Travel Bucket List: Malaysia Part 2 – Johor: Part 1

Also spelt as Johore, Johor is Malaysia’s southernmost state and has land borders with Pahang to the north and Malacca and Negeri Sembilan to the northwest and shares maritime borders with Singapore to the south and Indonesia to both the west and east. Johor Bahru is the capital city and the economic centre of the state, while Kota Iskandar is the seat of the state government, and Muar serves as the state’s royal capital. Johor Lama served as the old state capital during the period of the Johor Sultanate. It is the second-most populated state in Malaysia. Johor has highly diverse tropical rainforests and an equatorial climate. Johor Bahru is one of the anchor cities of the Iskandar Malaysia development corridor and is one of the most densely populated and fastest-growing urban areas in Malaysia.

A state that is high in the diversity of ethnicity, culture, and language, Johor is known for its traditional dance of Zapin and Kuda Kepang. The head of the state is the Sultan of Johor, while the head of government is the Menteri Besar. The government system is closely modelled on the Westminster parliamentary system, with the state administration divided into administrative districts. Islam is the state religion, but other religions can be freely practised. Both Malay and English have been accepted as official languages for the state since 1914.

Johor is one of the main economic powerhouses in Malaysia and is currently among the top 4 contributors to the national gross domestic product, along with Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Sarawak. The state economy is mainly based on the services and manufacturing sectors. It is also one of the most vital international trade centres in Malaysia, with the Port of Tanjung Pelepas being the 15th busiest port in the world, as well as the busiest container port in the nation.

The area was first known to the northern inhabitants of Siam as Gangganu or Ganggayu or the Treasury of Gems due to the abundance of gemstones near the Johor River. Arabic traders referred to it as Jauhar, a word borrowed from the Persian Gauhar, which also means precious stone or jewel. As the local people found it difficult to pronounce the Arabic word in the local dialect, the name subsequently became Johor. The old Javanese eulogy of Nagarakretagama called the area Ujong Medini or land’s end, as it is the southernmost point of mainland Asia. Another name, through Portuguese writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia, referred to Marco Polo’s sailing to Ujong Tanah or the end of the Malay Peninsula land in 1292. Both Ujong Medini and Ujong Tanah had been mentioned before the foundation of the Sultanate of Malacca. Throughout the period, several other names also co-existed such as Galoh, Lenggiu and Wurawari. Johor is also known by its Arabic honorific as Darul Ta’zim or the Abode of Dignity.

A bronze bell estimated to be from 150 AD was found in Kampong Sungai Penchu near the Muar River. The bell is believed to have been used as a ceremonial object rather than a trade object as a similar ceremonial bell with the same decorations was found in Battambang Province, Cambodia, suggesting that the Malay coast came in contact with Funan, with the bell being a gift from the early kingdom in mainland Asia to local chieftains in the Malay Peninsula. Another important archaeological find was the ancient lost city of Kota Gelanggi, which was discovered by following trails described in an old Malay manuscript once owned by Stamford Raffles. Artefacts gathered in the area have reinforced claims of early human settlement in the state. The claim of Kota Gelanggi as the first settlement is disputed by the state government of Johor, with other evidence from archaeological studies conducted by the state heritage foundation since 1996 suggesting that the historic city is located in Kota Tinggi District at either Kota Klang Kiu or Ganggayu. The exact location of the ancient city is still undisclosed but is said to be within the 34,595-acre forest reserve where the Lenggiu and Madek Rivers are located, based on records in the Malay Annals that, after conquering Gangga Negara, Raja Suran from Siam of the Nakhon Si Thammarat Kingdom or the Ligor Kingdom had sailed to Ganggayu. Since ancient times, most of the coastal Malay Peninsula has had its rulers, but all fell under the jurisdiction of Siam.

