The fans really completed our visit to Johor Bahru, capital of the state of Johor in the south of Malaysia. Johor Darul Ta’zim FC are current big-hitters and league-toppers, having won a fourth successive Malaysian Super League title in September.
On matchday, the North Stand of the Stadium Tan Sri Dato Hj Hassan is packed with fans young and old who know their songs, customs and traditions inside out. The choreographers and capos orchestrate the noise and keep drummers and fans aligned, but the seething mass of fanatics does the rest. It is musical, rhythmic, impressive and compulsive, the ever-increasing tempo of the drums and chants hooks you deep within. It isn’t just 90 minutes. They begin before kick-off. The Boys Of Straits Ultra group have a deserved reputation for the biggest boys in the Malaysian Super League playground.
The songs and chants they employ are indeed similar to those sung on terraces across the Malayan Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali. There is perhaps little that is original to be found within the chanting of JDT’s fans. But the scale of the support unleashed home and away is what sets them apart in the Malaysian fan scene. They simply get greater numbers of people who really go ape shit on the terraces.
JDT’s current domestic sporting hegemony and continental success contribute to this. They play the most attractive Football in Malaysia (and possibly in all of the Malayan- Indonesian archipelago), they are investing in local youth talent to a higher degree than their rivals and they boast the title of being the first Malaysian Football Club to win the coveted AFC Cup. This naturally attracts more people to games than we see at other Malaysian clubs. Malaysian fans are famously fickle in nature and a large amount going to games right now will be drawn to the terraces simply because of JDT’s success. But with or without club success, Johoreans are a passionate and proud bunch who have long flocked to the terraces to fly their flag and bang their drum.
Johor Darul Ta’zim FC is named after the state of Johor instead of the city in which it is located, Johor Bahru. The recently applied nickname “the Southern Tigers” is a further nod in the direction of the state, whose royal coat of arms features two tigers. This rebranding was conducted in 2012 to help citizens of Johor living outside of the city identify with the club through shared Johorean background and heritage. A stroke of genius, as proud Johoreans now have a modern vehicle to get behind to demonstrate their pride in their region. However, the people of Johor were already using the Football club to express what they feel is their identity. Many associate more readily with their region than their country.
Johorean statehood dates back hundreds of years. After the Portuguese conquest of wealthy city state Melaka on the 15th of August 1511, Sultan Mahmud fled to the south to found the Johor Sultanate. Over the course of 50 years, the Johor Sultanate sent numerous fleets to fight the collonial Portuguese in Melaka in vain. It took collaboration with the Dutch navy, whose interest in the region grew steadily at the beginning of the 17th century, for the Johor Sultanate to defeat the Portuguese at Melaka in 1641. It should be noted that it was the Dutch who sought assistance from the Sultan of Johor. Not the other way round. But soon enough the Johoreans learned that the Dutch were also not benign settlers, and the two armies clashed several times through the 18th century. In 1784 the Johor Sultanate signed a peace treaty with the Dutch, which the Johoreans broke the year later, before once again being beaten by the Dutch in conflict in 1787. However, the Dutch never did at any single moment encroach on the actual state of Johor. The conflict was all to do with control of wealthy Melaka.
The British were the next to have a go. Their influence in the Malayan Peninsula slowly grew through the 19th century and was surprisingly soft compared to British “influence” elsewhere at the time. Via a long series of treaties, the powerful British allowed the Malayan Monarchs and Sultans to maintain power, provided they elect a British adviser that they had to adhere to in all matters except Islam and Malay customs. The Johor Sultanate was never truly conquered and colonised the way other Asian states and countries were, and Johor was the last state on the Malayan Peninsula to be conquered by the Japanese in WWII, holding out the longest. Pride in the region’s strength and importance was furthered bolstered as Johor Bahru became the cradle of the independence movement for what we now call Malaysia. In the eyes of the Johoreans, they are the ones who always fought back and never gave in.
The Pride of Johor is something all other Malaysians commented on when I asked about the people of Johor. To quote a friend; “Johor has always stood out”. The affection and fondness the Johoreans have for their region is well known. Malaysia is a young country and the various Sultanates, Kingdoms and City States have existed for far longer than the current country has and have histories that are far more comprehensive. It is therefore understandable that people from the more historic Malaysian states would identify themselves principally as Selangorean, Kelantanese, Melakan, Kedahan etc instead as Malaysian, a name artificially applied years after the British first stuck the various Malayan states together for ease of administration. But it is Johor, home of the fighters that never gave up, who seemingly revel in their regional identity and heritage the most.
As a consequence, Johor Darul Ta’zim FC frequently sees higher matchday attendances with a more raucous atmosphere than the other Football clubs in Malaysia do. Johoreans are using Football as the modern medium to express their pride and identity.