The Johor MB is into punctuality, not protocol, and meeting people is his priority.
IT was a hot Monday morning in Johor Jaya, a suburb of the Pasir Gudang parliamentary constituency.
An unmarked 4WD vehicle arrived at the lower middle-class neighbourhood. There was no indication that it carried the Johor Mentri Besar as there were no police outriders nor was it an official car.
Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin stepped out from the front passenger seat at 9am sharp.
Impressive. The Mentri Besar got there on time.
The day before, his press secretary, Ahmad Asri Khalbi, WhatsApp-ed me: “MB is visiting an Ekonomi Rakyat project in Johor Jaya tomorrow at 9am. Be on time as MB sometimes arrives 15-30 minutes early.”
“Wow! Your MB arrived on the dot,” I told the press secretary, who was there 20 minutes before the Mentri Besar.
“The car was driven by his special officer. The MB usually doesn’t use his official driver. And did you notice that he sat in the front passenger seat?” he asked.
Khaled doesn’t own cars with single-digit registration numbers except for the official car for the Mentri Besar. He uses JRA 1 mostly for official functions.
Khaled shook hands with officials and residents waiting outside an oyster mushroom farm in the concrete jungle of Johor Jaya. He entered the farm, which looked like a storeroom with rows of edible fungi.
The mushroom farm is one of the Mentri Besar’s social entrepreneurship projects to elevate the income level of Johoreans who earn low salaries.
In the last few months, I have visited Johor several times to gauge the political mood in the Umno bastion state.
The feedback I get from Johoreans and even Opposition politicians is that Khaled is an on-the-ground politician.
“He is not the type of MB who is into protocol. He is approachable to the rakyat,” an Opposition assemblyman told me.
“I’m told you are not a protocol kind of MB?” I asked Khaled, who was seated for a mushroom-themed brunch after inspecting the farm and giving a press conference.
“Why should I be into protocol?” shot back the 59-year-old Muar-born politician.
(From my political tourism travel in Johor, I found that most of the Johor Mentris Besar came from Muar.)
The former Johor Baru and Pasir Gudang MP continued: “Whatever we do, we must make sure that the people are the ones who benefit from our policies. We can make idealistic policies in Iskandar or Putrajaya but how do you ensure that the policy is effective or can change people’s lives?
“So, the opportunity to be on the ground will ensure that I can evaluate the effectiveness of those policies. Also, by being on the ground, I can feel the day-to-day challenges faced by the people,” said the Permas assemblyman.
“You have the time to go on the ground. It is up to you.”
The next day, his press secretary Ahmad Asri brought me for breakfast at Kacang Pool Haji in Johor Baru.
“What happens when the MB arrives early for a function?” I asked him while I scooped the Turkish-inspired kacang pool, which tasted like the A&W Coney Dog minus the hot dog.
“The organiser has to direct him to a dining area or a holding room and keep him there for 15 to 30 minutes,” he said.
Last year, Khaled arrived one hour early for a 10am meet-the-people event in Pasir Gudang. The surprised organisers had to serve him coffee while they waited for the residents to arrive.
“Why did he arrive so early?” I asked.
“That is his character. He is always early or punctual,” said Ahmad Asri.
Khaled, according to his aides, is consistently working.
Sometimes the aides would receive text messages from the boss as early as 6am and as late as after midnight.
For example, Khaled would ask if they had the read the newspapers.
“It is about issue management, from temple, potholes and resident complaints to counter service standards,” said an aide.
I called Johor PKR deputy chairman Jimmy Puah Wee Tse to get his take on Khaled.
“I have a direct line of sight of him in the Johor assembly, and I have noticed that he’s always smiling,” said the Bukit Batu assemblyman.
Puah notes that Khaled respects the Opposition assemblymen even though he is a Barisan Nasional Mentri Besar.
“We respect him as the people’s choice. And he also gives the Opposition assemblymen due respect,” he said.
“For example, in our state budgets in the last two years, he gave half-month bonuses to civil servants and assemblymen, including those in the Opposition.”
When Khaled travels around Johor, he loves to stop at rest areas as it gives him a chance to mingle with Johoreans. And usually, he is driven around in an unmarked vehicle.
If you see him, do ask for a selfie. The on-the-ground MB is approachable.