IT ALL seemed so long ago but at the height of the reformasi four years ago, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein spoke off the record about the malaise besetting Umno Youth.
Then the Umno Youth acting chief, he said the inability of the movement to serve as a platform for Malay youths to voice their views had contributed much to the rise of opposition parties, in particular PAS.
“We have to wring back the support of the younger generation, or Umno, like other political parties in the region, will be consigned to dustbin of history, “ he said in an interview.
Four years down the road, Hishammuddin and Umno Youth can say with a degree of justification that it has manage to break, if not loosen the hold by PAS and Parti Keadilan Nasional on Malay youths.
Joining Umno Youth nowadays is no longer seen as “uncool” for Malay youths. On the contrary, becoming an Umno member is seen as a symbol of patriotism, a badge to proudly declare ones loyalty to his race, religion and country in a supposedly borderless world.
The transformation is quite remarkable if seen from the context of what has preceded the movement before Hishammuddin took over from Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as acting Umno Youth chief on October 1998. The whole party was on the brink following the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar was a charismatic and enigmatic leader and his appeal held sway among the masses, particularly among Malay youths.
Despite his achievements, Hishammuddin will never take any credit for the evolution of the movement under his helm.
The 42-year-old son of the third Prime Minister of the country, Tun Hussein Onn, is not the kind to indulge in compliments.
In the interview recently, Hishammuddin pointed out that Umno has been and would always be bigger than any of its leaders.
“My grandfather (Datuk Onn Jaafar) is a testament to the fact that Umno is not a party of individuals.”
Although there was no one to challenge him within the party, Hishammuddin's easy-going demeanour makes him a soft target for the opposition.
His counterpart from PAS, the fiery Mahfuz Omar took every opportunity to bait Hishammuddin, challenging him to debates at every turn. And when it did not succeed, he resorted to calling Hishammuddin names.
A close aide said Hishammuddin knew from the beginning that there would be people taking pot shots at him because of what he represents.
“He has got Umno running through his veins,” said the aide.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political scientist Dr Nidzam Sulaiman said Hishammuddin took over the movement at the best and worst of time.
Having consolidated and helped the party overcome one of its darkest period, Dr Nidzam said the tasks that lie ahead of Hishammuddin was to bring back the dynamism and vigour of the movement.