DATUK Seri Azmin Ali has clearly become the man to watch among Singapore’s political elite.
The Economic Affairs Minister crossed over to the island state last weekend amid a simmering row over an alleged boat-ride intrusion into Singapore waters by the Johor Mentri Besar.
But Azmin was not given the enemy treatment.
Instead, he was feted by a number of Singapore ministers – a dinner discussion and stroll along the Singapore River with Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, breakfast with National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and a meeting with Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wah.
It was great optics in these unsettling times and especially as Azmin and Vivian – two good-looking leaders of the same generation – made their way across the pedestrian bridge spanning the river.
The two ministers seemed to be sending the signal that no bridge is too far to cross for the two neighbours even with their historically touchy ties.
The Singaporeans are always on the alert on who will be the future leaders of Malaysia and it is obvious that they see Azmin as someone on the way up, perhaps even as the next deputy prime minister.
But Azmin’s political path back home is less than clear given his rather thorny relationship with his party boss Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Ties between PKR’s top two have gone south barely two months after Anwar took over the presidency.
Their disagreements over appointments to the party supreme council and state chairmanships have boiled over on to social media.
Azmin penned a strongly worded open letter criticising the appointments and the pair have openly exchanged veiled barbs on Twitter.
PKR assemblyman for Kota Anggerik Najwan Halimi could hardly believe his eyes when he saw Azmin’s “Kah kah kah” tweet a week ago.
The “Kah kah kah” tweet was widely seen to be in response to a statement by Anwar to stress that he and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad were on good terms despite “forces who want to see us fail”.
When Anwar, borrowing from Winston Churchill, tweeted: “You’ll never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”
Azmin immediately responded: “Spot on.”
Najwan, who is also the new Selangor Youth chief, said he did not even want to think about what all these terse exchanges could lead to.
Azmin simply had no chemistry with his former president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and it looks like he and his new president have taken off on the wrong footing.
This despite Azmin’s pledge to “stand united” with Anwar after winning the deputy president’s post.
Anwar had quite deftly explained their fallout over the appointment of party posts as: “He wants some people out, I want everyone in.”
Azmin was a notable absentee at the party’s appreciation dinner in Shah Alam on Sunday night.
However, he had a great excuse – he was in Johor on Sunday to make a courtesy call on the Johor Sultan before heading across to Singapore.
He had tweeted a picture of the Johor Sultan giving him a memento with the royal crest at the end of the audience.
It was quite evident that Azmin’s palace visit was a follow-up to the visit by the Prime Minister a few days earlier.
Azmin’s right-hand woman and Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin was also absent from the dinner.
Her excuse was rather more mundane – she was unwell after a long day at the PKR women’s convention that same day.
The appreciation dinner was organised by PKR vice-president Dr Xavier Jayakumar, who is an Azmin ally, and the stage backdrop had a giant image of Xavier, Anwar and Selangor Mentri Besar Amiruddin Shari.
Xavier stayed focused and kept his speech relevant, reminding everyone of how far the party had come and urging them not to forget the original aims.
The main theme of Anwar’s speech was for the party to close ranks and concentrate on delivering to the people.
But he did issue a warning to those who are trying to overstep their positions, alluding to “ordinary YBs” who behave as though they are the Mentri Besar and division chiefs who act like they are the party president.
Everyone knew that he was alluding to an Azmin strongman from Penang.
Before the night was over, the gossip at some tables was that Xavier and Works Minister Baru Bian, who was also present, had “switched sides”.
It was completely unsubstantiated, of course, but it was an indication of the way the PKR rank and file were tuned into the growing rift between their president and deputy president.
An Azmin ally whom Anwar had appointed to a key post told people that Azmin had snubbed him after he accepted the appointment.
Ties between the top two have been strained for several years.
But it is only now that Azmin is a minister with his own established support in the party that he has dared to take on Anwar.
It is obvious that he thinks he enjoys the confidence of Dr Mahathir who has given him many important assignments.
Azmin’s numerous retweets from Dr Mahathir’s official Twitter handle, chedetofficial, have been the talk of his party.
The perception is that the Prime Minister is grooming him for something bigger, namely the deputy prime minister’s job.
But some Bersatu politicians claim that Dr Mahathir is eyeing Umno crossover Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamad as a second deputy prime minister.
However, Mustapa, the ever humble person that he is, has apparently rejected the post and is said to prefer an advisory role in the government.
For now, the uneasy relationship between Anwar and Azmin is like an aircraft in a holding position.
Whether the plane goes smoothly or flies into further turbulence depends on the impending Cabinet reshuffle.
Although it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to appoint and move people around his Cabinet, the names have to come from the coalition partners.
There will be turbulence in PKR if Dr Mahathir elevates Azmin without the endorsement of his party.
There is a lot riding on the much-awaited Cabinet reshuffle.
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