Saturday, March 29, 2008

JOCELINE TAN: There’s no real winner here

The crisis in Terengganu ended with Datuk Ahmad Said being named as the new Mentri Besar but the outcome sets a disturbing precedent for Constitutional practices.

GROWN men do cry and tears flowed among the Terengganu assemblymen when told that the Umno supreme council had decided to endorse the palace’s preference of Mentri Besar.

The incumbent and their own preferred choice, Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, was out and, Datuk Ahmad Said, the man whom they had so strenuously objected to, was in.

The tears sprung from a mixture of frustration over the situation, empathy for Idris and, for several of the assemblymen, the sense that they had been misled.

It was like the dam of pent-up feelings had finally burst. Idris was, surprisingly, the most composed as he hugged each of the 22 assemblymen who had stood so loyally by him throughout the Terengganu crisis.

The impasse between the palace and Umno had dragged on for too long and the supreme council decision on Thursday night was a case of political expediency.

Umno and Idris had the Constitution on their side but Ahmad had royalty behind him.

The Prime Minister did not want the crisis to lead to a snap state election.

The party is at its weakest in years and could not risk a re-election in Terengganu.

An earlier notion to seek legal recourse was quickly abandoned because that would have been “un-Malay” and, besides, Umno is a pro-royalist party at heart.

Moreover, an SMS campaign had begun insinuating that Umno was going against the monarchy over the issue.

Umno’s attempt to propose an alternative candidate was also not feasible to the palace. As such the party’s acceptance of Ahmad was the best solution under the circumstances.

Supreme council member Datuk Dr Latiff Ahmad, who is also Deputy Health Minister, said it was like deciding whether to treat the epidemic or the disease.

“Pitting Umno against the monarchy would have led to an epidemic and the patient who might have died would have been Umno. On the other hand, trying to reinstate Idris as MB would be encouraging the disease. What I’m trying to say is that it is easier to treat the disease than an epidemic,” said Latiff.

Idris has been through three weeks of public humiliation and torture.

“He does not deserve this sort of treatment. He has been cut up in a very public way,” said a close associate.

Umno president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi met the Terengganu assemblymen after the supreme council meeting to explain the decision.

Idris looked numbed, even stoic, in the emotion-charged atmosphere of the meeting. Almost all the assemblymen spoke, some to ask for clarification, others to voice their unhappiness.

Some were incredulous that Ahmad had been confirmed as the Mentri Besar because they had been naïvely hopeful till the final hour.

A few found it a bitter pill to swallow, that the rebel who had defied the party was being rewarded while the party loyalist was out in the cold.

When Abdullah turned to Idris for his comment, Idris merely said he was a party man and that he accepted the decision.

By Friday morning, the ex-mentri besar was back in his hometown of Besut while the new Mentri Besar was on his way back from Kuala Lumpur.

The Sultan is due back this morning to attend an equestrian event and supporters are planning a grand show of support for him at the airport.

But it will be a while more before things return to normal.

Some have summed up the outcome with the Malay proverb, kalah jadi abu, menang jadi arang (ashes if you lose, charcoal if you win).

There are no real winners here especially given that the outcome has set a disturbing precedent in Constitutional practices.

The pragmatist say that Ahmad may not be the ideal choice, but that he has throughout the fiasco continued to pledge loyalty to the party even as he went against the party line.

“We have nothing personal against him. He has been endorsed by Umno’s top decision-making body and abided by the PM’s instruction,” said one assemblyman.

Ahmad has also been under pressure because it could not have been easy standing up against the party president and his own colleagues.

The stress showed clearly the day after the palace named him as the Mentri Besar. As he spoke before a gathering of supporters, the facial tic on the left side of his face was more pronounced than usual.

The Kijal assemblyman is what is known as a kampung politician, a rough diamond that will need a lot of polishing. But he has no airs and is well liked by his constituents in Kijal.

He was a protégé of former mentri besar Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Wan Ahmad and is not exactly without administrative experience; having been an assistant district officer and served two terms as a state exco member.

His biggest problem is his hot-headedness. He has been known to challenge PAS assemblymen at state legislative assembly sittings, to step out for a confrontation.

Reporters have quickly learnt that he gets very defensive when posed with difficult questions.

He will be a stark contrast to the urbane and polished Idris.

Everyone will also be watching how Ahmad sets up his new government.

He is in a strange position. He does not enjoy the goodwill of the Umno leadership but he has royal backing. His fellow assemblymen are suspicious of him but he has the support of most of the eight Umno division heads who essentially form the political power base.

Will he be able to work with all the assemblymen who had opposed him and will he take Terengganu forward or backward?

The impasse between the palace and Umno may have ended but the problem is not quite over.