Here’s how Johor’s royals use football success to strengthen the Bangsa Johor identity
There is nothing like football to make the people happy.
Perhaps Singapore needs its own royal family to improve the local football scene. Just look at our neighbours in Johor, whose football club Johor Darul Ta’zim FC (JDT FC) are enjoying a period of success after the royal family got involved.
Tunku Mahkota (Crown Prince) Ismail bin Sultan Ibrahim is the official owner of the club, while his sister Tunku Tun Aminah binti Sultan Ibrahim was appointed the club’s President in July 2016.
According to Ismail, he first got involved in Johor football in 2012. In a story that has become legendary, he recounted to Four-Four-Two magazine about how a personal appeal inspired him to take the reins:
“One day I represented my father at a hockey match where I was supposed to give the trophy and on the way back I had a few Johor fans start shouting, ‘your Royal Highness please help football, please help Johor football’.
So I went home and thought about it and I thought ‘OK, why not?’ But if I’m going to take over Johor football I’m going to go 150 per cent, I’m not going to be average.”
The royal touch
JDT FC (also known as the Southern Tigers) was founded in 1972 under a different name. Although the team won the Malaysia Cup in 1994 and 1995, and the Malaysian Premier League (MPL) title in 2001, they were stuck in a rut by the 2010s.
Taking over as President, Ismail restructured the club and got rid of underperforming staff. Money was made available for transfers, upgrading the facilities, and the home ground. Around the same time, a football star whom you might know took over as JDT’s technical advisor and later head coach.
Under Fandi, the team quickly improved. JDT finished 4th in the second-tier MPL in 2012, then was promoted to the top-tier league, the Malaysian Super League (MSL). They finished 3rd in 2013.
Although Fandi left the club, JDT would go on to win the MSL title four times in a row in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Having conquered the domestic league, the Southern Tigers also tasted continental success when they won the Asian Football Confederation Cup in 2015.
Why do it?
It’s not unheard of for a royal family to act as a sports patron. In the U.K., Prince William serves as the President of the Football Association.
But not many would get involved in the day to day running of the club, turn up for training sessions, and find money for signing international-class players as Crown Prince Ismail has done.
So why the strong support? According to an analysis report by Serina Rahman, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute, the patronage of the royal family in Johor’s football club could be linked to the larger concept of Bangsa Johor, or the Johor identity.
“Bangsa Johor is the clarion call for those from the southern-most state, an identity instituted by Johor’s royal family and most strongly brought forth through the state football team, JDT FC.”
The Johor Identity
Bangsa Johor is a concept that is older than the modern Malaysian nation itself. Before the arrival of the British, Johor’s Sultan had successfully integrated the Chinese immigrants with the local Malay population, under his rule.
A unique sense of identity was formed, where Johor citizens of all races and religions are considered equal — under the Sultan, of course.
The current Sultan, His Majesty Sultan Ibrahim, has actively worked to strengthen the ideals of Bangsa Johor. Recently, he made headlines for blasting a launderette owner who put out a sign saying that it was open for “Muslims only”.
“I cannot accept this nonsense. This is Johor, which belongs to Bangsa Johor and it belongs to all races and faiths. This is a progressive, modern and moderate state. This is not a Taliban state and as the Head of Islam in Johor, I find this action to be totally unacceptable as this is extremist in nature.”
The thoroughly outmatched laundry guy said that he would obey the royal command and opened up his establishment to customers of all religions.
The team’s success is the people’s success
But if you’re looking for something to unite the people, there’s nothing better than a successful sports team.
JDT has proven to be very media-savvy in engaging its fanbase. Their Facebook page is regularly updated in both Malay and English. Fans of all races comment and show their support not just for the team, but also the Crown Prince and Princess who are prominently featured.
Even the team’s mascot and nickname, the Southern Tigers, is a subtle reference to the Malaysian national team. As they are also known as the Tigers, the implication is that Johor’s successes are distinct from the national team — a Southern rival to the capital.
By linking the success of the Southern Tigers to the concept of Bangsa Johor, the royal family have managed to instil a greater sense of loyalty and appreciation in the people of Johor. And as the team goes from strength to strength, so too does the royal family.
Top image from Johor Southern Tigers’ Facebook page.