JOHOR BARU, Sept 9 — Today’s twin by-elections in Johor will be closely watched as a measure of how the Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance can keep its seat while halting the advances by Perikatan Nasional (PN) in the southern state.
Following its success in the six state elections, PN had during campaigning painted the Pulai parliamentary and Simpang Jeram state by-elections as a barometer of support for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his unity government.
There is a concern that a low voter turnout in either the Pulai parliamentary or Simpang Jeram state by-elections would reduce PH’s chances, exacerbated by a substantial number of Chinese voters — who are working in Singapore — may not return to cast their votes.
During the first week of campaigning, the pace in Pulai was described as mediocre and was somehow a stark opposite of Simpang Jeram where PN had been aggressive in its campaign.
However, the situation in Pulai started changing rapidly with activities and visits by high-profile leaders over last weekend.
Even the cooperation between PH and BN was improved in the second week. Both sides managed to iron out many of the issues that held them back from campaigning together.
The campaigning in Simpang Jeram has been constant, but PAS has been making good progress in their reach with their small-scale talks featuring popular speakers.
Of late, PAS has been attempting to court non-Malay votes in Simpang Jeram with its candidate highlighting a more inclusive approach, in stark contrast of to the more pro-Malay rhetorics in Pulai.
On paper, PH has a good chance of retaining Pulai provided the majority of Chinese voters vote on polling day, even with the threat of BN-Umno protest votes.
On the other hand, Simpang Jeram may be difficult to read as it is not so clear if PH can still retain its north-west Johor state seat as it will also depend on Chinese voter turnout.
The Malay voters in Simpang Jeram are also different from their more urban counterparts in Pulai. With a more conservative image, PAS may appeal more to the Simpang Jeram Malays.
Suhaizan Kayat, a Johor Amanah vice chief, is the former Johor state legislative speaker and also served as the late Parti Amanah Negara deputy president Datuk Seri Salahuddin Ayub’s political secretary under the domestic trade and cost of living ministry. — Bernama pic
Pulai’s parliamentary hopefuls
The mixed-urban Pulai constituency is located between Johor Baru and the newer Iskandar Puteri federal constituencies. Pulai, part of the larger Johor Baru district, is known as an established residential and commercial area.
Based on the Election Commission’s (EC) latest census, the Pulai constituency has a total of 167,108 registered voters. The Malays make up 44.17 per cent of Pulai’s demographics, closely followed by the ethnic Chinese (40.47 per cent) and ethnic Indians (12.3 per cent).
Pulai is basically divided into two, where the majority of its Malay voters are based in Kempas, while the Chinese and Indians make up the bulk on the Perling side. Both Kempas and Perling are also the two state constituencies under the Pulai federal seat.
Pulai was a former BN stronghold, led by its lynchpin party Umno. However, BN lost Pulai in 2018 after PH made inroads into the southern-belt areas of Johor starting in 2013.
The late Parti Amanah Negara deputy president Datuk Seri Salahuddin Ayub won Pulai in the 2018 and 2022 general elections. However, fresh into his second term, the 61-year-old domestic trade and cost of living minister succumbed to a brain haemorrhage on July 23. Salahuddin was also the Simpang Jeram assemblyman.
The Pulai by-election will now see a three-cornered contest with the main coalitions represented by PH’s Suhaizan Kayat, PN’s Zulkifli Jaafar and independent candidate Samsudin Mohamad Fauzi.
Suhaizan, a Johor Amanah vice chief, is the former Johor state legislative speaker and also served as Salahuddin’s political secretary under the domestic trade and cost of living ministry.
The 50-year-old politician and former youth leader has been the favourite to replace Salahuddin after the by-election was announced in late July, with years of experience in the Kempas state constituency, which comes under Pulai, as a candidate in 2008 and 2013.
On PN’s side, little is known about its Pulai candidate Zulkifli. The 50-year-old local businessman was born and grew up in Tampoi. With experience in the transportation and logistics, and warehousing industry, he is currently the Pulai Bersatu division deputy chief.
Pulai’s independent candidate, Samsudin is seen as a political lightweight. The 47-year-old businessman and consumer activist was born in Kluang, Johor and is the Kuala Lumpur Consumer Safety Association president. He previously contested the Putrajaya parliamentary seat last year, also as an independent candidate, and got a mere 63 votes.
Perikatan Nasional candidates Dr Mohd Mazri Yahya (left) and Zulkifli Jaafar who were named as the Simpang Jeram state seat and Pulai parliamentary hopefuls respectively during an announcement ceremony in Kempas Baru, Johor Baru, August 23, 2023. — Picture by Ben Tan
Simpang Jeram’s significance
Simpang Jeram is a state constituency under the Bakri parliament near Muar in north-west Johor. It is described as being a semi-rural suburb of Muar and a majority of the residents are retired or participate in the traditional economy there.
Its issues are very localised and involve mainly public amenities that need maintenance or upgrades. Problems regarding flash flooding due to poor drainage and bad road conditions are among the often-heard issues from the community.
The Simpang Jeram state constituency has a total of 28,193 voters, where the Malays make up the majority with 53.42 per cent, followed by the ethnic Chinese (43.32 per cent) and ethnic Indians (2.75 per cent).
In the past, Bakri which includes Simpang Jeram and its surrounding areas, were known as a strong Opposition stronghold. For many years, it consistently featured as a counterweight to the then-ruling BN-Umno’s areas of Muar and Pagoh before 2018.
An interesting point to note was that in the span of two terms, from 2008 to 2018, a majority of the Chinese and a small segment of Indian voters in Sungai Abong supported the PAS candidate as the representative party to the then Opposition Barisan Alternatif pact and later the informal Pakatan Rakyat alliance, that included PAS, DAP, PKR and at one time Parti Rakyat Malaysia.
Simpang Jeram by-election candidate from Pakatan Harapan Nazri Abdul Rahman greets members of the public during a walkabout at the Sungai Abong night market in Muar August 29, 2023. — Bernama pic
For Amanah, maintaining Simpang Jeram is seen as symbolically important as the party’s initial entry to Johor started from the state constituency.
PAS on the other hand is keen to “take back” what it sees as a key constituency that was formerly held by them. The Islamist party has been active in attempting to secure Simpang Jeram to serve as a launchpad for its influence in Johor.
PH’s candidate Nazri Abdul Rahman, 56, is a popular former Muar municipal council engineer and is also said to have good ties with the Bakri Umno division members.
PAS candidate Dr Mohd Mazri Yahya, 54, is a consultant surgeon nd former Johor deputy chief for the Islamist party. He was previously a volunteer doctor for Mercy Malaysia’s humanitarian mission to Gaza and Syria, and recently joined PAS’ relief mission toTurkiye this year.
In last year’s Johor state election, Dr Mohd Mazri was fielded in Simpang Jeram but lost to Salahuddin.
Independent candidate S. Jeganathan, 56, is a former MIC branch leader, and had also contested and lost in the previous state elections for the neighbouring Bukit Naning state seat last year when he managed to secure 1,000 votes.