All eyes are now on Zaid Ibrahim following his appointment as Kelantan Umno deputy liaison chief three weeks ago. The onus is on this lawyer-politician to prove that his appointment is the right tonic for Barisan Nasional in the opposition ruled state, writes JOCELINE TAN.
THE last few weeks have been heady for lawyer-politician Zaid Ibrahim.
More than a fortnight ago, he opened his regional law office in Singapore. The launch marked his firm as being the first Malaysian firm to be issued a foreign law firm licence by the Singapore Attorney-General. It was another first for Zaid, who already heads the biggest legal firm in Malaysia.
But his legal first down south did not cause as much ripples as his appointment to the number two post in Kelantan Umno a few weeks earlier.
Zaid was among several “new faces” who moved up in the Kelantan Umno hierarchy in a reshuffle that has since set into motion a flurry of statements and activity regarding the issue of renewal in the party.
The 50-year-old lawyer stems from the post-1990 generation of Umno politicians who moved into the political vacuum after PAS, aided by Semangat 46, swept into power in the 1990 general election. Many of them have moved up into party posts and positions.
Zaid himself won the Kota Baru division leadership two years ago – after two earlier attempts and a close-fought contest.
So what is it that has made Zaid’s appointment the talk of Umno?
One obvious reason is his corporate fame. The Hong Kong-based International Financial Law Review Asia last year named his firm Zaid Ibrahim and Co “Malaysian Law Firm of the Year.” It was the second time his firm had won the award.
Such singular achievement has not gone unacknowledged and International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz attended the luncheon to celebrate the award. Likewise, his firm’s annual dinner a year ago was distinguished by the presence of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Zaid, it would seem, is representative of the highly motivated Kelantan spirit that other Malays talk about.
Another reason is that he was not exactly seen as a big player in Kelantan politics. He ranked up there among the division heads, but he did not enjoy the high profile of many other more flamboyant and seasoned Kelantan politicians.
He is not particularly gedebei – a Kelantan term for behaviour ranging from real gustiness to sheer bravado – in the style of some Kelantan politicians. Instead, he sometimes comes across as somewhat reserved, often the listener rather than the talker.
“I only look aloof. I’m a friendly guy,” he said with a laugh.
But overall, he carries himself well and is not bogged down by political baggage. He is also intelligent, focused and hardworking.
And quite importantly, given the enormity of Umno’s agenda in the next one year, Zaid is seen as someone who can work well with state liaison chairman Datuk Mustapa Mohamed.
“He’s someone who means what he says. This is the kind of Malay professionals who can lead Umno in Kelantan. They make a fantastic combination – ‘Tok Pa' (Mustapa) and Zaid,” said Puteri Umno chief Azalina Othman Said, who is also a partner in Zaid Ibrahim and Co.
Zaid’s years in the corporate lane has lent him a lifestyle afforded by very few, a fact that PAS politicians has sometimes used against him. Few seem aware that he grew up in dire circumstances.
“It was difficult when I was growing up,” he said.
His parents divorced when he was five. His father was a small-time shopkeeper and when both parents remarried other spouses, he and his two sisters (he is a middle child) lived with his maternal grandmother in Kota Baru.
At 15, he left Kota Baru to study at the Sekolah Sultan Abu Bakar in Johor Baru, then at the Sekolah Tunku Abdul Rahman, a top residential school in Ipoh.
Zaid just about missed the benefits that other Malays enjoyed through the implementation of the New Economic Policy. He did his law studies in ITM, completed his Bar finals in England in 1975 before being called to the Bar in 1976. He struck out on his own 11 years later, after working for a number of well-known firms.
“The onus is on him to prove that he’s the right man for the job. Zaid, the politician, will have to emerge from Zaid, the corporate man,” said Juhaidi Yean Abdullah, an aide to Mustapa.
Zaid now spends up to four days a week in Kelantan. He visits areas where Umno did not do well. The purpose is to mingle and meet people, to listen to what they have to say and to gather feedback.
“People tell me how hard their life has been – jobs, their children’s schooling, repairs for house and local surau, proper roads. Development is an issue despite what PAS may say and that’s why I believe the solution is to address their needs,” Zaid said.
He has also made it a point to have meetings with target groups such as teachers, youth and Chinese associations. He is also chairman of the Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled and active in the state Consumer Council.
Zaid is more than aware that he had pipped Datuk Ibrahim Ali for the state deputy chairman post. Ibrahim, who heads the Pasir Mas division, saw himself as more senior and experienced and has not taken well to the decision.
“We would like to work with everybody. I know he is disappointed but the party has objectives which supersede that of the individual. We should give our full support to Datuk Mustapa,” he said.
The Kelantan people, he said, have a long history of success.
“They are good at business, industrious and educated. These are the people who have to build the state again under a government that can uplift the standard of living in the state ? so that the Kelantan diaspora can come back.”