A large group had already gathered in the compound of the village headman's house when Datuk Idris Jusoh's 4WD drove up along the country lane in Kedai Buloh, a kampung on the outskirts of Kuala Terengganu.
The children and women were gathered on one side of the sprawling compound and the men on the other.
The women were mostly mothers whose children had been displaced from the Kemas (community development) kindergarten shut down as a result of an order from the PAS state government, whereas the men were there to put up a new one, gotong-royong style.
They were waiting for Idris, who is Terengganu Umno's deputy chief, to lay the foundation to the new building and he readily obliged, spading cement around the concrete pillars and digging a shallow drain around perimeter of the would-be house. Many hands make light work and soon, eight pillars were already standing.
Idris stood back to assess the progress, saw the pre-school children watching on and walked over, squatting down to banter with them. He has a way with children and they chatted and giggled with him for a good 15 minutes.
Few political functions take place without refreshments and soon, he was pulled into the headman Manaf Deraman's house for tea and nasi dagang.
It was about 10am and his second nasi dagang breakfast of the day. But declining refreshments offered by the host is a social, and in this case, political no-no and Idris tucked in.
Idris had stopped by a popular nasi dagang stall on the way from the airport. He had flown in on the 7.30am flight from Kuala Lumpur where he had gone the day before for the funeral of the sister-in-law of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi; the Deputy Prime Minister is also the state Umno chief.
The morning's event in Kedai Buloh was yet another episode in the way the politics of PAS and Umno was being played out on the ground.
The PAS government has denied Kemas, a federal department, the use of state-owned land, thereby displacing some 300 Kemas kindergartens and several thousand pre-schoolers all over the state. One of them was the tadika in Kedai Buloh, an area that Umno had classified as a “black area” (read PAS stronghold) for them after the last general election.
The turnout that day included PAS families. It was one more instance of the phenomenon that has set Umno circles abuzz for several months now - the crowds have begun to come back to Umno.
Idris said: “PAS has not delivered. The mood on the ground has changed. You feel it when you talk to the civil servants, traders and people in the kampung. We have people who have been with PAS for 40 years joining us. We even held a few ceramah in the homes of former PAS members.”
The honeymoon with PAS appears to be over.
The high expectations that Terengganu people had of PAS have been dampened. They had expected quick and visible results from a party that not only had trouble getting used to administrating a state but also had to grapple with the constant politicking from the Umno opposition.
“The outlook is optimistic in Terengganu. Umno has been working hard, everybody can see that,” said Datuk Ramzi Abdul Rahman, political secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister.
And given the way Malay politics revolves around personalities, the attention has zoomed in on Idris, the man running the show on the ground. After two years as deputy Terengganu Umno chief, he has steadily acquired a political stature of his own. It has not been easy but he is making progress.
Not many are aware of this but Idris is representative of the future face of Umno. He is comparatively young at 47, well-educated, technology-savvy, and, quite important in these new political times, he has none of the unwieldy baggage that some politicians are laden down with.
He is refreshingly unpretentious. His greying hair is still more pepper than salt, and he was attired that day in a snowy-white sports shirt and slate-grey trousers.
He also has an effortless sociability that sees him mingling easily whatever the occasion and however diverse the company. Some attribute it to his boarding school experience, others say the confidence comes from a well-to-do upbringing in Besut where his father had timber and construction interests.
Shortly after graduating from USM as a Gold Award student in 1980, he was called home to help run the family business and that was when it all began for him in Umno. As a young Malay graduate from an established family, he was a natural target for Umno.
He rose gradually through the party ranks with the help of his mentor and Terengganu strongman Datuk Dr Yusof Nor. By 1995, he was MP for Besut and to everyone's surprise, appointed as Deputy Entrepreneur Development Minister.
Idris would have been the most likely mentri besar had PAS not swept the state in 1999. Instead, he is now “opposition leader” in the state.
He has moved his family back to the kampung of his birth, Besut; he and wife Datin Karmariah Zakaria have five children, two of whom attend the local Chinese school because the couple want them to learn an additional language.
In fact, he was planning to leave for a course in Oxford – his third sabbatical since his first degree - when the Deputy Prime Minister appointed him as the party’s No 2 in the state.
Idris draws a great deal of his strength from the confidence he enjoys from Umno and particularly his state chief Abdullah.
Abdullah makes no bones that Idris acts on his behalf in Terengganu, openly endorsing him at party functions.
When division Youth heads from Terengganu met up with Abdullah in Putrajaya recently, the Deputy Prime Minister's parting advice to them was that they should work closely with Idris, that “loyalty to Idris is loyalty to me.”
His situation is an interesting contrast from that of Datuk Seri Hadi Awang. Idris draws his strength in Terengganu from the party as a whole. On the other hand, the clout of PAS in Terengganu is hugely dependent on Hadi’s personality.
In the meantime, too, Dr Yusof has stepped aside as head of Besut division chief for Idris to take over. It was a magnanimous gesture that reflected the bond between the mentor and the protégé.
The talk now is of an early general election, perhaps even in the first quarter of next year and, given that, Idris would have but a year to mount a challenge to the PAS government.
Idris has not only been concentrating on his role as the opposition. He has been working on a political game-plan that involves a build-up of party activities and programmes to draw people back to the party.
At the same time, he is aware that despite growing disenchantment with the PAS administration the party is not exactly a walk-over either.
“We are not without problems but we are organised and hungry enough to come back to power,” he said.
But even PAS leaders are aware that the next general election will not be easy for them.
A PAS assemblyman had told Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh, the deputy division head for Kuala Terengganu, that the party was confident about the general election but less so about retaining the same number of seats they won previously.
Idris is not relying solely on his own party feedback about the ground sentiment. For the past year, he has been monitoring the ground through periodic polls by an independent consultant. He was coy about the quarterly surveys but sources said each quarter has shown an uptrend in support for Umno.
Abdullah’s clarion speech in Kelantan last month on the need for an influx of new faces and talent has also not gone unheeded by Idris. He has taken up Abdullah’s call for a renewal of the ranks by introducing the MAP concept – Muda (new blood), Akhlak (moral background) and Pendidikan (education and qualification).
The Terengganu BN line-up, he said, would have to reflect the MAP concept, besides experienced and mature faces. Some of those who have been around for several decades will have to make way for new blood.
It will not be easy for certain divisions are still controlled by entrenched division heads whose influence date back to the 1970s. One of them has already issued a veiled warning that “if the old faces are sidelined, there will be a destructive political scenario in Umno.”
The continuing influence of these old warlords will be something Idris has to grapple with as the year unfolds. If he handles it well, it will establish his command over Terengganu Umno.
That same afternoon, Idris climbed onto the rider’s seat of a trishaw and led a convoy of some 160 trishaws festooned with BN and Umno flags through the main streets of Kuala Terengganu, and as many people noted, past the office of Hadi Awang.
Was it another Umno thumbing of the nose at the PAS government?
“Maybe,” he said grinning broadly.
The trishaw riders in Terengganu are not unlike taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur – they often play the role of opinion – shaper of the proletariat. They are also a tough group to win over and as Wan Farid pointed out, it has been quite an achievement to get them on Umno’s side.
Physically, Idris who runs about 5km everyday, is fighting fit. He cycled some 6km that afternoon without effort.
But the bigger race is still ahead. Can he make it?
“I want to deliver the state back to the BN. Not only that, I want to deliver it with a two-thirds majority,” he said.
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