By JOCELINE TAN
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who turned 55 on Wednesday, has had a challenging year. He is still under pressure to change his mind about Umno's 2010 leadership transition plan but he has made it clear that he would not change his stand in not going for the Umno presidency in December.
IT was supposed to be a low-key gathering to mark Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's 55th birthday.
The original plan was tahlil prayers followed by dinner for about 500 of Najib's long-time friends both inside and outside politics.
But a real politician's house has no gates, and by the end of the evening there were some 1,200 people at Najib's Putrajaya residence. Many of them go back all the way to the days when Najib was Umno Youth leader.
They have all come a long way. A large number are now division chiefs, powerful warlords who call the shots on the ground, while the “birthday boy” is, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister. And if all goes well, he will be Prime Minister by mid-2010.
There were a total of eight cakes and a two-tier pulut kuning from well-wishers.
Najib, as one of those present quipped, does not look his age but looks older than 55. His hair started turning silver when he was in his forties and he is now what one would term a “platinum blonde”.
The crowd that evening was a reminder of just how long Najib has been in politics and of the political bonds of loyalty and friendship he has established over the last 30 years.
Among the guests were a number who are still fretting over the 2010 transition plan. The political future of these people hinges on Najib's ascension and they would, naturally, have preferred it to be sooner than later.
Generally, the rank and file have not rejected the plan but neither have they accepted it wholeheartedly. They are relieved there is now a set date but they still think the timeframe is too long.
Since the transition plan was announced last month, a string of the party's state chiefs as well as division chiefs have come out to endorse Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib for the two top posts.
But it is no secret that there are still Umno politicians who are planning to nominate Najib and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for the two top posts. This is most apparent in urban spots like the Federal Territory where Malay professionals rule the Umno roost.
“It's a more cynical and sophisticated membership in the city and they have minds of their own. The leaders tell us everyone has accepted the transition plan but wherever I go, people are simply not impressed. You cannot force an idea on the urban crowd and we are expecting some surprises,” said Khairun Aseh, an Umno Youth politician from the Putrajaya division.
Meanwhile, individuals and delegations have approached Najib to ask him about the transition plan. Some tried to persuade him to change his mind while others wanted a more in-depth explanation from him.
Najib has told such visitors that his utmost priority is a cohesive party that can lead the Barisan Nasional into the next general election. He said a contest would not be in the best interest of the party and a fight at such a high level would not be a mere battle but a war that Umno members could ill afford.
He made it clear that he would not entertain any pressure to challenge Abdullah.
“It is natural that there will be divisions which disagree with the handover date but the most important thing is that the DPM is committed to the transition plan,” said Najib's press secretary Tengku Datuk Sharifuddin Tengku Ahmad.
Or as some put it, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot force it to drink. In other words, no one can stop the divisions from nominating Najib for president but they cannot force him to accept it.
“He knows people find the transition too long. But we realise now he will not change his stand about not challenging Pak Lah,” said Kapar Umno Youth head Faisal Abdullah.
This came out very clearly when he squeezed in a briefing for Kedah divisional level leaders after receiving an award from the Kedah Sultan on the latter's golden jubilee celebrations last week.
“There has been so much doubt about whether we can win back Kedah or even to hold onto the federal government,” said Suraya Yaakob, the assemblywoman for Sungai Tiang, Kedah.
Transition plan in place
But Najib assured his Kedah audience that he and Abdullah had a genuine relationship and that he was comfortable with the time frame. He explained how the transition had already begun with a transfer of certain duties.
“He told us he trusts Pak Lah, so we will have to accept that and support him. We truly want him (Najib) to have the power to win back the states we lost,” said Suraya.
It is possible Najib also sees the longer transition as a blessing in disguise because there are a couple of hurdles he has to cross in the next one year.
A major obstacle is the Altantuya case. Najib's former ties with Razak Baginda, one of the accused persons in the murder trial, has been exploited by his political opponents and he and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor have had to battle all sorts of aspersions and accusations.
The problem is that some of these allegations may have rubbed off on Umno members. Najib has said many times that his hands are clean. He has even sworn in the name of God that he has never met the dead Mongolian lover of Razak Baginda or that he had anything to do with her death. He knows he has to fight public perception about the Altantuya case and clear his name.
The other complication is the storm whipped up by the sodomy allegations against Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Najib knows he has the undivided support of Umno in this issue and he is confident he can defend himself against accusations that he is part of a conspiracy to derail Anwar's political ambitions.
Underlying the concern of many of Najib's supporters are doubts whether Abdullah, now 68, would actually hand over power to Najib when the time comes.
They argue there is nothing to stop Abdullah from staying on a full term once he is returned unopposed as Umno president at the party general assembly in December.
Just as there are Najib supporters who are impatient for him to take over, Abdullah also has supporters and dependents who wish he would stay on and boost their respective prospects. The two groups, fuelled on by rivalry and suspicions, are the ones putting pressure on Abdullah and Najib.
It also does not help that the party's history is strewn with deputy prime ministers who fell on the wayside.
Former Premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad alone had four deputies. One has died, another has moved on to become a statesman-like figure, while yet another is still on the warpath with him.
Only Abdullah survived to become Prime Minister but even he and Dr Mahathir are no longer on speaking terms.
Basically, Umno members have yet to come to terms with the fact that Abdullah is a totally different political personality from Dr Mahathir.
Unlike Dr Mahathir who never quite treated any of his deputies as a successor, Abdullah has from the start declared Najib as his successor. He regards Najib's father, Tun Razak Hussein, as his political mentor and has often described himself as Razak's political son.
Abdullah has been a truly magnanimous No 1 and that is probably why it is so difficult for Najib to even think of going against him in the party elections. How could Najib possibly go against his own father's political son?
Although the transition is in place, no one, least of all Najib, is taking anything for granted because politics in this country has been anything but predictable of late.
“People say two years is too long. But if you are sincere and God is with you, two years will go by very quickly,” said Abdullah's political secretary Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad.
Under pressure: Najib's view is that a contest for the Umno presidency would not be a mere battle but a war that party members can ill afford; he is seen here at a briefing for Kedah Umno grassroots leaders last week.Khairun: ‘The urban Umno membership is still sceptical about the transition plan.’