DATUK Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s visit to Terengganu on Sunday was routine yet special.
He visits the east coast state regularly because he is the state Umno chairman but this time, he was flying in as the Prime Minister.
Thus, when the blue-and-yellow-tailed Perdana One touched down in Kuala Terengganu at 2.45pm on a cloudless afternoon, a massive crowd was waiting to welcome him. They formed a line that snaked from the runway all the way to a low stage erected in front of the airport terminal.
Abdullah was dressed rather formally in songkok and baju Melayu. There was a reason for it. He was on an incredibly tight schedule, with a string of afternoon functions that continued into the breaking of fast, evening prayers and late night Umno meeting. There would be no time for a rest or change of attire.
It was blistering weather but Abdullah stepped up onto the stage, serene and collected. The only hint of the toll from the heat was when he drew out a snowy white handkerchief to wipe his damp forehead.
Abdullah has maintained a punishing pace since taking office on Oct 31.
Terengganu is the second state he is visiting apart from his own home-state of Penang and barring a brief stop in Kedah to hand over aid to flood-hit villagers.
His warning about reducing red tape and doing away with the red carpet and frivolous items like corsages seemed to have hit home here. The Terengganu reception for him contained just the right touch of respect and formality without going over the top.
State Umno deputy chief Datuk Idris Jusoh welcomed him as “our Prime Minister, the son of an ulama and tok guru.”
Abdullah has spelt out his leadership style and left some very clear imprints in his first few weeks in office. But what has struck many ordinary Malays has been his religious convictions, his unassuming piety and his familiarity with the religion.
Simple acts such as being the imam during prayer gatherings have sent home a very powerful signal to the Malay man in the street. His statements on corruption and good governance, his repeated calls for people to tell him the truth and to work with him have left many PAS politicians uneasy and even a little frustrated.
These are issues that have served the opposition purpose so well and they are worried that he is stealing the thunder from them.
One PAS MP listening to the Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament on his first day in office admitted reluctantly that Abdullah had the attributes of “a good Muslim and Malay leader”. Even more worryingly, he told a colleague, “he knows how to talk to the rural Malays.”
Abdullah kept his speeches short and his messages simple and direct throughout his whistle-stop visit to Terengganu.
His speeches at each of his stops were devoid of any racial connotations even when addressing strictly Malay-Muslim audiences. Neither did he make any direct or personal attacks at PAS or PAS politicians.
The furthest he ventured on the opposition angle was to remark that the recently unveiled PAS proposal of an Islamic state was aimed at “chasing votes” because the Government had already implemented what the PAS document proposed to do.
Abdullah’s approach on Islam connects well with many ordinary Malays. Some of the banners greeting the Prime Minister read: Kesederhana Pak Lah mencetuskan inspirasi (Pak Lah inspires with his moderateness).
“Abdullah's political style and religious background is a real asset to us in Terengganu,” said Umno politician Wan Albakri Mohd Noor.
After a brief speech at the airport grounds, Abdullah was whisked away to the Palace where he paid a courtesy call on the Sultan of Terengganu.
From there, he went on to address a gathering in town where he handed over gifts to the needy. Abdullah has a spontaneous human touch to him. As a handicapped boy in a wheelchair rolled up to the stage, he stepped briskly down the steps, bringing the gifts to the boy.
As evening neared, his entourage arrived in a school in Marang, not far from where the PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang lives, to break the fast with another gathering.
“Abdullah has no qualms going into an opposition area,” said Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh, deputy Kuala Terengganu Umno head.
Dusk in the countryside has a certain nostalgia about it and the mood among those breaking the fast with the Prime Minister was warm but subdued. The simple kampung-style meal was followed by maghrib prayers led by the Prime Minister.
Isyak and terawih prayers were conducted in a surau with local residents from another kampung.
There was still the last item on the agenda –the state Umno liaison meeting, back in Kuala Terengganu.
It had been a long and hectic day and it was close to midnight by the time Perdana One took off into the night.