MUAR, March 10 — As the campaign for the Johor state election enters its final leg, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air’s (Pejuang) dependence on its chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad may yet turn out to be a double-edged sword.

At the age of 96, the nonagenarian, who just recovered from an illness last month, joined the party’s campaign trail at two separate events on March 3 accompanied by his wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali.

In his only appearance so far, Dr Mahathir attended a lunch with the Chinese Business and Industry Association in Batu Pahat before joining the party’s Aspirasi Johor programme in Felda Ayer Hitam later the same day.

However, whether Dr Mahathir’s presence helped Pejuang in the election that it is participating in for the first time remains to be seen.

Based on observations, the two events Dr Mahathir attended did not attract the kind of crowd  as previously seen when he was in Pakatan Harapan. Nevertheless, it boosted the morale of the party machinery.

Pejuang chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks during his visit to Felda Ayer Hitam in Johor March 3, 2022. ― Picture by Hari Anggara
Pejuang chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks during his visit to Felda Ayer Hitam in Johor March 3, 2022. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

“Of course we at the leadership do advise him to continue to look after himself but judging from the current situation, where Tun decided himself to come down to Johor to stump for our candidate and the election machinery, I think it speaks of how much it meant to him,” Pejuang deputy president Datuk Marzuki Yahya told Malay Mail recently.

In fact, Marzuki said that Dr Mahathir has made it his personal mission to help the party achieve success in the election.

“It’s difficult to predict Tun, maybe for some it's easy to assume but for us to control him it's not easy,” Marzuki added.

Indeed, Dr Mahathir’s determination and Pejuang’s dependence on the elder statesman can be seen in his efforts to pen several open letters to Johor voters, since he cannot be in Johor physically.

In his letters, Dr Mahathir called out Datuk Seri Najib Razak whom he described as “unrepentant” to remind voters to reject the Pekan MP who has been convicted and sentenced by the courts for misappropriating RM42 million from SRC International Sdn Bhd.

His previous letters had him accusing Umno of triggering the premature Johor election to gain the political power it needs to save its leaders whom he described as “kleptocrats” and a “court cluster.”

These talking points have been consistently raised in Pejuang’s various ceramah talks, stressing the importance of having a clean government that can truly attend to the rakyat’s needs.

“The appearance of Tun despite his health conditions for the sake of the country speaks for itself and definitely his presence, intention and the party’s struggle which we are pushing for will appeal to the rakyat to continue supporting us and perhaps entice more to do so,” Marzuki said.

Pejuang is contesting in 42 seats out of 56 up for grabs in the state election.

Pejuang president Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir previously announced that Pejuang will use his father, Dr Mahathir’s, image, on all its campaign posters and materials for the Johor election on the basis that the 96-year-old is well-liked by many Johoreans.

Coming into the state election, Mukhriz had said the Johor election is the chance for the party to publicly test claims of the party riding on the “Tun factor” to prominence.

The “Tun factor” refers to Dr Mahathir, whom the party touts as the most prominent Malay statesman to have led the country, and believes he can do so again even as he turns 97 in July.

At Dr Mahathir’s appearance at Felda Ayer Hitam here near Kluang, the reception was encouraging for an area where the most loyal Barisan Nasional supporters can be found.

Despite existing Covid-19 restrictions and crowd control measures, many still turned up to catch a glimpse of the elderly statesman who had arrived all the way from the capital to stump for the party’s candidate for Machap, Datuk Shahruddin Md Salleh.

“First time Tun is here. Yes, my first time meeting him. I am very excited because this is my first time meeting him in person for the past 48 years,” Rashidi Sukiman, a Felda settler said at Dr Mahathir’s ceramah.

Rashidi Sukiman, 48, speaks during an interview with Malay Mail at the Felda Air Hitam district voting centre March 03, 2022. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Rashidi Sukiman, 48, speaks during an interview with Malay Mail at the Felda Air Hitam district voting centre March 03, 2022. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Rashidi’s admiration for Dr Mahathir and Pejuang was also visibly seen, as he was wearing a Pejuang T-shirt and cap.

For Rashidi, Pejuang’s election manifesto of wanting to eradicate corruption in the administration was commendable, since he is aware of Najib’s wrongdoings through social media.

“A lot of the villagers here are aware this is a BN fortress, yet most also acknowledge things are shaky now,” the 48-year-old said, further pointing out that Pejuang has a 50-50 chance of winning in this particular Felda settlement.  

This, he said, was because most of the young voters are now more politically aware while most of the older generations who traditionally supported BN are gradually being phased out.

Sporting a Pejuang T-shirt as well, 19-year-old Muhd Aliffaiman Khairul Nizaman could be seen huddling with a group of his friends who were also sporting the same attire.

Like Rashidi, Muhd Aliffaiman who hails from Paloh some 40 kilometres away, was also excited about meeting Dr Mahathir.

“I am intrigued by their struggle to bring change. I am also excited to see Tun in person for the first time,” the first-time voter said shyly when met.

Another attendee, who only wanted to be known as Subri, said he was impressed by Dr Mahathir’s no-nonsense attitude and firmness.

In particular, he noted that certain people viewed Umno-BN and the state monarchy as one entity, and Dr Mahathir’s relationship with the royal institution since his first tenure as prime minister was particularly noteworthy.

“This is a man with principles,” he said, referring to Dr Mahathir.

A double-edged sword in the making

Azmi Hassan, senior fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, said it was “anti-strategy” for Pejuang to use Dr Mahathir’s influence to entice voters in Johor to vote for the party.

In fact, Azmi cited past frictions between Dr Mahathir and the state monarch could serve as a red flag for certain voters.

“Pejuang is depending too much on Tun Dr Mahathir’s aura in order to entice voters especially in Johor.

“It will be contradictory because he (Tun) and Johor are not synonymous. Yes, it's a double-edged sword but more on the negative,” he said.

Azmi contended that Dr Mahathir would still command a significant presence on a national level but not in Johor due to the former’s decision to withdraw the application for revision of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) judgment over Pulau Batu Puteh (Pedra Branca).

On February 3, 2017, the Malaysian government filed an application for review of the ICJ’s decision on May 23, 2008, which ruled that Singapore had sovereignty over Pulau Batu Puteh while Malaysia had sovereignty over Terumbu Karang Tengah.

In 2018, the PH government under the leadership of Dr Mahathir withdrew the application before the case was scheduled to be heard on June 11, 2018.

“On the national level I think Dr Mahathir still has the appeal but in Johor I don’t think it will because during Pakatan’s 22 months in power he decided not to pursue the Pulau Batu Puteh case.

“I think the issue is very sensitive to Johor people. So it's not a good strategy (for Pejuang to depend on Dr Mahathir),” Azmi added.

Polling for Johor has been fixed for March 12.