JOHOR BARU, April 21 — As Lim Kit Siang captured the imagination of Johor’s Chinese at last night’s rally here, it was also clear that he meant to help warm the Umno birthplace’s Malay population towards Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in Election 2013.
Unlike some states to the north, the opposition parties have been repeatedly thwarted from gaining more than a toehold in Malaysia’s southernmost state.
“The Malay parties in the opposition have a tougher time trying to get support from the Malay community in Johor, so Kit Siang’s presence in southern Johor especially has tilted the situation,” said Ibrahim Suffian, the executive director of political research house Merdeka Center.
Johor’s resistance towards PAS and PKR, Ibrahim said, was historical. The highly-independent state had been used to running things its own way for a long time as it was among the last to be incorporated into colonial British rule.
It had built up a strong religious wall that did not give room for PR’s Islamist partner, PAS, to grow since Johor’s Islamic schools are well-funded and are state-run. In addition, PAS was seen as a northern influence, Ibrahim said.
But in the five years since Election 2008, a perceptible change has been felt in Johor.
The issues that have been raised by PR in the last few years have resonated with the younger people judging from the reactions of the thousands that gathered at the Sutera Mall open air carpark to listen to Kit Siang, state DAP chief Dr Boo Cheng Hau and PAS vice-president and Nusajaya hopeful, Salahuddin Ayub, speak.
The DAP advisor’s son and caretaker Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, was given a roaring welcome complete with a fireworks display when he arrived shortly after 11pm, from stumping in Kluang.
The 2,000 plastic red chairs set up near the giant outdoor stage were fully occupied and thousands more stood throughout the entire four hours.
In contrast, Kit Siang’s BN contender for Gelang Patah, Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, experienced a very low-key start to his campaign at an Indian temple where some 400 people reportedly turned out for his programme in neighbouring Kangkar Pulai last night.
What stood out in that overwhelmingly Chinese crowd were the number of families, featuring three generations, in attendance.
Many boldly donned hats in the shape of the the DAP hornbill mascot nicknamed “Ubah.” These were sold at the marquees fringing the square and partisan T-shirts of all colours and bearing various messages: Ubah Bersama Kit Siang 2.0 [Change with Kit Siang 2.0] and Ini Kalilah [This time-lah] among them.
A young woman volunteer manning one of tables under the white marquees there, Jenni Sin, said many Johor Chinese held jobs in Singapore and made the daily commute across the Causeway not because they were enamoured with the republic, but because they could earn better wages.
They were unhappy with Singapore’s politics and yearned to be able to work in Malaysia and raise their families, the 27-year-old whose four siblings were among the daily commuters to the Lion City said, and added that all four of her sisters were resisting opting for Singaporean citizenship.
The Johor Chinese were waking up to the possibility of a change that could answer their dreams for a better future, not only for their generation, but for their children, said the businesswoman who unlike her siblings, worked locally.
“For Du Du, her mummy will fight,” Sin said, and pointed to her special printed T-shirt featuring her toddler daughter holding up a card that read, in Chinese “Come back home to vote.”
Pollster Ibrahim said the DAP’s move into Johor has roused the Chinese.
“Kit Siang contesting Gelang Patah and leading the DAP campaign in Johor have excited the Chinese community and shown it is serious about expanding and reaching out to them,” Ibrahim said.
“Kit Siang’s presence in boosting Chinese support for Pakatan has helped narrow the gap for the opposition parties to reach their goal,” he added.
Ibrahim added the Malays in Johor live side-by-side with the Chinese but the racial sentiment has been exploited by those in power to plant fears.
But it was the perceived crisis sparked by the Registrar of Societies’ refusal to recognise the opposition party’s elected office bearers in the last 48 hours before nomination day yesterday that inadvertently boosted PR’s campaigning in Johor for the May 5 polls.
The DAP leaders’ public declaration that they were willing to run under the PAS’s moon banner — despite their ideological differences — helped persuade Johor’s Malays that the DAP was not “chauvinist”, Ibrahim said.
Zulkifli Mat Isa, 48, who was among the handful of Malays spotted in the sea of Chinese faces at last night’s ceramah, was testament to the Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst’s observation.
The Penang-born man who is now a Pasir Gudang voter told The Malaysian Insider that even Johor Malays were now shifting their views.
“Because of Lim Kit Siang. He’s the father of the Penang chief minister,” Zulkifli said, in Malay.
“Previously, people thought of the DAP as chauvinist. Now, they know. In Penang, there is no chaos even,” he said, of the racial clashes that BN politicians and their newspapers have been forecasting in the event of a PR victory at the 13th general election.
An interior designer, Zulkifli said that Johor Malays were also rising, even though they may not be as visible as the Chinese; they kept a tight lip even as they opened their eyes and ears to information obtained online.
“Now things have changed. Because people are aware. Anything but Umno,” he said.
Apart from Zukifli, who admitted to being a PKR member alongside two other friends at Sutera Harbour, there were pockets of Malays here and there in the crowd last night, including four youngsters huddling in the shadow of a lorry parked beside the main stage and who looked nervously around them.
One or two others who looked to still be in their teens were seen weaving in and out of the throng, dressed in DAP merchandise.
“Malays also know. Previously, they dare not wear even this,” Zulkifli said, and gestured to his red DAP baseball cap.