Johor Votes 2022 – rethinking voting

Johoreans should not only consider their local constituency interests, but state and nation also.

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Published in MalayMail , Astro Awani and Sinar Daily, image by Astro Awani.

With the Johor state election polling day tomorrow on March 12 (Saturday), voters seem spoilt for choice given that a total of 239 candidates have signed up to contest in the 56 seats. In addition to the main blocs of Barisan Nasional (BN), Perikatan Nasional (PN), and Pakatan Harapan (PH), there’s now also Muda (Malaysia United Democratic Alliance) which is PH-aligned, Pejuang (Parti Pejuang Tanah Air), Sabah-based Parti Warisan, and Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM) which have thrown down the gauntlet. And, of course, there’re the independents who altogether number sixteen contestants. 

Of the 56 state seats, there’ll be: 

  • 7 seats involving three-cornered fights; 
  • 35 seats involving four-cornered fights; 
  • 8 seats involving five-cornered fights; 
  • 4 seats involving six-cornered fights, and finally 
  • 2 seats involving seven-cornered fights.   

The number of parties and candidates contesting in the Johor state election is unprecedented, let alone the number of coalitions (although only an increase from two to three). Of course, this scenario – of multi-contests which are normally the “provenance” of the Sabah electoral context – is now “built-in” into the political culture here in the Peninsular also as presaged by the Melaka state election in November 2021.  

Johor voters are, thus, presented with an array of candidates armed with their respective manifestos and promises/pledges.

The Johor state election, as with any other election (state or otherwise) raises again the issue of how voters should decide.

Typically and anecdotally, many voters would vote based on their political sentiments which is party or coalition-based. 

Stereotypically and at the risk of over-generalisation, a rural Malay voter would be bound by the precedent of political socialisation (family, community), ethno-religious sentiment and social conditioning/engineering (by the State) to vote BN which is Umno-led. 

An urban Chinese voter would normally opt for the opposition, particularly in the form of the DAP, which since its inception in 1966 in the aftermath of the de-registration of the PAP Singapore, has consistently and unrelentingly been the voice of the ethnic minorities. 

In many constituencies, be it parliamentary or seat, the majority of voters would vote based on traditional sentiments which favour the incumbent candidate or party/coalition. 

Under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system which requires only a simple majority of 50.1% and above, a voter base that is fixed (hence the term, “fixed deposit”), i.e., votes in a consistent and continuous manner irrespective of the candidate and based on the party/coalition symbol, entrenches the incumbency advantage. All the candidate needs to do, at the behest of his/her party/coalition, is to dispense with the electoral largesse that’s aided by the government machinery of the ministries and agencies. 

There’s a need to break this cycle – of electoral conditioning and manipulation, including brainwashing (voters fed with propaganda). 

Ironically, the first step towards this is the participation of more contenders which we are seeing today. 

At least, in principle – although admittedly there’s a long way to go. 

We know that entrenched practices, especially in certain settings (rural, Felda) are difficult or almost impossible to dislodge. 

Specifically, how should voters decide in principle and ideally speaking?

Firstly, voters should ideally balance and weigh the pros and cons between voting based on the candidate versus the party. Normally, there’s no “opposition” or dialectical thinking when it comes to the voting for the candidate from a certain party – since both are “synonymous”. This is especially so if the voter votes based on party/coalition sentiments and the only thing that suffices or convinces is the party symbol.

But we know that politicians have their own (covert) personal agenda at play which then “inter-twines” with the interests of the people (whether in the name of religion, race, royalty and so on). So that, their personal interests is craftily masqueraded in the name of the interests of the constituents. 

Again, there’s always the possibility of ulterior motive when, e.g., an incumbent who has been performing well is dropped or moved to another seat. 

By right, the interests, concerns and perspectives of the local constituents should always come first. 

The strategy and tactics of the political party concerned can be integrated afterwards. But dropping a candidate who’s much loved by his/her constituents due to factionalism, for example, is in a way “undemocratic”.

Even when the venerable Lee Kuan Yew expounded on his political experiences having to manage candidatures and seat allocations in his capacity as the Secretary-General of the PAP which includes moving a candidate who couldn’t established rapport and touched base with the local constituents on the basis of ethnicity and language barriers, it’s clear the solution that he then offered had an ulterior motive. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system which calls for a minimum of 3 MPs with one from a minority community had the effect of depriving opposition parties of the opportunity to be able to contest in all constituencies. This is so since each GRC is a seat in its own right. 

In short, voters should de-prioritise the party if it’s in the interests of the constituency and vote for a candidate that has the local issues close to heart. 

Of course, there’s always the broader strategic vision of capturing the state (or federal) government. But if there’s little chance that the party concerned is able to make it (this time), then the balance of considerations should tilt towards the candidate – of the right credentials and making. 

In this, a distinction could and should be made between a parliamentarian (MP) and a state legislative assembly (SLA) member. The calling and expected duty of an MP is to raise issues of not only local but also national concerns. Any MP has the right to make the 1MDB scandal a high priority – since it involves a government-backed entity and tax-payers’ monies, for example. 

A SLA member, however, is expected to stay focussed on issues affecting his/her constituents and delve into more practical and day-to-day matters such as traffic congestions, blocked drains, flash floods, allocations for the poor, etc. 

It doesn’t mean, however, that there are no and can’t be any overlaps between the issues raised by an MP with that of a SLA member. Quite often, the issues do overlap and there’s shared concern.

Nonetheless, the focus and commitment of a SLA is more skewed towards prioritising local constituency issues, i.e., matters that matter to the local constituents. 

Secondly, following from this, voters should expect that candidates and, by extension, parties should be speaking on matters that matter to them as the local constituents. 

Again in referring back to the issue of 1MDB – whilst it’s a matter of national importance, it has less “traction” to local constituents in the context of a state election. Voters would want to re-affirm their verdict on the perpetrators of 1MDB at the general election when the time comes, but are more concerned about the more practical and day-to-day matters of bread and butter issues in the state election, particularly when the scarring effects of the economic impact of Covid-19 still persists.

In this voters’ concern are not distorted but natural. 

That said, they should also consider voting for a candidate that not only places the concerns and worries of local constituents at the heart of his/her commitment and dedication to serve. 

But rightly, the voters should expect that candidate to also place fighting the scourge of corruption and misuse of power at the centre of his/her ethos (worldview, principles). 

For both the ethos and commitment to serve can’t be separated, anymore can principle be severed from deed/action.

It’s hoped that on voting day, Johoreans will do the right thing in not only considering their own local constituency interests, but also the state as a whole and that of the nation. 

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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