After the fall of Malacca in 1511 to the Portuguese, the Johor Sultanate, based on the descendants of the Malaccan Sultanate, was founded by Mahmud’s son, Ala’udin Ri’ayat Shah II, in 1528 when he moved the royal court to the Johor River and set up his royal residence in Johor Lama. Johor became an empire spanning the southern Malay Peninsula, Riau Archipelago, including Singapore, Anambas Islands, Tambelan Archipelago, Natuna Islands, a region around the Sambas River in south-western Borneo and Siak in Sumatra together with allies of Pahang, Aru and Champa, and it aspired to retake Malacca from the Portuguese. The Aceh Sultanate in northern Sumatra had the same ambition, which led to a three-way war between the rivals. During the wars, the Johor administrative capital moved several times based on military strategies and to maintain authority over trading in the region. Johor and the Portuguese began to collaborate against Aceh, which they saw as a common enemy. In 1582 the Portuguese helped Johor thwart an attack by Aceh, but the arrangement ended when Johor attacked the Portuguese in 1587. Aceh continued its attacks against the Portuguese and was later destroyed when a large armada from the Portuguese port in Goa came to defend Malacca and destroy the sultanate.

After Aceh was left weakened, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived and Johor allied with them to eliminate the Portuguese in the second capture of Malacca in 1641. Johor regained authority over many of its former dependencies in Sumatra, such as Siak in 1662 and Indragiri in 1669, which had fallen to Aceh while Malacca was taken by the Dutch. Malacca was placed under the direct control of Batavia in Java. Only when the Bugis began to threaten Dutch maritime trade did they become involved with local disputes.

The dynasty of the Malaccan descendants lasted until the death of Mahmud II, when it was succeeded by the Bendahara Dynasty, a dynasty of ministers who had previously served in the Malacca Sultanate. In the 18th century, especially when the English East India Company started to establish a presence in the northern Malay Peninsula, the Dutch seized the Bugis areas of Riau and expelled the Bugis from both Riau and Selangor so these areas would not fall under British rule and ended Bugis political domination in the Johor-Pahang-Riau empire, resulting in the Bugis being banned from Riau in 1784. During the rivalry between the Bugis and Dutch, Mahmud Shah III concluded a treaty of protection with the VOC on board the HNLMS Utrecht and the sultan was allowed to reside in Riau with Dutch protection which escalated the mistrust between the Bugis and the Malays. Malacca was returned to the Dutch in 1818 and served as the staging area for the British victory in 1811.

After the death of Mahmud Shah III, the elder son Hussein Shah was supported by the Malay community, and the younger son Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah was supported by the Bugis community. In 1818, the Dutch recognised Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah as the legitimate heir to the Johor Empire in return for his supporting their intention to establish a trading post in Riau. The following year, the British recognised Hussein Shah as the legitimate heir to the Johor Empire in return for his supporting their intention to establish a trading post in Singapore. Before his death, Mahmud Shah III had appointed Abdul Rahman as the Temenggong for Johor with recognition from the British as the legitimate Temenggong of Johor-Singapore, marking the beginning of the Temenggong Dynasty. Abdul Rahman was succeeded by his son, Daeng Ibrahim, although his recognition by the British only occurred 14 years later.  With the partition of the Johor Empire due to the dispute between the Bugis and Malay and following the defined spheres of influence for the British and Dutch resulting from the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, Daeng Ibrahim intended to create a new administrative centre for the Johor Sultanate under the new dynasty. As he maintained a close relationship with the British and the latter wanted to have full control over trade in Singapore, a treaty was signed between Daeng Ibrahim and Hussein Shah’s successor, Ali Iskandar, recognising Ali as the next sultan. Through the treaty, Ali was crowned as the sultan and received $5,000 in Spanish dollars and an allowance of $500 per month, but was required to cede the sovereignty of the territory of Johor, except Kesang of Muar, which would be the only territory under his control to Daeng Ibrahim.

