Tun Dr. Mahathir’s recent statement condemning the ‘Bangsa Johor’ ideology as a threat to Malaysian unity was well received by some, especially those not from Johor.  However, the statement was quickly refuted by his Bersatu comrade Syed Saddiq Syed Abd Rahman who happens to be a Johorean.  According to Syed Saddiq, while he respects Tun Dr. Mahathir a lot, he could not agree with the former premier on Bangsa Johor.  The Champion Debater argued that Johor nationalism could be beneficial to Malaysia as it can promote unity at the state level regardless of one’s race and creed.  This, according to Syed, becomes more relevant at a time when nationalism at the federal level has been co-opted by those in power.

As a Bangsa Johor myself, I do not see that the rising level of my state’s nationalism as a threat to Malaysia, as long as there is a boundary to it.  In Europe, regional nationalism within a country has been limited only to sports, namely football.  The Welsh football team was ‘excited’ and celebrated England’s defeat to Iceland in the recent Euro 2016 tournament.  But this does not imply that Wales wanted out of the United Kingdom, at least not on the surface.

UEFA has been very active in ensuring that the football scene in Europe would not dwell into politics of hate and disunity.  The ‘Respect’ campaign was launched by UEFA to tackle racism in football while Barcelona FC was recently fined 150,000 euros because their fans flew Catalan separatist flags last season during a football match. To those familiar with European politics, Barcelona FC is located in Catalonia, a region that wants out from Spain.  Nonetheless, the push for Catalonia’s unity through football has been hampered by the strong rivalries between various Catalan clubs, especially between Barcelona FC and RCD Espanyol.  Johor in this case is different as the whole state is strongly united behind Johor Darul Ta’zim FC or simply referred as JDT, and there is no ‘check and balance’ in this regard.  Unlike UEFA, Football Association Malaysia (FAM) is too weak to do anything about it. This could be the reason behind Tun Dr. Mahathir’s concerns, as Malaysian unity could be in jeopardy here, I assume.

While most Johoreans could argue that the Bangsa Johor unity would just be limited to sport and football as well, I have to say that one could not tell what is bound to happen in the further future.  Malaysia may need Johor to lift its economy in time to come, but will Johor abandon the federation just for its own cause for survival?  My personal view is that the younger generation in Johor must be fully aware of Malaysia’s history and how our state ruler came into agreement to form Malaysia, not why Johor was ‘forced’ or simply opted into the federation.

Malaysia’s recent achievement in the Rio Olympics is a good sign that Malaysians could still unite behind a single flag, a single identity.  I think that the ‘feel-good factor’ during the Olympics was exactly what Malaysia needs and the timing was spot on with the Merdeka celebration yesterday. It is evident that sports could unite Malaysians while at the same time separate us if taken in the wrong direction. To my fellow Malaysians, let’s limit our state rivalries to sports and unite behind a larger Bangsa Malaysia for a greater cause. Malaysia Tanah Tumpah Darahku!