The VP left standing

  • Nation
  • Thursday, 24 Nov 2016

Interview Umno vice president cum defence minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein. RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star.

OF Umno’s three vice-presidents, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein is technically the only one left standing.

Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has been sacked from Umno, and after Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was also got the boot, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was appointed vice-president carrying out the duties of the deputy president, making him the de facto number two.

The three veeps - the third in line in the party hierarchy - usually share the work to help to organise the party’s general assembly. This year Hishammuddin only has Dr Ahmad Zahid to rely on. His workload this time around, as he put it, “is no joke.”

The Star was the first newspaper to be granted an interview with him in conjunction with the assembly starting Tuesday next week.

Umno affairs occupy much of his attention, but his role as Defence Minister also shows. The flow of his conversation reveals person very cued in to global developments ranging from the United States presidential elections to the rise of right-wing political sentiments in countries including Turkey, France and Germany.

He used to indulge in quite a few hobbies ranging from martial arts to superbikes, but confessed his focus on work has left him bereft of any nowadays.

Like Dr Ahmad Zahid, Hishammuddin revealed that he too feels most at ease when playing with his grandchildren.

“I meet and deal with a lot of people in my job and they each have an agenda, so I understand why Dr Ahmad Zahid also loves to be with his grandchildren.

“It’s their innocence that endears them so much to us,” says the doting grandfather to two boys.

Asked what he expected from the party meeting, Hishammuddin pointed out that unlike what some people think, it’s not easy to predict how an Umno assembly will turn out.

“People say we tell our speakers what to say, that we control them. It’s not true.”

It will be definitely be an interesting week ahead for everyone. The following is the full version of the interview.

The past 12 months since the last general assembly
It’s not that things are better, but we got through last year and at least that’s a consolation. It’s so important to make that point. A lot of people went through tests around the world. David Cameron is no more as Prime Minister of Britain. Obama won’t be US President anymore. In the Middle East, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are dead, and other governments have fallen.

These were things I worried about last year, but we have survived. Our children can go to school, unlike the children in Syria who have not gone to school for years, our people are not refugees, the country is still relatively safe. We can plan for our future. We just need to get through the general election, to get a mandate from the people.

On Bersih 5  

I was the minister responsible for security during Bersih 1,2 and 3. My take is that now, after Bersih 5, we have no choice but to go back to the people in a democratic process through a general election. Bersih 5 was maybe the last kopek (last attempt) to shortcut that process. Now they have no choice. Stop the demonising of leaders. Stop the politics of division and hate. Let's go back to the people show them our policies, plans, and explain how you are going to unite the people.

Come up with something concrete. They've had the opportunity in the last three years to attempt a vote of no confidence, argued about the economy going bankrupt, talked about Asean leaders not coming to our Summit last year, that the Umno assembly was going to be in shambles last year, about Datuk Seri Najib resigning in September.

We should now leave it to voters to decide our fate. Is that so unfair? You’ve had your demonstrations, you’ve demonised us across the world through social and international media. I’m appealing to the public to give us the opportunity to state our case and for them to then decide whether Barisan Nasional stays or not.

Your message to the delegates at the Umno assembly

I’m relieved that Umno has gone through a period, if not handled properly, would have caused us lots of problems. One thing we always tell people in Umno is to learn the lesson from the Malay saying marahkan nyamuk kelambu dibakar (literally, burning the mosquito net in anger at the mosquito). And it is ironically what we were told from former party leaders who are now attacking us.  
On Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attacking Umno and the Government

To see him in the streets wearing a free Anwar (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) T-shirt, I could not believe it. He was someone who led us for 22 years and  now we see him saying and doing things completely opposite to what he preached to us. I was Umno Youth chief. The movement was split in two, and we had to defend him. I had get to back everyone back on track. And to see that very person we were defending now sitting at the same table shaking hands and wearing an Anwar badge just doesn’t gel with me.

On the threat Dr Mahathir and his allies pose

We cannot take it for granted, but I don’t see them having a common objective or a consistent position, and they don’t seem able to come up with a clear decision on very basic matters such as who is going to be the PM if they do win. Has Dr Mahathir taken control? How is it between Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin? What’s the role of Mukhriz (Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir)? How are they going to deal with PAS’ position vis-a-vis DAP? What about the groups in Sabah raising very populist but divisive issues?

They might win certain seats, but at what cost? By sowing the seeds of divisiveness in Sabah and Sarawak? By demonising our leaders and discrediting the very party Dr Mahathir led for so long? Datuk Onn Jaafar (Hishammuddin’s grandfather, who founded Umno but later left the party) didn’t do that. He said ‘take good care of Umno’. He didn’t go to the streets, and that has left some hope for his grandson whom you are speaking to now.

On what Dr Mahathir really wants

I find it so difficult trying to understand what Dr Mahathir is trying to do. And even if he manages to do what he sets out, what will he do next? Their whole cause is just to bring Datuk Seri Najib down.

