Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah explains why he left Umno, after almost three decades in the party, to join PKR.
FORMER deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has always been seen as one of the moderate voices in Umno, speaking up on issues of concern even if it meant not toeing the party line.
Intelligent and soft-spoken, he is generally well-liked by urbanites who see his daring to be different as a breath of fresh air.
But some in Umno think his views are more in line with the Opposition.
The former Temerloh MP and ex-Umno supreme council member caused a bit of a stir on Sept 22 when he showed up at a Pakatan Harapan roundtable forum.
He told reporters he was there in his capacity as the head of Akademi Belia, an NGO, and not as an Umno member.
However the Umno secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor wasn't buying that and slapped him with a show-cause letter, even as the Umno disciplinary board chairman Tan Sri Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas sprang to Saifuddin's defence, saying he did nothing wrong.
On Oct 2, Saifuddin sent two replies to the Umno Headquarters in response to the show-cause letter. Yet less than two weeks later, he ditched Umno for PKR and shortly after was appointed Pakatan Harapan's Chief Secretary.
In an interview with The Star, Saifuddin explains why he jumped parties.
Stressing that he has problems with the RM2.6bil political donation issue and the way the Government handled the 1MDB investigation, he says; "I am pro truth and justice. "
For him, Umno has moved from the centre to the right on issues and seems to lack clear leadership.
"It's like a drama without a script," he says.
He acknowledges there are good people in Umno and has no quarrel with friends in Umno who want to change the party from within.
"They should go on doing it. But for me because of the two scandals, I can't."
When exactly did you decide to leave Umno?
After the RM2.6bil political donation (to the Prime Minister's personal account) story (came out). Before that, I had misgivings about the way we handled 1MDB. But I gave the PM the benefit of doubt that 1MDB was and still is under investigations.
But when in a single day you drop the Deputy Prime Minister, a minister, the Attorney-General, transfer two MACC directors to the Prime Minister's Department, transfer the chief of the Special Branch and I started hearing that (Bank Negara governor) (Tan Sri) Zeti Akhtar Aziz was also being harassed - of course not by him (the PM) - but by others and I start thinking 'This is too much'.
When there was a clear indication that RM2.6bil was a 'donation' to his personal account I said 'That's it'.
I made the actual decision on Sept 23. To me, that was a very significant day because it was Wukuf day in Arafah (a day of reflection and prayers, an important ritual during the Haj).
If you decided on Sept 23 to leave Umno, why did you go through the whole drama of sending the two replies to their show cause letter. Were you messing with Umno?
Technically I was still an Umno member. I have to honour the letter from the secretary-general so I decided I must reply. It wasn't messing around.
Why did you not say anything then about leaving the party?
I made the decision with my family but I was not announcing it to public (yet).
How was it that when the announcement was made that you were joining PKR, they made you the Pakatan Harapan secretary?
They made me chief secretary of the Pakatan Harapan secretariat but that announcement came only later (Oct 19).
Do you mean that just in matter of days after joining PKR, you were made chief secretary of Pakatan Harapan?
I made the decision with my family on Sept 23 (to leave Umno) . Thereafter, there was the busy schedule of meeting the PKR president and deputy president and then the announcement was made on Oct 15.
When you attended the Defending the Malay Dignity Forum (on Sept 30), you told reporters who approached you that you were still with Umno.
I had not replied the show-cause letter yet at that time. So I told the reporters that I was waiting for inspiration.
But when you told the reporters that, had you had already made up your mind to leave Umno and were already negotiating with PKR and Pakatan?
Yes but I didn't know when the announcement would be made.
But doesn't that show bad faith and a lack of sincerity on your part?
No. I thought I was being honest to myself . Yes I made a decision to leave but I had not made an announcement so technically I was still an Umno member so I had to honour the secretary-general's letter.
Did you even feel remotely bad about Umno disciplinary board chairman coming out to defend you saying there was no need for action to be taken against you, but we can see during that time you were going behind Umno's back and negotiating with PKR and Pakatan, looking for a way to exit Umno and enter their party?
Well, you have to do certain things in a certain ways. So long as I had not announced it I was technically a member of the party. I have a lot of respect for (disciplinary board chairman) Tan Sri Megat (Najumuddin) but my negotiation is my negotiation.
Umno is facing hard times. So when the going got tough, you just gave up and left?
No! It's not about leaving Umno. Umno left the centre!
I have always been a centrist. I have always believed in moderation. Umno is by constitution a moderate party. It is a centrist party. It is a racialist but not a racist party. But of late unfortunately, Umno seems to be moving more towards the right.
I don't want to use the term that Umno has become a racist party but some of the pronouncements made by the president and top leadership of Umno seem to show that they condone or they do not object (to it). Even if they do not condone it, they do not seem to be objecting to heightened racism within certain sectors, including from Umno members. That, to me, is unfortunate.
What happened to changing the party from within?
