DATUK Onn Hafiz Ghazi has made history as one of Johor’s youngest Mentris Besar in recent years.

Since taking office after Barisan Nasional’s big win in the state polls almost seven months ago, the 44-year-old shares his thoughts about running the state, growing its economy and the need for stronger collaboration and alignment between the state and the Federal Government after the upcoming 15th General Election (GE15).

Q: Since being appointed Mentri Besar in March this year, what are the milestones you have achieved and issues that are of concern to you?

A: In Johor, we have set a big vision to make the state achieve developed status by 2030. It is a bold initiative but it requires breaking down silos as agencies, both federal and state, must work as a team.We cannot be passing the buck by saying that a problem at the Johor Baru Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex involves the Immigration Department. The state agencies need to chip in to help, including the mayor’s office, so that we can resolve problems as a team.

Making Johor a developed state is not only about infrastructure as we are not just being compared with Kuala Lumpur, Melaka or Negri Sembilan, but also with our neighbour Singapore just 700m across the Causeway. That is the reality on the ground. As such, we need to work as a team to get things done.

We also need to improve our roads, utilities and Internet connectivity. This is a huge challenge, but we are slowly getting there. We are happy that in the national budget, the Federal Government allocated funds to widen the North-South Expressway, upgrade the Senai-Desaru Expressway and fund the Bus Rapid Transit.

All these are positive projects for the state. Unfortunately, soon after the announcement, Parliament was dissolved for GE15.

For me personally, it is paramount to have collaboration between the Federal and state governments. We need our stars to be aligned.

Onward and upward: Onn Hafiz explaining his plans for Johor’s economy to Star Media Group adviser Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai at his office in Kota Iskandar, Johor. Looking on is The Star’s Johor Bureau chief Nelson Benjamin. — THOMAS YONG/The StarOnward and upward: Onn Hafiz explaining his plans for Johor’s economy to Star Media Group adviser Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai at his office in Kota Iskandar, Johor. Looking on is The Star’s Johor Bureau chief Nelson Benjamin. — THOMAS YONG/The Star

Q: How about investments coming into the state?

A: We are happy to note that the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) has announced that Johor topped the list by receiving the highest amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) amounting to RM60.9bil this year. The country as a whole received about RM120bil, half of which came from Johor.

I personally feel that people and investors realise the importance of stability in the country. After Barisan won 40 of the 56 state seats during the March elections, I sense that people want all this politicking to stop and focus on making money and profits.

Without this political stability in Johor four years ago – since GE14 – Johor’s FDI ranking dropped six or seven spots. But now, after the state elections, everything is picking up and we are on an upward trend.

Investors see Johor as an important economic zone or hub to expand, especially with what is happening in the United States, Ukraine and China. In terms of investment coming into the country, we are happy with the figures.

Q: When you meet potential investors, what are your key selling points to lure them to Johor as they have a choice of investing in other places, namely the Klang Valley or Penang?

A: Johor has a lot of advantages. First, we promote our strategic location in the southern part of the peninsula next to Singapore. We also have four major ports, a well-trained local workforce and an abundance of land. As for education and healthcare, we have many international schools and private hospitals.

Q: Is there a specific sector you are looking to develop, such as food security or the digital sector?

A: We are looking at investments that can increase the people’s income. We are looking at petrochemicals as one such area and working with oil and gas companies.

We are also looking at information technology companies. The bulk of the FDI comes from this sector. We are presently working with the federal agencies and Singapore to look into food security.

All this is in the pipeline and we see a lot of interest from Singapore. We do not see them as a rival but as a strategic partner in a win-win situation.

Q: Presently, most sectors are experiencing a shortage of manpower. Johor also faces a unique situation as most Johoreans will want to work in Singapore due to the good currency exchange. Do your potential investors ask if you have enough manpower, such as engineers, to meet their needs?

A: Yes, they do ask that. That is why when we took office, our state executive councillor for investment, Lee Ting Han, and myself decided to engage with all the stakeholders, businesses and factory owners, to find out about their needs.

They expressed concern about the brain drain, especially in terms of technical skills. So, we formed a committee to look into and resolve these issues. We are working with agencies such as polytechnics and universities to do job matching.

For example, if a factory needs 500 technicians, we will work with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Tun Hussein Malaysia to address their needs.

Q: Johor is located strategically next to Singapore and Indonesia. It has potential, especially in property. However, the Federal Government’s policy of setting a cap on properties that foreigners can own or also policy changes involving the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) programme has put many foreigners in a fix and resulted in a glut of homes in Johor. How is Johor resolving this problem?

A: Things have started picking up in Johor, especially after the reopening of the border in April. People are buying houses, but these issues have not been resolved. We will definitely need help from the Federal Government.

Policies need to be friendlier towards Johor. That is why the Federal and state governments need to collaborate. We need alignment, stability and a government that will look into the best interests of Johoreans.

That is what the people want. They see the importance of that, or else we will suffer for the next four to five years, and not just in terms of housing.

When the High Speed Rail project was cancelled, it affected the state’s economy. The new government also changed the MM2H policies.

In 2018, there was a pledge to upgrade the North-South Expressway, but that also came to a stop after the change of government. Now there are traffic jams daily on the expressway between Sedenak and Johor Baru.

These things should have been resolved in 2018. But when a change of government happens, policies are also changed. We cannot afford that anymore, so I appeal to Johoreans not to make the same mistake twice. We have already suffered and lost four years. We cannot lose another four years after GE15.

Q: How is your team of state executive councillors performing, and do you anticipate any reshuffle after the elections?

A: I am young and 70% of the exco members are younger than me. I expect them to work just as hard as me or even harder than me. If I am up by 5am, I expect them to be up early too.

So far, I am happy as they are committed and, in terms of getting things done, they have delivered. Lee has done a fantastic job in bringing in investments while our health exco Ling Tian Soon has been managing the hospitals well.

Our youth and sports exco Mohd Hairi Mad Shah has also done well along with our tourism exco K. Ravin Kumar, as tourism has been booming since the borders reopened. The hotels in Desaru are happy as they are recording an average occupancy of 70%.

Q: How is your working relationship with Johor’s civil service?

A: It was a shock for a lot of people initially, especially when I started carrying out spot checks. Now a lot of directors are doing their own spot checks.

One such person is the director of public transportation, who has been going on buses to see their conditions for himself as a consumer. Many city council presidents are also doing these checks. For me, this is leadership by example.

The intention was never to penalise anyone, but to make things better for the people. One example was during my visit to the Johor Baru CIQ complex, where 1,200 job orders were pending. That issue has since been resolved and there are now less than 100 job orders pending.However, certain things require Federal assistance. That is why political alignment between the state and Federal levels is crucial.

Q: You said that you wake up as early as 5am. What is your work schedule like? How do you separate state government duties from political work?

A: I start with my prayers. Then, I will look at what is pending for the day. Basically, I enjoy going to the ground and meeting people to find out about their problems and find ways to help them.

As for my political work, it usually happens after office hours. I reserve half days on Friday mornings to be with my family. My hobbies include running about 5km three times a week, cycling and playing badminton.