JUST minutes before the Umno general assembly convened for the winding-up session, Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz was still chatting with her Wanita Umno colleagues while finishing up her lunch in the VIP lounge behind the Dewan Merdeka.
The Wanita Umno leader looked serious but she seemed to be in control of the pressure from the AP (approved permit) controversy.
But she was clearly somewhat self-conscious by the time she took her seat on stage.
When it came to her turn to speak, she stood up so abruptly that her gauzy sequined shawl almost caught on her chair.
This was the moment that everyone had been waiting for – a thorough explanation from the International Trade and Industry Ministry on the AP issue.
Rafidah began her speech well enough.
She knew she was not going to have an easy time for she told her audience that it was better to be criticised by the Umno family than the opposition.
And as usual, she spoke largely off the cuff, referring only occasionally to her notes.
Rafidah has not held the Miti post for 15 years without good reason. She is an incredibly intelligent and capable person, whose grasp of the complexities of trade and investment remains quite unrivalled.
She knows the AP system, right from the point when it was implemented, like the back of her hand.
And she explained how the policy had been modified over the years and how today there are 36 solely bumiputra companies which have won franchises from international car manufacturers.
She also explained how the single biggest AP – holder Tan Sri Nasimuddin S.M. Amin – became the sole importer for numerous brands of cars.
Her explanation would have gone down well with a rational audience but the crowd that afternoon was perhaps not the most sympathetic or receptive of audiences.
It is also probable that she did not reckon just how hostile the weather was down there below the stage.
Midway through her speech, her remarks on how Proton could compete in the market if it was well made struck a wrong chord.
That was when things went seriously wrong for Rafidah and the jeering began in earnest.
The delegates did not stop heckling despite repeated appeals from her and permanent chairman Tan Sri Onn Ismail.
It seemed like a section of the delegates had made up their minds about her and could not be bothered to listen to any more of her explanations.
“Wait, please, hear me out,” she had to say several times, holding up both hands, one of which was clutching a crushed ball of white tissue.
There was also applause but the heckling was too loud and continuous to ignore.
It was a nightmarish situation for the top Cabinet member, and several supreme council members on the stage were clearly uncomfortable over the drama.
Umno president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi looked solemn, his chin resting on his clasped hands, absorbing what Rafidah was saying and the mood on the floor.
His deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, was equally sober, staring straight ahead of him.
At one stage, when the crowd kept chanting Hidup Proton! (Long Live Proton!) Rafidah had clearly misjudged the sentimentality that Umno delegates have for the national car industry, warts and all.
She also seemed to have a credibility problem with them.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said one senior journalist.
But perhaps what stunned some of those watching was how she abruptly ended her speech and walked back to her seat.
Many in the audience had expected her to offer some sort of apology to former party president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whom she had described as a father figure.
But there was no such concession from the Iron Lady.
In fact, she would have saved herself a big headache had she apologised to her one-time mentor from the start of her speech.
Rafidah thinks she has done no wrong to Dr Mahathir on the Proton issue but, unfortunately, the general perception is that she has and her mistake was in not responding to that perception.
The Wanita leader was supposed to have used her winding-up speech to stamp out the bushfire burning within the party over the AP controversy.
But it looks like the fire is still burning.
Supreme council member Datuk Shahrir Samad had earlier in the day noted that Rafidah’s problem with Dr Mahathir had sparked off a certain sense that things were about to change.
“She was his favourite minister and now they are quarrelling. It marks the end of something, but don’t ask me what,” he said.
But hot as the AP issue might have been, it did not eclipse the overriding issue known loosely as the Malay Agenda.
This general assembly saw Umno coming to terms with the shortcomings of the New Economic Policy. They also articulated their aspiration to achieve the 30% Malay equity target through the Ninth Malaysia Plan and beyond.
The fact that the ringgit peg, which was implemented during the Mahathir administration, was removed in the midst of the assembly was also significant.
“In that sense, there is also the beginning of something new for the Abdullah administration,” said Shahrir.