TENGKU RAZALEIGH HAMZAH moves around with quite little fanfare these days.
But the politician prince is still a highly recognisable face particularly back in his home state Kelantan. People still rush to greet him and shake his hand.
On Thursday, Razaleigh, or Ku Li as he is known by, chose his Kota Baru home to give a brief interview which has since become a talking point among Umno politicians.
Wearing a loose, short-sleeve shirt and seated informally on the front porch steps of his colonial bungalow home, he commented quite widely on the approaching Umno elections.
But it was his remark that he was open to nominations to contest “top posts” in the party that caught the imagination of Umno members.
Although he used the plural term - top posts - few had doubts he was referring to the singular No 1 post.
Even fewer expect Razaleigh to get the requisite nominations to qualify to contest the top Umno post.
His remarks caught even his close aides by surprise even though he had stirred the waters in the Umno polls of 2000 like he is doing now.
“He had mentioned a few times that he would decide depending on the nominations but nothing so definite,” said Datuk Rozali Isohak, a long-time loyalist who followed Razaleigh out of and back into Umno.
Thus, the six million dollar question is: what is Razaleigh trying to prove?
The former Finance Minister is not a conventional politician. His political style is almost as secretive and complex as the man he fought so bitterly in 1987 for the leadership of Umno, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Those familiar with him say that although he eventually ate humble pie by taking his supporters en bloc home to Umno, he has never really accepted his defeat.
“You could say he has a sense of destiny about his place in the party,” said Johor Baru MP Datuk Shahrir Samad who was a leading Team B figure back in the 1980s.
It is true that in his heydays, Razaleigh had few equals in politics. He was a royal yet commanded the common touch, he understood economics and finance at a time when Malays were still coming to grips with the field and he was incredibly charismatic and ambitious.
He was regarded as prime minister material. But that was back in the 1970s and 1980s and, as the song goes, those were the days, my friend.
Some Kelantanese think he is merely trying to remind people of his contributions to Umno and to tell those who are up there today that he played a part in their advancement.
“There are still many royalists here and in Kelantan we love him and still respect him. Kelantan people would want him to preserve his legacy as a party elder,” said Juhaidi Yean Abdullah, a top aide of Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Mustapha Mohamad.
His close aides who caught up with him in the days following his Kota Baru statement said their boss was trying to make “a democratic point.”
Razaleigh, it seemed, is critical of the way the party keeps coming up with resolutions to discourage contests for the top posts.
Apparently, he thinks it is against the spirit of the party constitution.
“He said that left to themselves, no one would want to challenge the top posts even without any such resolutions,” said an aide.
Razaleigh’s aim, his aides said, is to make people think about the issue and decide whether it is something they want for the party.
But there are, surely, more constructive ways to start a debate on political democracy in the party?
And is there also not a teeny-weeny bit of envy and grudge in Razaleigh’s action thus far?
Said Shahrir: “I once asked (Tun) Ghafar Baba whether Kuli should volunteer to help Pak Lah in the Cabinet. Ghafar said Kuli would never accept Pak Lah because Pak lah left Team B for Team A.
“He stood against Dr Mahathir and therefore he thinks he is the rightful man to step into Dr Mahathir’s shoes.”
But Razaleigh’s biggest handicap till now, said Shahrir, is that Kelantan, which he helped PAS to win is still with the opposition party.
PAS’ control of Kelantan hangs like an albatross around Razaleigh’s neck.
Others said that Razaleigh takes it a little personally each time there are calls for a no-contest for the posts of president and deputy president.
After all, the practice began only after the big fight between him and Dr Mahathir.
Since then, the rank and file has been leery about top challenges.
The people on the ground fear it will split the party again while those holding posts are apprehensive about having to take sides.
Hence, the continued misgiving over top contests is like an indictment against him.
But having said that, there is little need to get all flustered up over Razaleigh and his intentions.
Let Umno-style democracy take its course.
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