I believe change can happen everywhere. And I believe while I was in Umno I wanted to change Umno from within. Remember there was the Malaysiakini interview where I said that Umno members should stay with Datuk Seri Najib (Tun Razak)? I got flak for that, including from some Umno members because they thought he was becoming a liability. But during that moment in time I still gave him the benefit of doubt over the 1MDB issue. At that time the RM2.6bil had yet to be acknowledged as a donation that went into his personal account.
I believe that Umno can reform from within. If you ask me today 'Yes, my friends who believe in reforming Umno from within should go on doing it'. I won't quarrel with them who say that Umno should be reformed from within.
The only thing for me is that I can't take the two scandals.
I can argue on the fact that reform is very slow or at times there is a flip-flopping (of policies) like what happened with the Sedition Act.
Although that was very difficult and bitter to swallow, I still can do it.
Because even though I was not very happy with the Sedition Act remaining, I can still say 'Okay maybe after the Harmony Act (is legislated) slowly over time that Act will prevail over and above the Sedition Act'. I can still argue that way.
But the way in which we handled the 1MDB investigation and the RM2.6bil donation, that was the turning point. I didn't have any argument to defend it.
I am a debater.
As a debater, I can accept bad argumentation that go all over the place or beat around the bush.
But when you transgress into the investigation of the 1MDB and when MACC law clearly states that donation equals to corruption, I can't take it.
When you are upset with one person namely the leader of the party, why turn your back on the whole party?
Just look at the leaders in the party and the statements they made about so many things including 1MDB and the RM2.6bil. Frankly, it's laughable.
On the RM2.6bil, first one minister said 'no such thing', then another said something else, then another something else. Then they say it is a trust fund. These are Umno supreme council members.
We have seen what (former Umno president and ex-PM Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) wrote in his blog about the (party's) trust fund. It is not in his (the president's) personal account and it is taken care of by him and two other persons. But here, even the deputy president was asking questions (about the RM2.6bil) and was not in the loop.
And look at the way we handled the statement of the ambassador of China (who visited Petaling Street after the Red Shirt rally). Three ministers and one deputy minister were making all sorts of statements.
When had we had such a situation (in the past)?
Not during Dr Mahathir's time! Even at the height of the crisis between Dr Mahathir and (Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim). After he was sacked by Mahathir, the Umno supreme council and the cabinet were intact in the way they replied to queries and answered to questions.
But this time around, you don't (even) know if there is a clear leadership at the top or if it's like a drama without a script.
Despite all this, some may feel they can still improve things in Umno, I never said 'No' to that. Please go on doing it.
But someone like me can't. And I have to do it with another party.
If you were not happy with the party, why could you not just leave the party and be an NGO man so your views will be respected by both sides?
Well I am still a politician so I have to decide to join another party.
You lost as the Temerloh MP in the last general election and you lost in the Umno elections in your division. Some say your political career is finished in Umno, so are you jumping parties in hope for a political revival?
There were many factors as to why I lost in Temerloh during GE13.
The research done by UMCEDEL (University Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections) showed that the main reason was because people were voting for the party and not the candidate.
Secondly, I lost the deputy head of Temerloh Umno by 40 votes in a three-cornered fight. Again there were many factors.
In Umno, if you are no longer an MP or you don't have any governmental position, your position in the party is always at stake. I also think, to a certain extent, I lost because I was not willing to do what some people were willing to do, including (engage in) money politics. Now if I were to merajuk (sulk) I would have left Umno there and then but I didn't. I stayed.
When I was an MP and a deputy minister and a member of the supreme council, I told the Prime Minister and spoke in the supreme council once that we need to prepare in a certain improved way facing GE13 and that we couldn't repeat the way we went into GE12 (the 2008 general election) where we had almost everyone running for elections to the extent that you didn't really have someone at the HQ looking after the command centre.
So I said if the president should decide to establish an Election Command Centre, the group involved or leading it must be free from his or her personal campaign, meaning he or she must be prepared not to stand in elections.
And I said if you think I can be of assistance in this matter, I am prepared not to stand for election.
I haven't said this to the PKR people yet, but I am prepared to tell them the same thing. That if we need to form a real Command Centre for Pakatan Harapan to win GE14 and if they think the Command Centre must be free from individuals who are also busy looking at which constituency they want to contest and all that, and if they think I can do it and because of that, I can't stand in the next general election, then I am prepared to do that.
You were doing so well as the head of the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM). Was that not enough?
No. I am a politician. I want the Opposition to win GE14. I can't do that as the CEO of GMM.
How hard is it for you to turn your back on a party which you have been an active member since 1986 ? You would now have to condemn a party that used to be in your blood.
I don't think "hard" is the word. I think "strategic" would be more appropriate.
I have never played the condemning game. I have tried to distance myself from gutter politics and character assassination. So yes, I have turned my back against my old party but I suppose I can still maintain the way I have been doing things in the past. It is about healthy competition.
I think we should maintain a healthier way of doing politics.
What happened to that NGO that you were supposed to join with Datuk Seri Nazir Razak? Is that still on?
I informed Nazir that I was joining PKR and he perfectly understands my reason and rationale. The NGO is really up to him.
Did you tell him before making the announcement to join PKR and what was his response?
