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Sunday March 15, 2009

Mr Likeable cashing in on charm

Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam went up the rungs of Umno step by step and is now poised at the second highest step of the slippery ladder. The Malacca Chief Minister, who is also known as Mr Likeable, is aiming to become the next Umno deputy president.

EVERYONE seemed to want a piece of Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam when he turned up at an Umno gathering on Friday night.

Popular leader: Mohd Ali is very popular but he is fighting a perception war on the one hand about whether he is truly qualified for the top job.

There was no mistaking the buzz surrounding him as he made his way through the crowd in a bright orange batik shirt and a smile that never left his face the entire evening.

The Malacca Chief Minister was born with what some call a “smiling face” and it has become a key asset in the contest for the Umno deputy president’s post.

Mohd Ali is one of three men vying for the No. 2 seat and Umno straw polls apparently have him in the lead. Hence, the crowd milling around him were probably imagining that they were shaking hands with the next deputy prime minister.

Even his campaign calling card is larger and more colourful than that of other candidates.

He not only passes out three types of name cards but they are also the most functional among all the candidates because on the back of the cards are printed with useful information.

One card has a list of candidates vying for posts, another is about the World Assembly of Youth of which he is president and the third is about the Dunia Melayu Dunia Islam network also headed by him.

Mohd Ali, 59, is the dark horse that has surprised the sceptics.

When he offered himself for the post, there were unkind remarks about his experience and qualifications and also his proficiency in English.

He had only been a vice-president in Umno for a term and his administrative experience has been mostly in Malacca although he had spent some time at the federal level as a deputy minister.

He has evidently absorbed all that has been written about him because he pointedly used English throughout the interview even when the questions were directed in Malay.

And he made quite a song and dance about his experience in the Government and as an Umno politician.

He has been in Umno for 41 years and a wakil rakyat for 23 years. This man is no parachute politician. He started right at the bottom and he has gone up the ladder step by step.

And this is probably why the ordinary Umno member connects so easily with him. They identify with him because they see him as one of them.

He is also aware that there is doubt whether he can immediately assume the post of deputy prime minister if he wins because he is an assemblyman and not an MP.

He would need to become a Senator or contest a Parliamentary by-election.

But given the turbulent climate for Umno, wouldn’t a by-election be risky business?

Not necessarily so, according to him, because, Umno has not conceded a single seat in any election in Malacca since 1969. The party apparently has a perfect record of wins.

Mohd Ali’s career path has been quite similar to that of the other two contenders. All have federal as well as state experience except that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib were in charge of the country’s premier states.

He is fighting a perception war on the one hand about whether he is truly qualified for the top job against a more seriously qualified candidate such as Muhyiddin.

On the other hand, he has been riding high on his image as a grassroots man or rather as Mr Likeable.

Or as some say, his personality and approach appeals to the G7 (the seven elected delegates from each division) while a candidate like Muhyiddin appeals mostly to the G6 (the other six delegates from each division who will attend the general assembly because they are office-bearers).

Umno politics has often revolved around personalities and this could not be truer than in the contest for the deputy president.

If Mohd Ali wins, he will be the second deputy president to come from Malacca. The first was the late Tun Ghafar Baba, also a very popular grassroots man who was loved for his simple lifestyle and ideas.

Said Mohd Ali: “I don’t mind being compared with Tun Ghafar. People liked him a lot.”

The following is part of a question-and-answer conducted on Friday with the Umno No. 2 hopeful.

Q. If you win, will there be problems for you to become deputy prime minister because you are an assemblyman and not an MP?

A. To be deputy prime minister, you can be a senator or an MP. It is up the Prime Minister. If he wants, you can go through the Senate or there can be a by-election.

It will be risky to have a by-election.

In Malacca, Umno candidates have never lost in any election since 1969. We always win.

Are you leading in the contest?

I feel okay and I really hope so. I think we can get the votes we are supposed to get. All the candidates have an equal chance and I hope to be given the opportunity to be the winner. I feel the chance is there.

Your campaign machinery is said to be the most organised.

I know the members because I have been in the party for a very long time, 41 years. I have been a wakil rakyat for 23 years and this is my third term as Chief Minister. I have been around the world promoting Malacca. I started from the bottom. I know them, they know me. It is like your friends have become your supporters. I try to answer their calls and their SMS even when I am in Britain or the US. I can still run Malacca when I am overseas.

People SMS me when there is water shortage, they are having a wedding and there is no water. I will forward the message to the water authority and ask them to take action.

Are you upset when people say your proficiency in English is not so good?

It doesn’t matter to me, I am not sensitive. It is not so bad.

You are seen as Pak Lah’s candidate.

I am a candidate for everybody. There is nothing wrong to be Pak Lah’s candidate. I think it is good if people think I am his candidate. I told him I was going to contest. He did not stop me. I know what (Datuk Seri) Nazri Aziz said (that Mohd Rustam does not have what it takes to be a deputy prime minister). It is okay, I am not angry.

People are entitled to their own opinion. When you are going for a post, some people will support you and some people will be against you. When I went for the vice-president post (in 2004), he supported me. Maybe next time, he will be with me.

Do you see yourself as prime minister material?

I don’t think so far. I am contesting this post because there is a vacancy. If not, I would not have gone for it. There were other people like (Datuk Seri) Ahmad Zahid Hamid and (Datuk) Nur Jazlan who wanted to contest.


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