Sabah Chief Minister ended weeks of speculation. JOCELINE TAN provides insights to the millionaire-businessman turned politician and the politicking that went on behind the scenes.
THE crowd had grown to about 300 by the time the MAS flight carrying Datuk Musa Aman landed at Kota Kinabalu airport late Tuesday evening. They were eager to congratulate Musa on being named the next Chief Minister of Sabah.
Musa had left Kota Kinabalu for Kuala Lumpur on Monday as State Finance Minister and returned a day later as Chief Minister-to-be.
The Prime Minister had confirmed the appointment at the airport in Subang that morning just before flying off for his long leave. Musa had been among those sending off Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the airport.
The news travelled fast and by the time he made his way back to the hotel in downtown KL, his mobile phone had been inundated by more than 100 SMS.
His appointment will take place only at the end of this month but from the way the crowd surged around him at the Kota Kinabalu airport, it was as if he was already Chief Minister. The Umno Youth and Puteri Umno wings came with welcoming banners and someone had draped a garland of lush orchids around his neck.
Many of those at the airport followed him back to his house in Likas, an exclusive suburb overlooking the scenic Likas Bay. There, more people were waiting, some having come from as far as Sandakan where Musa's Sungai Sibuga constituency is located and where he has a ranch-style house.
It was well past 3am when he got to bed, but it had been one the most exhilarating days in the life of this millionaire-businessman turned politician.
Dr Mahathir's announcement of Musa as the next Chief Minister also put to rest weeks of intense speculation and politicking.
“It was really timely. There had been just too many rumours flying everywhere,” said Umno Youth head for Tuaran, Abdul Rahman Dahlan.
In fact, political speculation about the post had reached such feverish levels that, as Abdul Rahman put it, “sampai orang mati pun cerita politik (they were talking politics even at funerals).”
When Musa swears in on March 29, he will be the seventh Chief Minister in the nine years of the rotation system for the top post.
Many people say now that they knew Musa would get the job. He is after all the state Umno chairman and it has been Umno tradition for the Mentri Besar/Chief Minister's post to go to the state chairman.
This is true, except it has not been always so for Sabah Umno. Except for Tun Sakaran Dandai, both Datuk Salleh Said and Datuk Osu Sukam were made State Umno chief only after they were appointed Chief Minister.
This gave hope to other hopefuls.
One of them was said to be Datuk Lajim Ukin, who is currently one of three Deputy Chief Ministers in the state. Lajim used to be a strongman in Parti Bersatu Sabah but is now in Umno. He is a first-rate grassroots politician who takes good care of his supporters.
The others were said to be former Chief Minister Salleh and local Umno strongman Datuk Ghapur Salleh.
But Lajim was seen as a more serious contender, perhaps because of his strategic post as Deputy Chief Minister. Besides, he had been rather obvious about his intentions. He had kept up a high profile schedule over the past two months, turning up at every possible function and being seen with as many national level Umno figures as possible.
He was seen in Putrajaya on Monday, sparking rumour that he had tried to see both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Reporters in Sabah heard about it and waited for him outside the VIP area in the KK airport. But Lajim, who rarely ever turned away reporters, evaded them by taking the ordinary exit and quickly hopping into a waiting car.
Musa was not without his supporters as well. A fortnight ago, a delegation of top Sabah Umno officials descended on Putrajaya to present their case for Musa. The group included Datuk Yahya Hussin (secretary), Datuk Abdul Rahim Ismail (information head), Datuk Hajiji Mohd Noor (treasurer) and Tawfik Abu Bakar Titingan (Youth head).
Lajim, many noted, was not among those waiting at the airport for Musa on Tuesday night. He told a politician who tried to persuade him to show up that he was “not in the mood.”
Neither were Ghapur and Salleh present. But Salleh, said to be away in Australia, has openly said he will support Musa.
Local politicians refer to them as the big three whom Musa will have to watch.
Umno is still relatively new to Sabah and no state Umno chairman has been quite able to claim complete control over the party in the state because of the continued existence of local chieftains.
“But it helps that Datuk Musa is seen as Pak Lah's man and Pak Lah is the PM-to-be,” said one Sabah journalist.
Those familiar with Musa say he got to know Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi back in the 1990s. He had also been close to Abdullah's former political secretary, the late Datuk Abdul Fatah Abdullah.
Musa had remained close and loyal to Abdullah during some of the latter's most difficult political years in the early 90s.
Abdullah too reciprocated by campaigning for Musa during the 1994 state election, travelling in a jeep along muddy roads to a remote village in the interior of Sandakan to speak to villagers.
Musa is a relative late-starter in politics. He was touching 40 by the time he became active in Sabah politics.
He is better known in Sabah for his business acumen and success with interests ranging from cargo loading and transportation to plantation and construction.
“He is one of those genuinely successful bumiputra businessmen, the sort the government wants to produce. This is one man who is not afraid of hard work,” said fellow Umno politician Datuk Masidi Manjun who has known him since they were in primary school.
His chief concern for many years was his businesses and it was his reputation as a businessman that won him the attention and respect of political leaders.
“I've had the opportunity of working with him in the State Economic Development Corporation. He is a hardworking person with an eye for detail,” said Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) vice-president Melanie Chia.
Musa was part of the young blood that the late Tun Mustapha Datu Harun had inculcated in an attempt to rejuvenate Usno after its routing by PBS.
This group went into Umno in 1991 when Usno was dissolved. Musa was made Sabah Umno protem treasurer and in 1994, he won the Sungai Sibuga seat. When he retained the seat in 1999, he was made a Minister and, in 2001, promoted to the key Finance post.
It was quite clear by then that Musa was Putrajaya's choice for Chief Minister, except that in Sabah politics you can never be really sure until you are there.
“I can see why he gets along well with Pak Lah. Musa is a one-mouth-two-ears sort of guy, you know, a good listener and there is no big talk,” said Masidi.
Musa is, by most accounts, an extremely pleasant man, approachable and easy to talk to.
His family members are among the “Who's Who” of Sabah. His elder brother, Datuk Ayub, was a minister in the Berjaya government and is chief executive of the New Sabah Times.
His younger brother, Datuk Anifah, is the Deputy Primary Industries Minister and one of his sisters, Nurchaya, is a judge. His brother-in-law, Tan Sri Hamid Egoh, was on the list of names proposed for the Governor's post recently.
His wealth and family background also lend him a certain confidence in the way he speaks and carries himself but it is his business management skills that many hope he will apply to the state's economy.
“He has a perspective of the economy and he's very experienced,” said Masidi.
This is perhaps one of the smoothest leadership transitions since the rotation system for the Chief Minister's post was introduced in 1994 and part of the credit ought to go to the out-going Chief Minister Datuk Chong Kah Kiat.
Chong, despite claims to the contrary by some quarters, was fully prepared to make way for the next man.
He had told close friends, “I will not stay on a day longer or even a minute longer than necessary.”
The rotation system, a means of power-sharing, was a 1994 state election pledge made by Dr Mahathir. He promised that every party in the state Barisan Nasional would have a shot at the top post.
A promise is a promise but the system has its flaws. The periodic changes cause administrative problems and wasteful politicking. But the system is likely to remain until, as SAPP's Chia aptly put it, another formula that can offer political equilibrium is found.
In the meantime, Sabah Umno politicians say Musa is one of the most promising politicians to have emerged from their ranks in years.
“He will be good for Sabah,” said Umno Youth's Abdul Rahman.
Others prefer to wait and see.