When the Umno faithful convene today for the three-day party general assembly, it will beto pay tribute to Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and to witness the smoothest transition of power Umno has ever seen, writes JOCELINE TAN.
KEDAH Puteri Umno head Suraya Yaakob remembers clearly that evening a year ago when Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad paused to sip some water several times in the midst of his winding-up speech at the end of the general assembly before dropping the bombshell that he was quitting.
She sat stock-still but only for a moment because the entire Dewan Merdeka quickly erupted into chaos as members pleaded and wept.
Suraya was probably one of the few people in the hall who did not cry that evening but recalled: “I immediately felt a deep sense of loss and sadness.”
All around her, tears streamed down the faces of grown men and women as the drama unfolded on the stage.
Kedah delegate Husain Rahman, who is Kulim Bandar Baru deputy head, recalled how he rushed towards the stage from the rear of the hall where he was seated, repeatedly shouting in the din: “Pull back your decision!”
“The tears were coming down my face ... just like a Hindustani movie. We were just not ready to let him go at that time,” Husain said.
Just as Dr Mahathir’s 22 years in office has defined Malaysian life, that stunning evening will always be transfixed in the minds of many Umno members.
Dr Mahathir was persuaded to postpone his retirement plan, and so began the long goodbye.
The long goodbye has enabled many inside and outside Umno to come to terms with what is undeniably the end of an era, to accept that this inexhaustible man honestly wishes to retire and to look ahead into a future without Dr Mahathir.
Zakhir Mohamed, a 35-year-old IT professional and a big Dr Mahathir fan, also cried like a baby last year. But everything sort of fell into place when he and his family made their annual trip to the Prime Minister’s Hari Raya open house this year.
“This year, the crowd was so big and, somehow, it made me feel contented for the PM. He really deserved that acknowledgement,” said Zakhir.
Party members have, by and large, come to terms with the approaching end of the Dr Mahathir era.
Umno Youth leader Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein said: “The struggle has been moulded by Dr Mahathir the last 22 years. There’s still much to be realised and we have to proceed with it. That’s what he would like us to do.”
The long goodbye has also, in its own way, enabled the smoothest transition of power Umno has ever seen.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been in the political arena since the mid-70s but still Malaysians took some time to visualise him as the next Prime Minister, which is unsurprising considering that there have been four deputy prime ministers under Dr Mahathir.
The last year has seen Abdullah come into his own, taking on more responsibilities inside and outside the party. His stature has grown tremendously and the crowds that engulfed him and his wife Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood at the Putra World Trade Centre were telling.
But even though Umno today is more united than before, the top leadership is clearly concerned about the prospect of a contest for the deputy prime minister's post.
Dr Mahathir hinted at this at the end of a closed-door session with delegates on Tuesday. Though not explicitly said, the top Umno leaders are worried that whoever is not picked as Abdullah’s deputy after October will mount a challenge against the chosen one.
Top Umno leaders, namely the three vice-presidents, have pledged to accept and support Abdullah’s choice but it is apparent that the politics of Umno has been fraught with too many incidents of politicians going back on their word and promises when their ambitions are thwarted.
Umno leaders evidently feel that a tussle for the No. 2 post may split the party right down the middle at a time when the party has made good recovery from the 1999 general election.
Part of Abdullah’s speech at the joint opening of the three wings on Tuesday night touched on this thorny subject – contests and their devastating effects.
He said Umno was not a racetrack to position and power, and warned of how those who coveted power had resorted to means that undermined the party and community.
Some Cabinet members believe that Abdullah has already made his choice and that he has conveyed his decision to the Prime Minister but will make public his choice only when he is Prime Minister.
The 57th Umno general assembly will open today in a mixed mood.
There will be the inevitable nostalgia over Dr Mahathir’s pending retirement. At the same time, the party is optimistic about the way the party has turned around the last four years and party members are looking forward to the next general election with a new level of confidence.
Most of all, the gathering this year will have a sense of anticipation about the new leadership in October and what it will bring for the party and country.
Abdullah has been the perfect No. 2 and those familiar with him say he will assiduously ensure that the limelight over the next three days is focused on Dr Mahathir.
Abdullah, they say, is determined that the moment should belong to Dr Mahathir.
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