I don’t know (what he wants) and I don’t want to waste too much time trying to figure it out, because it’s not going to make much of a difference to whether Umno is going to field the right candidates and get our machinery going. I’d rather concentrate on things which are much more constructive.

History will judge him and unfortunately I don’t think it will be on the 22 years which he led the country but based on his actions in the last few years, which is not good.

It will be the reverse of Datuk Onn, who died a lonely bitter man demonised by his own people. History however has judged him well, after his death.

On the strong reaction by Johoreans against Dr Mahathir’s criticism of the Bangsa Johor concept
I think Johor is special and I am very proud of Johor. I am quite lucky to have a relationship with the Sultan and Tengku Mahkota Johor. I am close to Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin and they trust me enough to confide with me the future they see we should navigate towards together for Johor.

This idea of Bangsa Johor was mooted by Sultan Abu Bakar, a visionary Sultan who saw Bangsa Johor not through the colour of skin but through being Johorean. It is something which, if taken positively, can unite.

On Khaled's recent warning that Umno is facing its worst-ever battle at the 14th general election (GE14)

I don’t think he’s pessimistic. He’s being realistic, which challenges us to do better. We can’t be in denial about this thing we need to face head on but at the same time we can’t be so negative to the extent that it would demoralise our people. He has managed to keep the balance.

On the threat that Muhyiddin, Dr Mahathir and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal pose in Johor and Sabah?

I’ve been to Semporna to officiate the Umno division meeting, I’ve been monitoring the divisions of Pagoh, Muar, Bakri and Ledang. I think that for the party members, when it comes to loyalty the party's struggle is bigger than any individual.

On Donald Trump’s election as US president and the lessons for Malaysia

We saw how when he ran for presidency, he said a lot of things. When he became president elect, it’s no longer as easy. And when he becomes president it becomes even harder. That’s why one has to be very careful in the run-up to becoming a leader. It’s such wisdom which our leaders here have that has allowed us to survive.

I’m not saying that we will record a fantastic win at the next general election, but I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, provided that we are realistic, we know that it’s not going to be easy and that there are no shortcuts. I look forward to facing the general election. Once and for all, let’s put all the issues out there and let the people decide.

On the biggest challenge for Malaysia in nation-building

Unity. I believe the majority of Malaysians still love our country, and feel blessed we are still together, but getting everyone to really put emphasis on unity has always been our biggest challenge since Independence. Our biggest test was May 13, 1969. We then had a wise and fair leader who took note of the problem. Now I am worried because news travels in real time, we no longer had the luxuries our forefathers had. Unity takes a lot of time, patience and should not be clouded by emotion.

Lessons from the rally against Jakarta’s Chinese governor Ahok for allegedly insulting Islam?

I’m worried because the issue has become political in that country. It shows that when you mix religious emotions with political consideration, that becomes a very dangerous cocktail.
Top concern for Umno at the assembly

The most immediate is to close ranks to win the general election. This is something even the party president cannot ignore and will need to address in his speech. We also might have to close ranks with our component parties. This is not just about Umno. If Umno is the backbone of Barisan, then we have to show the leadership to close ranks with our component parties. For me, we should focus first on getting through the Umno general assembly first

On how different the Umno assembly will be this year

Hard to say. People say we tell our speakers what to say, that we control them. It’s not true. This year though will not be as uncertain as last year. More predictable due to a realisation that the general election is near, and that we are going into one of the toughest general elections we have had to face.

On the sentiments by Umno members regarding Dr Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Shafie now that they in the Opposition

If the three of them are such a good combination how come they didn’t meet their target of getting 500,000 people in Bersih 5?

What happened to their roadshow? For seven weeks they went all around Malaysia. If this is the best they can do, bring it on, man. But don’t bring it to the streets. You’ve had your fair share of demonstrations on the street, now is the time to bring it to the people and let them decide in a general election. There are no shortcuts. There is a democratic process that has governed us all this time, let’s follow that. If the people feel that Barisan Nasional still has a role in guiding us then give us a strong mandate.

People say we have not been democratic and have not given space for people to contest. They held Bersih 5! The fact that they have been able to do it five times already answers the question.

The possible effect on Malaysia from the wave of right wing politics sweeping countries such as the United States, Britain and Germany

This is a challenge many countries are facing. For us, we realise at the end of the day that we need to live together. Despite some of the things that some of our leaders are doing – sowing seeds of hatred and dividing the people – the majority of Malaysians are still in the middle. And it's important that the majority remain there.

On Datuk Seri Najib’s standing in Umno today

Very strong. If you ask what is his standing among the public, then that depends on the outcome of the general election. If party members love their president, then they must ensure that the public support is there. Because that’s the only way to prove one way or the other, that he has the mandate to lead.

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