With the establishment of a new capital in mainland Johor, the administrative centre was moved from Telok Blangah in Singapore. As the area was still an undeveloped jungle, the Temenggong encouraged the migration of Chinese and Javanese to clear the land and develop an agricultural economy in Johor. During his reign, Johor began to be modernised and this was continued by his son, Abu Bakar. In 1885, an Anglo-Johor Treaty was signed that formalised the close relations between the two. The British were given transit rights for trade through the sultanate territory and responsibility for its foreign relations, as well as to protect the Sultanate. The treaty also provided for the appointment of a British agent in an advisory role, although no advisor was appointed until 1910.  Abu Bakar also implemented a constitution known as the Undang-undang Tubuh Negeri Johor or the Johor State Constitution and organised his administration in the British style. By adopting an English-style modernisation policy, Johor temporarily prevented itself from being directly controlled by the British, as happened to other Malay states.

Under the reign of Ibrahim, due to overspending, the sultanate faced problems caused by the falling price of its major source of revenue and problems between him and members of his state council, which gave the British an opportunity to intervene in Johor’s internal affairs. Despite Ibrahim’s reluctance to appoint a British adviser, Johor was brought under British control as one of the Unfederated Malay States or UMS by 1914, with the position of its General Adviser elevated to that of a Resident in the Federated Malay States or FMS.

Since the 1910s, Japanese planters had been involved in numerous estates and the mining of mineral resources in Johor as a result of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. After World War I, rubber cultivation in Malaya was largely controlled by Japanese companies. By the 1920s, Ibrahim had become a personal friend of Tokugawa Yoshichika, a scion of the Tokugawa clan whose ancestors were military leaders who ruled Japan from the 16th to the 19th centuries. In World War II, at a great cost of lives in the Battle of Muar in Johor as part of the Malayan Campaign, the Imperial Japanese Army forces with their bicycle infantry and tanks advanced into Muar District which is today’s Tangkak District on 14 January 1942. During the Japanese forces’ arrival, Tokugawa accompanied General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s troops and was warmly received by Ibrahim when they reached Johor Bahru at the end of January 1942. Yamashita and his officers stationed themselves at the Sultan’s residence, Istana Bukit Serene, and the state secretariat building, Sultan Ibrahim Building, to plan for the invasion of Singapore. Some of the Japanese officers were worried since the location of the palace left them exposed to the British, but Yamashita was confident that the British would not attack since Ibrahim was also a friend of the British, which proved to be correct.

On 8 February, the Japanese began to bombard the northwestern coastline of Singapore, which was followed by the crossing of the IJA 5th and 18th Divisions with around 13,000 troops through the Straits of Johor. The following day, the Imperial Guard Division crossed into Kranji while the remaining Japanese Guard troops crossed through the repaired Johor–Singapore Causeway.  Following the occupation of the whole of Malaya and Singapore by the Japanese, Tokugawa proposed a reform plan by which the five kingdoms of Johor, Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah-Penang and Perlis would be restored and federated. Under the scheme, Johor would control Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca while a 2,100-sq km area in the southern part of Johor would be incorporated into Singapore for defence purposes. The five monarchs of the kingdoms would be obliged to pledge loyalty to Japan, would need to visit the Japanese royal family every two years, and would assure the freedom of religion, worship, employment and private ownership of the property to all people and accord every Japanese residing in the kingdoms with treatment equal to indigenous people.

Meanwhile, Ōtani Kōzui of the Nishi Hongan-ji sub-sect of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism suggested that the sultan system should be abolished and Japan should rule the Malay kingdoms under a Japanese constitutional monarchy government. In May, a document was published called A Policy for the Treatment of the Sultan, which was a demand for the Sultan to surrender his power over his people and land to the Japanese emperor through the IJA commander. Through the Japanese administration, many massacres of civilians occurred with an estimate that 25,000 ethnic Chinese civilians in Johor perished during the occupation. Despite that, the Japanese established the Endau Settlement, also known as the New Syonan Model Farm in Endau for Chinese settlers to ease the food supply problem in Singapore.

