IN November 1999, Umno politician and lawyer Datuk Shaziman Mansor was in his Kuala Lumpur home watching a golf tournament on TV (Tiger Woods was playing) when his mobile phone rang.
It was Tan Sri Mohamed Isa Abdul Samad calling to say that Shaziman had been picked as a candidate for the general election. The Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar, who was travelling back to Seremban from Putrajaya, asked the then 36-year-old Shaziman to return immediately to Tampin, a parliamentary seat, and prepare for the campaign.
It was only days later that Shaziman realised he was among a handful of candidates – less than a dozen – who had been plucked from the Umno Youth wing. Shaziman was among those who were successful in their bid to win a seat.
There were few new faces, let alone young ones, in the last general election. The 1999 polls was critical for the incumbent Barisan Nasional and it was not the time for taking risks or to experiment on the matter of candidates.
For some time now, many young, aspiring politicians in Umno have been hoping that things will be different the next time around.
In that sense, the reshuffle in Kelantan Umno was an important signal for change. The new appointees to the state Umno liaison committee were basically people without political baggage, a number of whom were not even division heads and they replaced some well-known personalities and bypassed several other warlords.
It was a bold move that had Umno circles abuzz for days, and remains a topic of conversation. There was no mistaking the Kelantan scenario as a foretaste of things to come for Umno.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had articulated the idea in Kelantan last month and those close to him say he means business.
“The message is very clear. Those who are not effective, it's better to volunteer to go than to be dropped. Even the MBs, they should not wait for the PM or the DPM to decide,” suggested Datuk Kamarulzaman Zainal, a top aide to the Deputy Prime Minister.
The Umno chiefs in other states were among the first to respond. They were not averse to introducing new faces, most of them said.
Perak Mentri Besar Tan Sri Tajol Rosli said 10% of the incumbent wakil rakyat had already indicated they would not contest the next general election, but that he would leave it to the party president.
In Pahang, Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob declared that he and his entire state exco were ready to go if they were no longer needed.
In Perlis, Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim said: “Change or no change, I intend to deliver 150% to Barisan.”
Has a domino effect been set in motion?
It is much too early to tell. The message of change has sunk in but the reality is that incumbents of power and position rarely go willingly.
It seems unlikely that any other state, with the exception of perhaps Terengganu, may venture to shake up their party line-up ala Kelantan. Umno can afford to be a little more adventurous in these two states where they are the opposition and where changes do not mean the loss of other forms of privileges and prestige.
Besides, many in Umno say that Terengganu Umno chief Datuk Idris Jusoh needs a new set of leaders if Umno hopes to win.
Even now, some in Umno are already questioning whether the response from some of the state Umno leaders was mere lip service or genuine expressions of intent.
“There is no doubt that Pak Lah is serious about this. What he needs now is political commitment from the state leaders,” said Umno Youth exco member Norza Zakaria.
For instance, some pointed out that Perak's indication that 10% of its elected representatives were ready to retire was timely but hardly much to get excited about. Perak has 20 Barisan MPs and 44 assemblymen – 10% of that would work out to barely six or seven persons.
“If it was 20% or 30% – that would be something,” said one Umno politician.
But the dilemma faced by the Umno Mentris Besar and Chief Ministers has to be seen in context.
They depend on the division heads to control the ground. As a result, the division heads often call the shots when it comes to the choice of candidates. Over the years, too, it has become the convention for division heads to be the first choice as election candidates, something the Umno leadership is now trying to change.
Even Datuk Shahrir Samad, known for his unconventional political views, admitted: “In Umno, there is this division culture. They want the candidate to be someone local. And if the division head is a strong personality, any change taking place has to be carefully thought out.”
He pointed to the defeat of former minister Tan Sri Megat Junid Megat Ayub in Parit in 1999, saying: “He was a big man in the party but couldn’t overcome the local sentiment. They complained he was a parachute candidate, that there had been too many outsiders.”
Shahrir was a parachute candidate himself. He was from the Segamat division but faced his first election in 1978 in Johor Baru where the local Umno folk merajuk for a few days before coming out to campaign for him. Then again, those were the glory years for Umno when the party was synonymous with political power.
Reporters covering Parliament have often noted how many MPs appear so passive and uninterested in the matters of Parliament, and this applies to legislators on both sides of the political divide. The fact that only a handful of MPs really stand out is perhaps another indication that many of them are picked not because they are parliamentarian material, but because they control divisional politics.
Others suggest that the clout of the division heads is an over-estimated threat.
“Honestly, how influential can one unhappy person be? They have their support but I believe their sabotage is crippling only in certain areas, such as the marginal seats. My view is to call their bluff where possible,” said Wan Albakri Mohd Noor from the Kuala Terengganu division.
He may have a case here, for the outcome of the Pendang and Anak Bukit by-elections has suggested that Umno might have performed better had it fielded newer candidates.
But Umno leaders from those at the humble branch level to the supreme council are in agreement on one thing: the Malay voters out there are anticipating change. And not just any cosmetic or superficial change but significant change.
“Pak Lah is going to have to face a new generation of voters. If we don’t bring in new faces, we will have a difficult time engaging the young generation,” said Kamarulzaman.
Besides, the political landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years.
“The people who voted against us in 1999 are no longer angry with us but they have not really come back to us yet. They are among the fence-sitters, waiting to be persuaded,” said Norza.
Umno politicians believe the fence-sitters are substantial and a large number of them are what Wan Albakri has described as the “K-electorate,” a spin-off from K-economy.
“They are mostly young, educated and knowledgeable. The background of the candidates is important but they are not just looking at who will be the wakil rakyat, but also who will form the government. They are looking at the package,” he said.
Norza has another term for this group: the “386 Generation,” a label he picked up from the Korean political experience. The “386 Generation” encapsulated that generation of Koreans in their 30s, educated in the 1980s and born during the 1960s. They were the group who swept into power the reform-minded Kim Dae Jung.
“I think there is also a “386 Generation” here. Umno has to address their aspirations for change,” Norza added.
So what is it that voters want in terms of candidates?
“Basically, good people, decent, capable, not self-serving,” said Shahrir.
The issue of change and new candidates, it has to be stressed, is also not strictly about age. There will be a mix of the new as well as the experienced.
The key factor here is that they should not be bogged down by political baggage – personal problems, financial woes or controversial lifestyles.
There will be more signals sent out in the next few months. Umno circles are talking about the appointments of Youth and Puteri candidates as senators, and even to junior government positions.
A transition of power is under way, and each time there is one, there is hope and expectation for the future. When Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad came into power in 1982, an exhilarating mood of change was felt by Malaysians.
Pak Lah, noted Shahrir, has the opportunity to create a fresh mood of change.