Clean, no-nonsense politician

Mission accomplished: His yardstick in life and work has always revolved around national interest. Abu Zahar is seen here talking about the wig his predecessors in the Dewan Negara had to put on in the early years. Inset: A young Abu Zahar (second from right) was assigned as the chief security officer to Queen Elizabeth when she visited Malaysia in 1972.

Tan Sri Abu Zahar Ujang who concludes his journey as Dewan Negara president tomorrow is not a news-maker like his Dewan Rakyat counterpart, but he owns something that not many politicians have these days and that is integrity and a clean image.

IT was just a few more days before Tan Sri Abu Zahar Ujang was due to call it a day as Dewan Negara president and everyone thought he would be taking it easy.

But as he stepped out of the lift to go for the Dewan Negara sitting on Thursday morning, he found the narrow hallway milling with reporters.

There was some sort of impromptu press conference by several MPs from DAP and PKR. The Dewan Rakyat had adjourned more than a week ago but the MPs, who are also members of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, had turned up to give a press conference on the 1MDB issue.

Abu Zahar evidently saw the MPs’ action as some sort of gate-crashing and he later asked security personnel to tell the MPs to hold their press conference elsewhere.

He explained later that he cannot tolerate MPs intruding when the Dewan Negara is in session and he told his senators to show the same respect when the Dewan Rakyat is sitting. It was a side of Abu Zahar that those who work with him were all too familiar with.

Abu Zahar, 72, completes his term at the Dewan Negara tomorrow.

The fact that he served out his full term of office says a lot. Of all the past presidents, only he and the distinguished Tan Sri Hamid Pawanteh, the former Perlis mentri besar, have gone the maximum of two terms or six years.

He is certainly a far cry from his rather flamboyant Dewan Rakyat counterpart Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia.

Many tend to underestimate this slight-built and soft-spoken man. Those who know better will tell you that Abu Zahar is the no-nonsense type who is not afraid to put his foot down.

He is always neatly groomed, a stickler for punctuality, an unapologetic disciplinarian and he dislikes monkey business of all kinds.

One of his staff recalled that when his boss was leading a delegation to Beijing, he had instructed the other senators to be at the hotel lobby by 8.30am. Some of them took their own sweet time and the official transport left without them.

He can be fussy about attendance and there have been occasions when he sends his staff to ask senators taking a break outside to come into the House.

He is also known to tell senators who ramble and go off-topic to focus and get back on track.

He once threatened to send a senator out of the House but he has never had to do it.

Members of the Dewan Negara are generally older and more mature. Besides, unlike the elected MPs, they do not have to put up a shock and awe performance or behave like action movie stars to impress the voters.

According to Senator Tan Sri Rahim Abdul Rahman, Abu Zahar has even told off some ministers and deputy ministers for inadequate answers.

“He told one minister, you are not answering the question. He expects them to come well-prepared,” said Rahim, who is from Kelantan.

At the same time, he has this old world courtesy about him. Newly-appointed Senator from Selangor, Dr Muhammad Nur Manuty, received a warm welcome.

“On my first day, he made a brief speech welcoming me as a friend. He spoke of my academic background and expressed hope that I will contribute to the debate.

“I can see he gives more time to those who talk sense,” said Dr Muhammad, who is from PKR.

Abu Zahar is quite prickly about the Dewan Negara’s rubber-stamp reputation and he makes it a point to tell the Senators, especially the new ones, to speak up, to research their subject matter and be factual.

He tells them not to hold their punches but that they must abide by the Standing Orders and respect the Constitution.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Abu Zahar is that despite his long years in politics, he was described by many of his contemporaries as a clean politician and that is a rare breed.

“He has a solid background and brooks no nonsense.

“He has integrity and I respect that,” said corporate figure Tan Sri Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas.

According to former minister Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin: “When it comes to Abu Zahar, you don’t hear stories that you hear about other politicians.”

Abu Zahar began his career in the police. He joined the police force shortly after the 1969 race riots.

“May 13 had an impact on me. It made me want to better myself,” he said.

He was quickly noticed by Tun Haniff Omar who became some sort of mentor figure.

Or as Megat Najmuddin put it, they came from the genre of “good men in uniform”.

In 1974, he decided to read law at Lincoln’s Inn, London. It was a bold decision, he was already a father of one and his wife was a teacher.

Moreover, police officers back then had to resign from the force if they wanted to pursue their studies.

He must have been pretty special because his bosses were reluctant to see him leave the force and he became the first police officer to be allowed no-pay leave to further his studies.

He had managed to get a Mara loan but Haniff, who was obviously grooming him for a future role, helped get him a federal scholarship.

He returned three years later and was posted to the Special Branch which was then a nerve centre given the communist insurgency war.

A few years later, he left to practise law and was part of the legal team in the high-profile murder case involving Cabinet minister Mokhtar Hashim.

It was a natural progression from law to politics for Abu Zahar. Umno was looking for a new face to contest the Pilah state seat in Negri Sembilan in the 1986 general election.

He won and was made a state exco member.

He recalled with amusement how he was advised to leave his police officer style of dealing with people behind him.

In the 1995 polls, he and Tan Sri Napsiah Omar swapped seats. He contested the Kuala Pilah parliamentary seat and Napsiah contested the Pilah state seat.

It was Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s experimental attempt to make Napsiah the first woman Mentri Besar. But the men were not ready for the radical move and the idea went down the drain.

“He is the serious type but we have a shared history, he calls me Kak Ngah and when we meet we can chat and laugh our heads off,” said Napsiah.

Abu Zahar was dropped as a candidate in 1999. The fair-minded man in him had struggled to accept Dr Mahathir’s allegations of sodomy against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. It was a mistake to question Dr Mahathir who expected 100% loyalty from everyone in Umno.

In 2004, he became president of Mubarak, the organisation of ex-wakil rakyat, and it seemed like he had well and truly ridden off into the sunset.

That was until he received a call from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in 2010 offering him the Dewan Negara chair.

It was a remarkable comeback from the grazing pastures to a central position in government.

According to Hamid, it was an astute decision by Najib. Apart from the credentials, Abu Zahar provided that continuity between the old guards and the new breed and that would help build consensus for Najib.

Abu Zahar is not easy to define. He is not the stereotypical politician partly because of his background, his life experiences and his own moral fibre.

At the same time, he has this down-to-earth air about him. After the interview, he tucked into a simple lunch – some rice, a fried fish and fishballs – eating with his fingers.

His rather old-fashioned pin-striped suit was a size too big for his slim frame and his main concern about retiring was where to put the one dozen deer or so he keeps in the grounds of the government quarters that he will have to move out of.

He said that everything he has done has been with the nation’s national interest in mind. His simple life contrasts with his big wish for the country.

“It is important that we have peace in the country. Without peace, people will not be able to live, work and grow,” Abu Zahar said.

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