In the five weeks before the British resumed control over Malaya following the Japanese surrender on 16 August 1945, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army or MPAJA emerged as the de facto authority in the Malayan territory. Johor and the rest of Malaya were officially placed under the British Military Administration or BMA in September 1945 and the MPAJA was disbanded in December. Fighting between the British occupation forces and their Malayan collaborators against the People’s Army continued through the formation of the Malayan Union on 1 April 1946 and the proclamation of the independence of the Federation of Malaya on 31 August 1957.

Since the 1960s, the state’s development has expanded further with industrial estates and new suburbs. The town of Johor Bahru was officially recognised as a city on 1 January 1994 and on 22 November 2017, Iskandar Puteri was declared a city and assigned as the administrative centre of the state, located in Kota Iskandar.

The constitutional head of Johor is the Sultan and this hereditary position can only be held by a member of the Johor Royal Family who is descended from Abu Bakar. The current Sultan of Johor is Ibrahim Ismail, who took over the throne on 23 January 2010. The main royal palace for the Sultan is the Bukit Serene Palace, while the royal palace for the Crown Prince is the Istana Pasir Pelangi; both of which are located in the state capital. Although the Malaysian constitution states that the federal government is solely responsible for foreign policy and military forces in the country, Johor is the only state to have a private army. The retention of the army was one of the stipulations in 1946 that Johor made when it participated in the Federation of Malaya. This army, the Royal Johor Military Force or Askar Timbalan Setia Negeri Johor, has since 1886 served as the protector of the Johor monarchs. It is one of the oldest military units in present-day Malaysia and had a significant historical role in the suppression of the 1915 Singapore Mutiny and served in both World Wars.

Johor has a land area of nearly 19,166 sq km, and it is surrounded by the South China Sea to the east, the Straits of Johor to the south and the Straits of Malacca to the west. The state has a total of 400 km of coastline, of which 237.7 km have been eroding. A majority of its coastline, especially on the west coast is covered with mangrove and Nipah forests. The east coast is dominated by sandy beaches and rocky headlands, while the south coast consists of a series of alternating headlands and bays. Its exclusive economic zone extends much further into the South China Sea than in the Straits of Malacca.

About 83% of Johor’s terrain is lowlands areas, while only 17% is higher and steep terrain. While being relatively flat, Johor is dotted with many isolated peaks known as inselbergs, as well as isolated massifs, with the highest point being Mount Ledang, also known as Mount Ophir, at a height of 1,276 m. Much of central Johor is covered with dense forest, where an extensive network of rivers originating from mountains and hills in the area spreads to the west, east and south. The jungles of Johor host a diverse array of plant and animal species, with an estimated 950 vertebrate species, comprising 200 mammals, 600 birds and 150 reptiles, along with 2,080 invertebrate species.

Johor is the biggest fruit-producing state in Malaysia with approximately 532,249 tons of fruit produced in 2016, with the Segamat district having the largest major fruit plantation and harvesting area in the state. In the same year, Johor was the second biggest producer of vegetables among Malaysian states. Due to its proximity to Singapore, the state benefits from Singaporean investors and tourists. The state also had a policy of twinning with Singapore to promote their industrial development, which increased the movement of people and goods between the two sides.

Johor is also the most populous Malaysian state and despite the racial diversity of the population, most people in Johor identify themselves as Bangsa Johor or Johor race, which is also echoed by the state royal family to unite the population regardless of ancestry. The majority of Johoreans are at least bilingual with proficiency in Malay and English; both of which languages have been officially recognised in the state constitution since 1914. Johorean Malay, also known as Johor-Riau Malay and originally spoken in Johor, Riau, Riau Islands, Malacca, Selangor and Singapore, has been adopted as the basis for both the Malaysian and Indonesian national languages. Due to Johor’s location at the confluence of trade routes within Maritime Southeast Asia as well as its history as an influential empire, the dialect has spread as the region’s lingua franca since the 15th century; hence the adoption of the dialect as the basis for the national languages of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

In the next part, let’s take a look at Johor’s capital of Johor Bahru

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