib’s weaknesses.
On the campaign trail, Mahathir and the opposition have focused on allegations of corruption at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and government fiscal mismanagement, linking it to higher housing costs and other increased living expenses. — Reuters