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The struggle for Johor

It has been said that the definition of frenzy is a group of women working in a fish-processing plant.

Right now, it may be more apt to say it’s a bunch of Malaysian politicians running for election in the southern state of Johor.

Frenetic is the right word for their behaviour since last week, when Prime Minister Najib Razak finally dissolved parliament.

The nation’s 13th general election, likely to be held in the last week of this month, will feature some of the most hotly contested battles in Malaysia’s history – and the outcome is anybody’s guess.

The victor may be Naj-ib’s National Front, which won 137 seats in the 2008 election, or it may be the ascendant People’s Alliance, helmed by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, which won 75 seats.

Everyone is on tenterhooks, as indicated by the unseemly frenzy in Johor, birthplace of the Front’s dominant party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Normally, UMNO and its coalition allies would sweep most of the seats in this southern state bordering Singapore, and the opposition would focus on areas where the prospects looked more promising.

Not this time. Such is the confidence of Anwar’s men that last week the People’s Alliance stunned observers by revealing that some of its heavyweight candidates would forgo their safe seats and run in Johor.

It sounded bonkers at first, but on further consideration it becomes clear that there is method in this madness.

Who dares, wins. And this, the most astonishingly daring move in the annals of Malaysian politics, may well be the pivotal move that wins a slew of parliamentary seats for the opposition.

One of its veteran leaders, the pugnacious warhorse Lim Kit Siang, has announced that he will not only switch from Perak, his safe constituency, to Johor, but will fight for the fortress seat of Gelang Patah.

That means Lim will likely face off with Johor Chief Minister Ghani Othman, the most powerful politician in the state.

On the surface, it looks like political hara-kiri. But Lim is no fool, nor is he prone to suicidal tendencies.

He knows the decent, but bland, Ghani is vulnerable, and he knows Geylang Patah is 52 per cent Chinese and 12 per cent Indian.

And he knows non-Malays have turned against the Front – and that if he can win most of their votes, and just get a little support from the constituency’s 34 per cent Malay population, he’s in.

As well as Lim, former Malaysian army chief Hashim Hussein will fight for Anwar in the state capital, Johor Baru, and other “big name” opposition figures will contest seats in UMNO’s heartland.

This move has spooked Najib’s men, who sent former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad down south to stiffen sinews.

Mahathir urged Johoreans to continue to make their state the government’s “fixed deposit” of seats, and called on them to end the political careers of Anwar and Lim.

Mahathir, who is 87, der-ided Lim for having been in politics too long and for being biased, but there were signs that many voters thought being called old and biased by someone like Mahathir was like being called ugly by a warthog.

Perhaps an even more disturbing sign for Najib’s team was the way one of its brightest new stars, UMNO youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin, announced he would not run in the election.

People assume Khairy did this because he knows which way the wind is blowing and is distancing himself from UMNO’s imminent defeat and the dispatch of Najib to the glue factory.

That prospect is still a long shot, and it would be a bit unfair on Najib, who has done a half-decent job and is more likeable, if less incisive and visionary, than Anwar.

But life’s not fair. If  it were, Anwar and Lim would never have been jailed and Tuya would still be alive.

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