KUALA LUMPUR: A black hole where key civil servants act as powerful intermediaries carrying messages from influential elites in Johor has threatened to slow the reforms process in the state, even as Pakatan Harapan (PH) barges ahead at the federal level with promised changes in a system that has been nurtured for the last six decades.
A list of key officers in the state administration, sighted by FMT, shows them placed at strategic positions close to the menteri besar (MB).
At least 10 of the over 90 names in the list are the subject of rumblings among state civil servants, the source said, adding that they could undermine the powers of the MB “just as it was done in the past”.
“These appointees have jumped over many more senior and qualified civil servants, resulting in widespread unhappiness in the Johor civil service. All this will surely undermine the democratic process, that a government is elected by the people, for the people.”
Just how problematic this can be was seen in the small storm that erupted when Osman Sapian, the new MB from PPBM, appointed an ex-Umno man as his chief private secretary, drawing protests from his party.
The source said this was an indication of how influential elites call the shots in Johor, entrenched within a stronghold of power that has been left largely untouched.
In last month’s polls, PH won 36 of the 56 seats it contested, ending Barisan Nasional’s (BN) rule in Johor in a defeat seen as humiliating Umno in the state where it was born.
On the surface, it showed that the masses still have the final say on who they want as the government, even when given the choice of retaining Umno for sentimental reasons.
But in Johor, the system is not equipped to deal with this democratic outcome, the PPBM source said.
“For so long, executives have had to toe the fine line between asserting their electoral mandate and obeying the higher powers,” he told FMT.
He refused to say whether he was referring to the Johor royals, who have been vocal in speaking out against government excesses.
Such criticisms have endeared the state palace to the masses, especially on social media – except on one occasion, just weeks before the polls.
Johor’s crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, better known as TMJ, had launched a stinging attack on PPBM chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Tunku Ismail effectively told voters that while he acknowledged things were bad in Umno, it was the palace that could be depended upon to fix them, not someone like Mahathir.
The statement did not sit well with many on social media.
Tunku Ismail’s message reminded voters of an old rift, though many of them were probably too young to personally remember the events of the 1990s which led to the immunity of the sultans being abolished, after a long battle that saw pressure from Mahathir’s administration on the palace.
So when voters eventually changed camps to Mahathir’s PPBM and its partners in Johor, the victory was significant.
For Mahathir, it was sweet. Not so for local PPBM leaders, said the source.
Indeed, he said, because of the state government’s limits, many Umno leaders would not cry over the party’s defeat.
“Yes, Johor is the birthplace of Umno and all that, but Umno may not mourn its defeat here,” the source said. “In fact, many Umno leaders had silently hoped they would lose the state and thus take them out of a system they have no control of.”
Such a system, said the source, made it almost impossible for reforms to take place in the various institutions and sectors of Johor, whether related to the administration of Islam, public services or businesses.
He said the unwritten rule for big businessmen in Johor was to get the “blessings” of powerful individuals who are not part of the state government, especially when it involves land and property development.
“Most businesspeople in Johor have accepted this to be how business is done in Johor,” the source said.
How much of this is true?
To help answer this, one may refer to a controversy four years ago, when a proposed land enactment granting wide powers to the sultan sparked an uproar.
The opposition at the time charged that state leaders had shirked their responsibilities, and that they were subservient to higher powers instead of the people who elected them, and therefore violating a key principle of constitutional monarchy.
The land bill was eventually passed with revisions, scaling back the sultan’s powers.
“The whole episode underlines a crucial problem faced by every MB in Johor, that his hands are tied,” said the source.
The land law controversy, however, did not stop the palace from weighing in on Forest City, a massive development project where the royalty is also involved.
The project had been singled out by Mahathir as an attempt to pawn land to foreigners. This was strongly denied by the sultan, who lashed out at Mahathir, calling him “narrow-minded”. The old rift was thus renewed.
At that point, state PPBM leaders were worried that the renewed tension between the palace and their party chairman could spoil their chances in the election.
That did not happen.
Interestingly, in the aftermath of the May 9 polls, the Johor ruler was among the first to acknowledge PH’s victory, urging that the state government be formed without delay.
Days later, a royal speech reminded the PPBM-led administration to abide by the Johor constitution of 1895.
That document, hailed as the first written state constitution in Malaya, was promulgated by the late Sultan Abu Bakar, spelling out the roles of the ruler and the executives.
The source said with the strong mandate from voters, PPBM and its partners in Johor now faced the challenge of convincing the public that the present government was not beholden to “unseen hands”.
“Johoreans might do the same to the PH state government led by PPBM if they see no change from the previous BN government,” he said.