Wanita Umno remains a crucial wing of the party despite having been somewhat overshadowed by the youthful bloom of Puteri Umno. JOCELINE TAN reports.
WANITA Umno chief Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz recently joked about having been born in the year of the goat.
She will be hitting 60 this year, which is hard to believe given the way she continues to zoom around in her duties as Minister of International Trade and Industry and as leader of Wanita Umno.
Her mind is still like quicksilver, her retention for facts and figures as vast as ever. And she still talks a mile a minute.
There is not the slightest hint of her wanting to call it a day – as seems the fashion these days for politicians of her generation – and frankly, no one has quite dared to suggest so for the simple reason that she remains quite incomparable as a Cabinet minister.
Her leadership of the 1.2 million-strong Wanita Umno wing has been at its most stable in years. She is in firm control and her deputy Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil is shaping up well as the potential successor.
In spite of this, there is the perception that Wanita Umno has been somewhat eclipsed by Puteri Umno, the party’s newest wing.
“It’s the media. There has been so much media attention on Puteri Umno,” said Perlis Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim.
Last Hari Raya, for instance, Puteri Umno held its open house party at the Putra World Trade Centre. A day later, Wanita Umno hosted its Raya open house at the Shangri La Hotel.
The Puteri function made it to the front pages of almost every newspaper with colour pictures of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder with Puteri leaders over a beautiful pink cake. A picture does speak a thousand words, particularly in politics.
Meanwhile, the Wanita function passed with scarce mention in the media.
Actually, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi were present at both functions, a demonstration of the equal importance they place on the two women’s wings.
In fact, the Wanita function drew more Umno VIPs - two vice-presidents and several Ministers and Mentris Besar.
The Wanita side also had entertainment in the form of a zapin group from Johor, dondang sayang from Malacca and a cultural troupe from Pahang. But Puteri Umno brought in the Malaysian songbird Siti Nurhaliza and a string of other contemporary Malay pop stars.
So why the uneven coverage? Some Umno politicians say it is the media’s insatiable appetite for the new and the novel.
Or as a Terengganu Umno politician put it: “There is an Arabic saying that anything new is sweet, be it a new wife or a new house.”
One Wanita politician, though, admitted that the Puteri girls were more media-savvy.
“They had a big cake for PM and Pak Lah to cut. Even when they visit Syed Hamid (the Foreign Minister) in Putrajaya, they are reported in the papers,” she said with a sigh.
There is no denying that Puteri Umno has been the belle of the party from the day it burst onto the political scene. They not only make the news more often than the senior ladies but more than Umno Youth as well.
But that, said Umno Youth secretary Zulkifli Alwi, should not be taken to mean that the Wanita wing has slowed down.
“I know they're working on the ground. They are crucial to the Umno network especially in the kampung. It's just that they do not go about their work with a lot of fanfare,” said Zulkifli.
Publicity or no publicity, the traditional role and influence of Wanita Umno among the older generation remains undiminished. They are still very much the life force of divisional political activity. Umno leaders at the division level would be hard-pressed if the Wanita army did not come out to campaign during elections, help organise programmes and form the quorum of meetings.
“Besides, these women are so familiar with the ground. I had problems in two peti undi in my constituency the last general election. I asked them for help and they immediately organised programmes in these places,” said Sharkar Shamsudin, assemblyman for Lanchar in Pahang.
Said Bukit Bintang Wanita head Maryani Mohd Yit: “Puteri or no Puteri, Datuk Seri Rafidah has not stopped working. She has really put in place the Wanita machinery for the general election. I dare say we are ready, willing and able to face an election at any time.”
Rafidah has put her women out to work on what is known as the Bancian Sikap (Attitude Census) of Malay voters in every division. This is a refinement of the former Kumpulan Sepuluh programme where each Wanita person is placed in charge of 10 households.
The new programme has 30 voters under the charge of each Wanita person. They have to monitor the voter attitude in every single division on a variety of issues, from politics to current affairs.
The women also attended courses to prepare them on how to approach these voters, how to answer their queries and how to win them over.
In fact, the Kumpulan Sepuluh programme was what made the Wanita such a formidable force in every election. The programme gave them an intimate insight on voter sentiment and, in areas where the Wanita members had been diligent, they were able to accurately call the election. In the Likas by-election, the Wanita team was only 10 votes off the mark in predicting the vote outcome for Barisan Nasional.
“The PM takes our feedback on the mood of voters very seriously,” said Wanita Umno executive secretary Datuk Faridah Abu Hassan.
The senior ladies have tremendous access in the kampung. They are able to walk in the front door and straight into the kitchen in any campaign.
“We have the “two D” advantage, we can canvass for votes in the dewan as well as in the dapur,” said Faridah.
The top party leaders are more than aware of the undercurrents in the relationship between the two ladies' wings in the party.
To avoid overlapping or even a clash, Wanita Umno has been delegated the task of house-to-house monitoring and campaigning whereas Puteri Umno will concentrate on social programmes and the computerisation of voter lists.
Still, accounts of friction and tension between the senior ladies and the junior girls continue to surface.
“There are problems in some divisions but there are also numerous divisions where both wings get along handsomely,” said Sharifah Noor Alattas, treasurer of the Segamat Umno division.
Sharifah has a point here. Most of the Puteri girls are children and even grandchildren of Wanita members and that establishes the bond.
And if there are problems, it is often due to different personalities having to work together, contrasting attitudes and style of doing things and, to a certain extent, a generation gap.
It is only to be expected given that the average age of active Wanita Umno members hovers somewhere in the mid-40s whereas the upper end age limit for Puteri Umno membership is 35.
The general opinion is that the rivalry is happening mainly “on top” among certain key personalities in both wings.
It is no secret that Rafidah had wanted Puteri to be a club rather than a wing of the party. And Wanita leaders have taken pains to stress that they are the backbone of Umno as opposed to the pair of wings - the Youth and Puteri.
Both Rafidah and Puteri head Azalina Othman Said were “unable” to make it to each other’s open house although they sent their deputies.
When Rafidah was asked by the Prime Minister about the Wanita’s choice of venue, she said very crisply: “Many of our ladies have not had the chance to enjoy Raya in a five-star hotel and we wanted to give them the opportunity.”
Wanita Umno held their open house at a hotel in order to have a different setting from that of the Puteri girls. They thought that using the same PWTC hall a day after Puteri would be a “basi” (stale) idea.
But outwardly, they are civil and even cordial to each other. Azalina takes pains to play the junior partner, the respectful adik. She addresses Rafidah as “Datuk Seri” and Shahrizat as “Kak 'Izat” and often bows to kiss Rafidah’s hand when they meet.
At meetings, people have noticed how she frequently defers to Rafidah, often starting her statements with, “I agree with Datuk Seri Rafidah,” or “What Datuk Rafidah says is right...”
Some think the simmering competition is good as long as it does not boil over.
“It keeps both sides on their toes... everybody works harder that way,” said a divisional Youth figure.
But that’s because the rivalry, thus far, has been largely for attention and organisational territory rather than posts and seats.
And that’s why the more seasoned figures in Umno think that there should not be any candidates from Puteri in the next general election. They should wait their turn.
“We are not vying for seats. Honestly, we just want to become good election workers. Puteri Umno is a training ground for us to go into Wanita Umno,” said Kedah Puteri head Suraya Yaacob.
In the meantime, both sides are mindful that amid their teething problems with one another, they share an overarching common objective – their commitment to Umno.
Joceline Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org