Monday, July 02, 2007

Why Johor, Pak Lah?

There has been talk in the media and blogosphere that Malaysian PM Abdullah may call for early elections, possibly later this year.

For Abdullah, the Iskandar Development Region (IDR) will serve as his political power tool for the upcoming election, much as Mathathir had his mega-projects in the 1990s.  It is ideal in a sense that the first fruits can only be seen long after the votes have been counted.    

One questions, however, why Abdullah picked Johor as the site for his own "mega project" (and possible swan song).  

Wasn't it not so long ago that he was caught between a rock and a hard place (i.e. the Singapore govt and Johor UMNO), and left with little option but to backtrack on his earlier comments and cancel the controversial bridge project?

With the IDR still in its shrink-wrap stage, Abdullah is already facing heat from the Johor ground over the proposed Malaysia-Singapore joint ministerial committee and the concessions to non-bumis.  

On one hand, the anti-Singapore sentiment on the Johor ground is justified.  

Underneath the rhetoric about win-win situations is the fact that the IDR would, in reality, compete with Singapore.  Some argue that it is not a zero-sum game, and that both countries stand to benefit symbiotically from cooperation and joint projects in the IDR.  But at this point, it is obvious that if the IDR is anywhere as successful as touted, there will be a significant downside for Singapore.  

The IDR is not meant to be another Vietnam or Cambodia, whose manufacturing industries would complement, even boost, Singapore's status as a financial, services and trading hub.  The IDR aims to build a medical hub, an education hub, a logistics hub etc i.e. pretty much similar to Singapore's own blueprint.  But really, how many hubs can really survive (and thrive) within a radius of less than 100km?  Is there really enough talent in this region to drive world-class projects in both Singapore and the IDR?  Are there enough customers?  It would be na├»ve to think that the powers-that-be in Singapore sincerely want the IDR to succeed.

But back to Pak Lah and Johor.  

The political pundit's view is that the support of the Johor constituency, an UMNO-stronghold, is critical to his political survival.  From a development perspective, it is possible that some research indicated that Johor's infrastructure and population etc provided the best chance of success as compared to the other states.

The fact is, no matter how much money and political support the federal government invests in the IDR, it will come to naught if the people on the ground do not want it for themselves.  The IDR would fail miserably and at tremendous cost, and go down in history as a pipe-dream which won Abdullah a second term.