Monday, October 27, 2008

JOCELINE TAN: Young Turks to the fore

The MCA elections may be over but members are waiting to see who will be appointed to certain positions and if incumbents in the Cabinet who lost will be replaced.

IT HAS been quite an amazing turnaround for Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. Just a few months ago, he was wondering whether his political career had hit a bump on the political highway.

Nothing seemed to have gone right for the incumbent Umno Youth leader after the general election. At one point, things were so bad that the team around him was not even sure about his chances in the Umno polls.

But the tide has turned and he is now leading in the nomination race for the three vice-president (VP) posts. Hishammuddin’s shift in fortune has partly to do with the wind of change blowing through Umno.

With just another week to go before the Umno division meetings wrap up, it looks like the VP contest will be dominated by the Young Turks.

Apart from Hishammuddin, 47, there is Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 55, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, 50, and Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin, 49.

All four had easily surpassed the 20 nominations required to contest the post.

It was an clear-cut indication of the mood for new blood and change in the Umno leadership.

For several years now, Umno’s VPs have come to be seen as a check-and-balance group in the party’s top leadership.

But because of the leadership change taking place at the very top, the issue of succession has also become a factor in the VP contest, hence the dominance of younger and seriously qualified faces.

However, delegates would also want at least one senior and experienced face among the three VPs and this is where candidates like Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar and Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim will come into play; and many expect them to qualify for the race soon.

There is no denying that the eventual VP team will very likely comprise people who Najib can work with and rely on.

In fact, the top three contenders are associated with Najib in one way or another. Hishammuddin and Najib are cousins and much as Hishammuddin’s supporters insist that he is there on his own merit, many divisions are probably giving him the nomination as a measure of goodwill for Najib.

The deluge of nominations may not necessarily translate into votes. Hishammuddin, who is Education Minister, is quite aware of that and has asked his supporters not to get complacent just because he has the most nominations.

Zahid has done remarkably well in the VP campaign despite the fiasco over his short-lived attempt at offering himself for the deputy president post. But it has been at some cost because he would be the one leading the VP contest if not for that ill-conceived episode.

Zahid owes a lot to Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who made him Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in March. But he got his first big break in politics when Najib took him as his political secretary from 1987 to 1993.

His ties with Najib have remained warm even though he went on to become a right hand man of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim shortly before the latter’s fall from power.

Shafie, the third leading candidate, also came up through Umno Youth together with Najib and he has been an out-and-out loyalist of Najib from day one.

Shafie’s edge in this contest is that he is from Sabah. Any party hoping to stay in power cannot ignore the Sabah factor. If the Unity, Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister wins, he will the first Umno VP from Sabah.

The geographical factor has always been important in Umno elections and members like a good representation of leaders from every state.

But Johor may be rather too well represented in the next Umno leadership line-up. Some Umno members have jokingly complained that Johor is producing too many capable and qualified politicians, pointing to the six Cabinet members who are from Johor.

Moreover, there are three Johorians - Hishammuddin, Khaled and Syed Hamid - among the more serious VP contenders. They will have to really try their best because delegates are unlikely to vote in more than one VP from Johor.

Political signals: It was the first time that Dr Mahathir had ever attended Muhyiddin’s Hari Raya open house and the event caused a stir among those present. The former Premier is seen here exchanging greetings with Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik while host Muhyiddin looks on. Seated from left are Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu and Mubarak president Tan Sri Abu Zahar Ujang.

Muhyiddin’s surprise guest

Besides, the next deputy president of Umno is also likely to a be Johorian, namely Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Of course, some argue that the next Umno No 2 may well be Datuk Mohd Ali Rustam who is Malacca Chief Minister.

“Everybody is confident that Muhyiddin will make it, that he’s the one. But there are some who think, let’s have a contest, that it’ll be healthy for the party so that no one will take the members for granted,” said Syed Hamid.

Mohd Ali has been making steady progress in the nomination count. His supporters are claiming that even the Prime Minister is backing him, especially after Abdullah appeared on TV expressing concern that there were groups pressuring Ali Rustam to withdraw from the contest.

The support from the Prime Minister should help him secure the 38 nominations he needs to contest.

But Muhyiddin, as many would know by now, has the tacit backing of the former Premier.

Last Sunday, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his wife caused a stir when they turned up at Muhyiddin’s Hari Raya open house in Damansara Heights.

It was the first time Dr Mahathir had ever attended a Hari Raya do at Muhyiddin’s residence.

Some said the elder statesman wanted to show his approval for Muhyiddin. Others said it was his way of acknowledging Muhyiddin’s role in speeding up the Umno leadership transition.

Whichever the reason, it set tongues awagging.

Even the normally unflappable Muhyiddin seemed thrilled to bits. He had held Dr Mahathir’s hand with both of his hands and bowed low to kiss it.

Dr Mahathir is 83 and retired. He is not even an Umno member but the consummate politician has been playing big-time politics in the way that only he knows how to.

Underlying all these impending changes is the fact that Najib’s reach in Umno is quite unrivalled.

He entered politics when he was 25 and he is now 55. During this time he has built up an amazing network of political alliances and friendship.

Many of the warlords and grassroots leaders who now command the division level poltitics have known him since his days as the leader of Umno Youth.

On his way up, he has helped a lot of people, lent his political weight to their careers and that is why things are falling in place for him at this critical juncture in Umno.

And that is also why Umno’s opponents have zoomed in on him as their target, vilifying him over a myriad of issues ranging from the Altantuya case to helicopter deals.

Many see a Najib team taking shape even at this early stage of the Umno polls.

“It’s a very crucial election for Umno. It will determine our party’s future, even our survival,” said Syed Hamid.

Young Turks to the fore
Malaysia Star, Malaysia