THE owner of the kampung style restaurant on the outskirts of Muar, Johor, had laid out quite a spread of Malay dishes for his VIP guests.
The elderly man, who wore a green shirt that matched the colour of the timber walls, looked quite overwhelmed to be sitting at the same table with some of the biggest names in politics.
He is a hardcore supporter of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and is always around when the former Deputy Prime Minister is in town.
But there he was with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on his right, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali across the table and Selangor Mentri Besar Azmin Ali just a seat away. It will probably be one of the most memorable nights of his life.
It was almost midnight when the VIP guests settled down for the grand supper.
The Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia ceramah had started late because of the persistent drizzle. But the crowd, numbering several hundred, stayed on, the fortunate ones seated under the tent and others sheltering under umbrellas.
This is Umno territory and it is still a novelty for the locals to listen to the former Umno stalwarts running down the party that they used to wax lyrical about.
But it was Azmin who captured their attention. He is an authoritative speaker who can crack jokes without cracking a smile and besides, he is the only one among the bigwigs holding a top government position.
Dr Mahathir is, surprisingly, a poor ceramah speaker. He looks frail on stage, he tends to ramble and his attacks against Najib and Umno have become rather too personal for the comfort of some of his audience. Most surprising of all is that he is somehow unable to connect with the crowd the way that lesser personalities have been able to.
Those who have watched him on the ceramah trail are amazed that he is still up to it at 91. It just goes to show that hate is a greater motivator than love.
Johor will be where the action is in the general election.
The Malay ground has become a little more difficult to predict with Parti Pribumi in the fray. It will never have the reach of Umno but its leaders are household names who make news with whatever they say.
Even Dr Mahathir complaining about a “plan to change his cook” made news although no one really understood what that was about.
The opposition scene in Johor has grown very lively and there has been some pretty crazy chatter swirling around the last week or so.
For instance, Umno’s Jorak assemblyman Dr Shahruddin Salleh caused a stir when he was appointed the Parti Pribumi secretary-general. Dr Shahruddin was the former political secretary of Muhyiddin and the only PhD-holder among the Johor assemblymen.
His jump from Umno to the opposition sparked off claims Barisan had lost its two-thirds majority in the state government.
Johor Amanah chairman and Parit Yaani assemblyman Aminolhuda Hassan happily declared that with Sharuddin’s exit, Barisan now has only 37 seats which meant that Barisan no longer held the two-thirds majority in the state legislative assembly.
But the state assembly speaker Tan Sri Mohamad Aziz refuted the claim. He said that Johor has 56 state seats and that a two-thirds majority worked out to 36 seats.
As such, he said that Barisan, which has 37 seats, is still holding the two-thirds majority.
Actually, the only people who are truly hot and thrilled about Parti Pribumi are those from Amanah who are still struggling to establish a foothold in Johor.
Dr Shahruddin did not get a warm welcome from DAP’s Dr Boo Cheng Hau, a medical doctor and Skudai assemblyman. Dr Boo reminded Dr Shahruddin of his ultra-nationalist statements, such as revoking the citizenship of those who failed their Bahasa Malaysia exams.
“He said this not once, but several times in the state assembly. If he wants our support, he has to be responsible for his statements,” said Dr Boo.
He asked Dr Shahruddin to apologise and retract his statements and to do time – a la a public offender – by giving a minimum of 30 hours of free Bahasa Malaysia tuition and to learn a minority language.
It was a case of the past catching up with those who lead public lives.
According to Johor Baru MP Tan Sri Shahrir Samad, nobody in Johor has ever crossed the floor in this way.
“He is the first to do so, he has no morals. He won on an Umno ticket, he should resign if he does not agree with the party. It is no loss to Jorak, we will put a local man and win it back,” said Shahrir.
Muhyiddin claimed that the opposition, which now has 19 seats, can capture Johor with only another 10 seats. In other words, the opposition hopes to rule Johor with only a one-seat majority.
If that happens, the Pakatan Harapan administration will be even more unstable than the one in Terengganu now. Every state assembly sitting will be primetime entertainment and it will be near impossible for the government to function properly because it can fall at any minute.
But far more interesting than all of the above is that Johor Umno is keen to have a separate state election ahead of the general election.
Reporters who got wind of it earlier this month could not make out where it was coming from.
But it has since transpired that the idea was mooted in the mobile chat group of Johor Umno leaders comprising division heads, MPs and assemblymen.
There has been a lot of concern and discussion among the Umno rank and file about what is going on in the state and also at the national level.
The discussion about a stand-alone state election was very intense and the outcome was that more than 80 per cent of those in the chat group supported the idea.
“I am also for it because I believe we will do better if we go it alone. Johor is the last bastion of Umno, we are ready to take it to the test,” said Pulai MP and Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed.
The thinking is that a state polls can ride on state issues rather than on national issues like the 1MDB. They are also worried about Parti Pribumi and they do not want to allow the party time to gain momentum.
“We cannot take anything for granted. We need to keep an eye on the western belt seats like Muar, Batu Pahat and Pontian,” said Muar Umno vice-chief Muhammad Yazed Muhain.
Those favouring a separate state polls, said Nur Jazlan, were also inspired by the Barisan success in the Sarawak election and they want to replicate it in Johor.
However, according to a political insider, one notable member in the chat group was completely silent and did not take part in the discussion. The person was none other than Shahrir whose political experience and intellectual pro-wess has made him a sort of statesman figure in Johor.
Shahrir is also a mentor figure to Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin. Khaled immediately sent his political secretary Khairi Abdul Malek to discuss it with Shahrir who “rejected it 100 per cent”.
“What compelling reasons do we have to hold state polls? If Johor is so strong, then we should help carry the federal government in the Barisan spirit. The MB is also the leader of the state Barisan, we have to think of them too,” said Shahrir.
The thrill at the thought of going it alone was good while it lasted but it has died down somewhat. Anyway, the idea would not get past Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak if his stand on Terengganu is any indication.
According to the above insider, a large part of the state election sentiment also has to do with the fact that Khaled has reportedly fulfilled up to 90 per cent of the Barisan’s 2013 election manifesto.His biggest success has been in the area of affordable housing or rumah rakyat which are priced at between RM42,000 and RM150,000.
He has put a lot of thought and planning into this and Johor intends to deliver 60,000 units of affordable housing by 2019. Affordable housing, especially for the lower income groups, will eventually become a basic need like water and electricity.
Like Barisan leaders elsewhere, Khaled is worried about the Chinese vote but he has not given up. A week ago, he attended the Johor Baru Senior Citizens Association meeting which is a Chinese organisation.
He gave a long speech, and when he announced that he would be handing over a RM150,000 cheque to the association, all the old folks got to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. Some of them later described Khaled as “MB berhati mulia” or a big-hearted Mentri Besar.
The Sultan of Johor has also played his part. He has donated RM500mil of his personal fortune to be given out as loans to Johoreans buying their first home. Bank Rakyat has been appointed as the facilitator for the loans.
The Sultan has a high-flying lifestyle but he also puts his wealth into worthy causes. In fact, the Sultan has become some sort of balancing force in the political rivalry that has consumed Johoreans.
The track record of Khaled’s administration has often been lost in the political noise and chatter.
Competition and rivalry is normal in politics but the last few years have seen an ambitious opposition that aims to rise to power not by virtue of what it can offer but by running down the side that it wants to replace. Pushed to the wall, the ruling coalition has reciprocated in like manner.
Khaled needs to ensure that his administration’s success story is not drowned out by the noise from the politics of mudslinging.