Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad’s old school style of politics helped him survive in Umno but he was less prepared for the new century political landscape and the challenge of running the business of Felda.
THERE have been many ups and downs in Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad’s career but it is definitely a low point for him right now.
He is embroiled in a spectacular fall from grace and had to resign as chairman of Felda Global Ventures Holdings (FGV) earlier this week.
To rub salt into the wound, the FGV share price rose by 22sen on news of a new chairman.
Mohd Isa was not his usual bubbly self when he arrived at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) headquarters in Putrajaya on Wednesday with his wife Puan Sri Bibi Sharliza Mohd Khalid.
They were questioned for nearly four hours over allegations of corruption and abuse of power during his time in FGV.
The thing that raised eyebrows was that his wife was there not just to accompany him but she was also allegedly being questioned.
It sent a buzz through the circle of Umno ladies because Bibi used to be a high-profile Puteri Umno leader.
Mohd Isa declined to comment on the investigation or what had transpired during his session with the MACC.
“There were many issues. But I will not reveal what they are. Let the MACC decide if they want to reveal or not,” he told reporters.
Mohd Isa was the envy of Umno politicians when he was picked for the plum post of Felda chairman in 2010 and FGV chairman a year later.
Tan Sri Shahrir Samad, who replaced him as Felda chairman earlier this year, said Felda is an economic powerhouse with an annual budget of RM3bil while the yearly income of the settlers amount to about RM4bil.
FGV on the other hand is the third largest oil palm plantation operator in the world. But the Felda job is more than just palm oil and smallholders, it is equivalent to the guardianship of rural Malay landholding in the country.
There are reportedly some 60 parliamentary seats with Felda schemes and the 112,000 settlers and their families who live in these schemes are an important vote bank for Umno.
They have been like some sort of “fixed deposit” which the Opposition parties have been trying to break.
Mohd Isa had started off well. He has loads of personal charm, cracks the best jokes and treats everyone like a friend.
He is what one public affairs consultant calls an “old school politician”.
He understood the power of patronage, he liked to go around in a big entourage and he was not above mowing down his opponents.
Former Umno politician Kamarulzaman Habibur Rahman said one of Mohd Isa’s problems is that he did not believe in grooming people who were more capable or better educated than him.
“He had so many chances in politics but he did not make good use of it,” said Kamarulzaman who was from Mohd Isa’s Teluk Kemang division.
The old school politics enabled him to survive 22 years as Mentri Besar but he was ill-prepared for new century politics and corporate management.
In 2004, Mohd Isa was replaced as the number one in Negri Sembilan and he moved on to become an MP and a federal minister.
His attempt to prolong his political career by going for a vice-president post in the Umno election ended in disaster. He was suspended for money politics and his first wife, whom he nursed through her long struggle with cancer, passed away.
But his luck changed for the better in 2009 when he was picked to contest the Bagan Pinang by-election. He remarried a year later and it was said that Bibi brought him luck because he went on to become a big man in Felda.
Mohd Isa’s troubles in Felda had become the stuff of gossip in Umno as early as 2014.
Complaints about poorly managed replanting schemes started to surface. Stories about lavish spending and questionable property investments overseas coincided with low palm oil prices and things went boom! around him.
An Umno minister from Pahang was deluged with so many complaints from his Felda constituents that he wrote to the Prime Minister, asking for Mohd Isa to be replaced.
Mohd Isa was one of Umno’s most popular leaders but the Felda job called for someone with real corporate skills and experience.
He is also a witty and entertaining ceramah speaker but during the 2015 by-election in Rompin where there are Felda schemes, the local Umno leaders told the Prime Minister not to let him join the campaign or “we will lose”.
There are stories about how he arrives at Felda areas accompanied by police cars with blue lights flashing and sirens wailing.
His vivacious wife is known as the “First Lady of Felda”. Bibi, who is from one of the richest families in Negri Sembilan, is also politically ambitious and is said to be eyeing the Kuala Pilah seat in the next general election.
Mohd Isa and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak go back some ways but the Felda priority outweighs their friendship.
The debate in the days following Mohd Isa’s resignation has been about how he managed to springboard from FGV to acting chairman of the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD). It sent out the message that people are rewarded for not performing.
It resulted in former SPAD chairman Tan Sri Syed Hamid Syed Albar saying: “I am shocked.”
Some said it was typical of the Prime Minister’s style – he wanted to give Mohd Isa a soft landing. Others said that Najib knows Mohd Isa rather too well and there is no guarantee that he will not drag others along if he goes under.
Mohd Isa had a seemingly endless cycle of good and bad luck but has Lady Luck finally abandoned him?