I told him as a friend face-to-face before the announcement. Just like my family, I also told some very close friends. I didn't ask him if he was surprised. I think he understands why I made that decision.
When the announcement was made, what was the strangest message or feedback that you got?
I got a lot of positive SMS and WhatsApp messages, mainly from family members like my wife's cousins, our nephews and nieces. We have a big family and their congratulatory remarks were really a pleasant surprise. We've always had good interaction and visit each other during Hari Raya, and once in a while we go out and enjoy makan together. But now I know that they have always been PKR or PAS members. They never told me before, so that was really unexpected. Many more among my close friends, distant relatives, not-so-close friends and people I know congratulated me, that was a pleasant surprise.
You stood out in Umno and Barisan Nasional because you were one of the rare moderate voices, vocal and bold enough to give dissenting views. But now you are going to be just another Opposition member.
I am okay with that. We complement each other. Perhaps that would strengthen my own conviction and idealism. I believe in that kind of atmosphere. You know the old Malay saying that you kawan dengan orang baik you jadi orang baik (you become like the people you fraternise with).
Are you sure you don't have blinkered view of the Opposition because they have their own squabbles within. You saw what happened to people like Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, respected academic Dr Chandra Muzaffar and Datuk Zaid Ibrahim. Are you going in with your eyes open?
I've seen it all. First of all, it is very difficult to find any political party in the world without internal bickering.
I've learnt from experiences with my friends in the past. For now, I can't say much because I've been with this party for just a week. I am still learning. It's a steep learning curve and I have to learn very fast.
What do you think of your ex-Umno colleagues comments that your departure from the party makes no difference and some were not surprised at your jumping because of your 'Opposition' mindset anyway?
When they said they were not surprised because they see me as pro-Opposition - that is the problem.
I joined politics for a higher objective based on my understanding, my own intention and idealism.
All this while I have been consistent in saying whatever I want to say and writing whatever I want to write and standing up to issues as I see fit, though I understand at times I cannot say much - because I understand to a certain level that is what party discipline is all about.
But if it is in stark contradiction to my own conviction and understanding, then I have to stand up.
But they don't see it that way. They see that Umno has to be a certain way. The problem is sometimes what some of my friends in Umno believe is not really the best thing for Umno, or the best thing for the Malays or the best thing for the country. That is their standpoint. I am okay with that. And because of that, they say I am pro-Opposition! But I am actually pro truth and justice. That has always been my style.
If you look at some of my colleagues who have been named together with me as the reformists in Umno, either they have been silent or they have not made such kind of remarks. I don't hear Khairy Jamaluddin, (Datuk) Rahman Dahlan or (Datuk) Nur Jazlan making that kind of remarks. These are three Umno leaders that I believe that can still make a difference within Umno.
Nur Jazlan did say that you are not a true Umno man because you threw in the towel because you didn't want to change the party from within?
I don't mind. To me that's understandable.
But some Umno members said good riddance and you were a thorn in the flesh?
That's normal. What can I say? How do I reply to such comments?
Did it hurt you?
Not at all. I am used to it. I have been getting that kind of flak all this while.
Academics have said your entry into PKR will have no impact to the country's political landscape because you are not an iconic figure.
I have never considered myself iconic in the first place. I have always positioned myself as just another player. The only problem is that within Umno, it is very difficult to play the game. But I seem to be very warmly welcomed - at least for now - by PKR and Pakatan Harapan. The secretary-general of PAS (Datuk) Takiyuddin (Hassan) too made a warm welcome statement.
Have your ex-colleagues in Umno been in touch with you since you made the announcement?
I bumped into one or two and they wished me good luck in a good manner and I know that they are sincere.
So now your desire would be to see the downfall of Umno in the general election?
Let's be very clear about two things here.
Come GE14, we need to have a change of guard in Putrajaya. No one knows what's going to happen. A new government in Putrajaya can come in two forms.
Today's opposition, Pakatan Harapan, could be government.
Or it could be a 'Pakatan Harapan Plus Plus' government - a third kind of coalition.
You cannot deny the fact that there are good Umno people.
Should there be a hung parliament, there is always the possibility there could be 'Pakatan Harapan Plus' coalition with the 'Plus' coming from Barisan Nasional. It could be individuals. It could be coming from a party or one or two parties. We have to be very open about the outcome of GE14. We never know.
It is more important that the next government must be made up of a new political configuration.
We cannot continue with the current configuration used by Barisan which is 'Consociationalism'. Consociationalism is basically communal- or race-based, where you bargain according to race and then you divide your work when you become government, also according to race. Umno takes care of the Malays, MIC takes care of the Indians, MCA and Gerakan take care of the Chinese. We can't go on doing that.
There must be a new configuration which in political science is called 'Centripetalism' which is multi-racial, moderate and centrist.
The main difference would be a true multi-cultural base, so you don't bargain according to race but you bargain according to real needs rather than race.
And you don't divide work according to race but you divide work according to expertise. That to me is the real challenge.
If you were face to face with PM Datuk Seri Najib right now, what would you say to him?
I will tell him; 'Yang amat berhormat, whatever I am saying today is nothing new to you. You know it.'