The Prime Minister’s visit to Kelantan this week upped the tempo in Umno’s bid to recover the Malay heartland, writes JOCELINE TAN who was there. The revamp of the State Umno leadership also signals the start of more changes to come.
IT was Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s third visit to Jeli as Prime Minister but it was the first time he had come by helicopter.
The crowd gathered in the sprawling school field broke into cheers and applause when he emerged from the chopper, his hair slightly tousled by the fanning blades.
Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, Kelantan Umno chairman and head of the Jeli Umno division, followed not far behind. Both men had flown in from Kota Baru where the Premier and his wife had spent the night.
Dr Mahathir, delighted to see the village folk who had turned out in full force, flashed his famously brilliant smile. The Umno president has a forceful stage persona but up close, he was surprisingly soft-spoken, coming across as even a little shy in the way he tilted his head ever so slightly as he smiled his way through the outstretched hands of welcome.
The last time Jeli had seen such excitement was when a tiger terrorised villagers nearby several months ago.
The Premier had followed the development, and that morning he presented aid to about half a dozen households whose family members had fallen victim to the hungry beast.
The tiger had been a hot political issue, with PAS supporters claiming that the rapid rate of development in Jeli under Mustapa had displaced the wild animal. Umno supporters had taken the claim as a compliment but retorted tongue in cheek that the tiger only became aggressive when PAS won in Jeli, hence the animal must have “undergone special training by the KMM.”
Dr Mahathir’s visit was a tremendous boost for Mustapa who was Jeli MP from 1995 to 1999, and has continued to service the constituency since. Mustapa is one of Umno’s least flamboyant politicians but he is also one of the party’s most intelligent, upright and hardworking figures, and he enjoys the implicit confidence of Umno’s top two.
The Premier’s two-day visit to Kelantan was yet another signal of how tenacious Umno is about taking on PAS in the coming general election.
It came not far behind the heels of another high-profile visit by his No. 2, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who shook things up in a speech emphasising the emergence of new faces in Kelantan Umno. What Abdullah said was not new but it was the first time that someone high up in Umno had said it so directly and in so open an event.
Not many may realise this, but what Abdullah said in Kota Baru last month may eventually be a political blueprint of sorts for the party in other states in the next polls.
The Prime Minister arrived in Kota Baru on Wednesday afternoon and was escorted from the airport by a convoy of 60 big bikes and 50 taxis sporting the chilli-red colour of Umno. Banners welcoming Dr Mahathir had gone up days earlier all over Kota Baru, some of them ostensibly strung alongside PAS banners accusing Umno of trying to close down Malay religious schools.
His first stop was a People’s Rally in the middle of the town – an event of which Datuk Ibrahim Ali was organising chairman. The Pasir Mas division head had also put up a giant banner that declared: “In conjunction with the Prime Minister’s visit, the dream of the Kelantan people is for a Barisan Nasional victory. May Allah bless our dream.”
Dr Mahathir spoke off-the-cuff for precisely an hour. It was an encompassing speech that touched on Malay politics, Umno’s commitment to the Malays and Islam, on how Malays must strive to improve and open their minds to new ideas and, of course, he dwelt at length on why the Kelantan people should come back to Umno this general election.
He made a poignant plea towards the end of his speech: “I pledge to you, Umno will change, Umno’s leaders will also change. If you all vote Barisan Nasional, insyallah, we will bring changes to Kelantan.”
There have been changes in Umno over the last few years, even if they have not been up to expectation. For one, Umno politicians are no longer complacent nor do they take their support and place among the Malays for granted.
This has been particularly true among those in Kelantan Umno who know they need a totally new strategy this general election. It would have to be something very different, perhaps even radical, and they are thinking hard about it. They talk of the 3Cs – clean, credible and contestable.
“We know this line of thinking may not go down well with the incumbents or division leadership but it is what Umno members and ordinary people want,” said one politician.
The message of change and new faces was raised again at a posh dinner that Dr Mahathir had with federal civil servants at the Renaissance Hotel the same evening.
The next day, hours before he returned to Kuala Lumpur, the Prime Minister dropped the bombshell.
During a pre-lunch meeting with all the state Umno division heads at the VIP lounge of the Kota Baru airport, he announced a revamp of the state Umno liaison committee: Kota Baru head Zaid Ibrahim replaced Datuk Annuar Musa as deputy chairman; deputy Tumpat head Nawawi Mat Jusoh replaced Tuan Hashim Tuan Yaakob as executive secretary; deputy Peringat head Alwi Che Ahmad replaced Ismail Mamat as information head; and deputy Bachok head Datuk Dr Awang Adek Hussin replaced Datuk Nik Hussein Nik Abdul Rahman as treasurer.
They took over from some very capable individuals who have, unfortunately, been bogged down by personal and other setbacks during the last year.
Zaid, a tall and urbane figure, has yet to contest a general election but he is a familiar face in Kelantan politics and owns the biggest law firm in the country, a feat that stands him apart among other Malays. Alwi, whose father was a well-known Tok Guru, is a land surveyor. He is energetic, hardworking and one of the most gifted speakers in Umno today.
Awang Adek is one of those success stories from Kelantan. The former Bank Negara assistant governor grew up in a poor fishing family in Bachok. His recent appointment as Tenaga Nasional chairman has prompted his nickname “Datuk Api.”
With the exception of former assemblyman Nawawi, the rest are professionals in their late 40s and early 50s. But the choice of Nawawi, an experienced grassroots figure, suggests that the party seniors still have a role to play.
Annuar was magnanimous about making way and told the Prime Minister during the lunch that followed he would continue to be loyal to the party and would even try to pacify the disappointed.
“We want to win the election. If the people feel they want new faces, we have to respond,” he said.
The Peringat division head was once a glittering rising star in Umno politics, and the leadership is hoping others will emulate the grace and maturity with which he accepted the changes. In fact, Annuar had offered to step aside last year following allegations linking him with a scandal over the government poverty scheme.
Tuan Hashim also took it in his stride: “I take it positively and I will fight to make sure that Umno wins.”
Appointments are an added advantage but the real clout still lies in the division leadership.
“Those who are unhappy will get over it. We just have to remember that the division heads determine the outcome of an election,” said Kuala Krai chief Datuk Wan Zaid Wan Abdullah.
But Ibrahim was downcast. It was no secret he had his eye on the deputy state chairman post and he did not hide his emotions at the meeting for he thought his efforts on behalf of the party had not been recognised.
The Pasir Mas chief has his talents but, as a number of Umno politicians have pointed out, there is a new politics in the making and it must not only be led but be seen to be led by people who are starting with a fresh slate.
Still, Ibrahim did not go unacknowledged. When the meeting adjourned for lunch, the Prime Minister placed both hands on Ibrahim’s shoulders and said: “Sabarlah, you are my strong supporter, I know. Try to accept what I have decided.”
After lunch, as the Prime Minister was making his way to his executive jet, he walked over to Ibrahim, gave him a hug and thumped him gently on the back.
It must have been a difficult decision to make but challenging times demand brave solutions. The revamp basically puts into motion the clarion call for more new faces by the Deputy Prime Minister when he was in Kelantan last month. The changes also suggest just how serious Umno is about the credibility of its leadership and candidature this general election.
Umno is trying to capture the mood shift among Kelantan people. Politicians on both sides of the Malay divide know this. PAS politicians are already on the defensive and banners have gone up proclaiming the changes in Umno as “Umno tua lawan Umno muda.”
The Umno side is very focussed this time. They are not out of the tunnel yet but they think they can glimpse the light at the end of it.
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