Ties between the Kelantan palace and Umno have been warming up,and the presence of the Kelantan royal couple at a dinner in the residence of the state's Umno chief Datuk Mustapa Mohamed may have brought relations to new heights, JOCELINE TAN reports.
IT was a red carpet evening. The government quarters residence of Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Mustapa Mohamed in downtown Kuala Lumpur had been spruced up for the occasion. The garden twinkled with lights and new furniture with a yellow theme had been laid out in the living room.
The guests of honour were none other than the Sultan of Kelantan, Sultan Ismail Petra, and Raja Perempuan Kelantan Tengku Anis Tengku Abdul Hamid. They were accompanied by their eldest son, the striking-looking Tengku Mahkota Tengku Farid Petra.
The royal couple were all smiles as they stepped out of their plush metallic grey Mercedes Benz to be greeted by the host and hostess and a line of VIPs that included Cabinet ministers, several deputy ministers and their spouses.
Among the ministers were Datuk Seri Najib Razak (Defence), Tan Sri Khalil Yaacob (Information), Datuk Azmi Khalid (Rural Development), Datuk Jamaludin Jarjis (Finance 2) and Tan Sri Hamid Zainal Abidin and Datuk Tengku Adnan Mansor (Prime Minister's Department).
The Kelantan prince and politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was also there. The Gua Musang MP is uncle to the Raja Perempuan.
The Sultan and Raja Perempuan shook hands with all of the 200 guests who comprised well-known Kelantanese from the civil service, security forces, political circle and corporate sector.
The relevance of the evening was not lost on those present. The royal couple were dining in Mustapa’s house in their official capacity, something that was rarely done or, as some politicians tucking into the sit-down dinner claimed, had never been done before.
Whether rarely or for the first time, the evening was a significant indicator of the cordial relationship between the Kelantan palace and Umno.
The other noteworthy point that the politically-savvy crowd pounced upon: the dinner had taken place barely a week after Khalil, in his capacity as Umno secretary-general, had suggested that Mustapa should contest both a parliamentary and state seat in the next general election.
The idea was to project Mustapa as the Barisan Nasional’s choice of Mentri Besar. Umno knows this is important because voters want to be able to visualise an alternative state leadership.
“We know the dinner was planned weeks ago but the way we see it, the palace agrees with the choice of Datuk Mustapa as MB,” said Kelantan Umno information head Alwi Che Ahmad.
It was an extremely amiable evening, a sort of get-together of Kelantanese. The air was filled with Kelantan dialect and music from a live band as they dined.
After dinner, Khalil sportingly took to the floor to sing. The debonair Information Minister is a polished singer and he sang so well that he was persuaded to sing a second song.
Others persuaded to demonstrate their vocal talent included Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, the dainty wife of Najib who impressed with an upbeat Malay number and Azmi who sang My Way. Tengku Razaleigh sang something a little further back in pop history, a whimsical song called Mona Lisa.
Rosmah later joked to the royal couple: “I guess we can tell the era we come from by our choice of songs.”
Only two ministers were excused from singing – Hamid and Jamaludin. The latter had covered his head with both hands at the thought of having to sing, as though he had been asked to present the Budget there and then.
Even the Raja Perempuan was eventually persuaded to sing, and she chose You Mean Everything to Me.
Said Rosmah: “It was such a graceful gesture on the part of the Raja Perempuan and an honour for us.”
The evening went remarkably well and by the time the royal couple took their leave at around midnight - they shook hands with everyone again - some of the politicians among the guests were on cloud nine.
“I think we’ve really buried the hatchet. Whatever problems that may have existed between Umno and the Palace are no longer there. On a scale of one to 10, the evening was a 10,” said Kuala Krai division head Datuk Wan Zaid Wan Abdullah.
Umno-Palace ties in Kelantan had not always been smooth. Ties began to improve only after Tengku Razaleigh returned to Umno in 1997.
Even then, the first real sign of a thaw occurred only in early 2002 when the Sultan granted an audience to the state Umno leadership. Mustapa led the state Umno committee to the palace where they pledged allegiance to the Tuanku, begged for his pardon and beseeched him to let bygones be bygones. This was followed by a formal lunch.
Several months later, the Kelantan People’s Action Council (MTRK) led by Umno's Pasir Mas division head Datuk Ibrahim Ali organised a lavish and spectacular pageant in conjunction with the Sultan's birthday. The Tuanku also conferred the prestigious Darjah Kerabat on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad at a special ceremony.
In that sense, the evening at Mustapa's residence has taken Umno-palace ties to a yet another level.
The Malay daily Utusan Malaysia, always spot-on when it comes to the Malay pulse, front-paged the occasion with a big, colour picture of the Sultan and Mustapa making their way into the dinner hall.
“Tuanku is giving us a chance to do well in Kelantan. I think the welfare of the people is close to his heart and he wants Kelantan to move ahead,” said Tenaga Nasional Berhad chairman Datuk Dr Awang Adek, who is also deputy Bachok head and party treasurer.
The royal couple would have attended another royal gala hosted by TNB on Friday night, but Dr Awang's father passed away on Thursday and the Palace tactfully suggested the event be postponed as a sign of respect.
The improved Umno-palace ties are in contrast to the palace's indifference towards the PAS administration and its leaders.
“Our relationship with the Istana is not like winter or summer, we don't have four seasons here. Let’s just say it’s not hot or cold, just cool. We can still work together,” insisted State Legislative Assembly Speaker Wan Abdul Rahim Wan Abdullah.
Still, it is no secret that there is little love lost between the Tuanku and Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, particularly after a rather disrespectful remark the latter made about the palace. The other thorn in the side is the bid by PAS to push for Constitutional amendments to curtail the powers of the Sultan.
PAS has also ruffled feathers in its endeavour to replace Kelantan’s rich cultural heritage with its version of Islamic culture and its habit of branding all sorts of entertainment and arts as khurafat or sinful.
The Sultan has granted only two Datukships to PAS leaders in their more than a decade-long rule – Nik Aziz in 1991 when things were still rosy between the party and the palace, and more recently, Deputy Mentri Besar Datuk Abdul Halim Abdul Rahman.
PAS’ brand of political Islam has also not gone down well with the royal house.
In his address on his birthday in 2001, the Tuanku said: “Don’t hide behind religious teachings to declare as permissible actions which are contrary to the norms of society and law.”
At his birthday celebrations a year later, his royal advice was: “If we let ourselves go to extremes, naturally peace and security will be forsaken. In the blink of an eye, all development will be gone.”
The question that begs an answer now is: how important is the palace in the political equation of Kelantan?
“The palace is still central to the identity of Malays and there’re many royalists among Kelantanese,” said Juhaidi Yean Abdullah, a close aide to Mustapa.
The Tuanku, said Juhaidi, also commands the loyalty of the civil service. He has a say in the appointment of the state secretary, state financial officer and even district officers and, as such, exerts considerable influence over the civil service.
Besides, the Sultan is not an aloof sovereign. He is a people-oriented monarch who takes an active and solicitous interest in the development and welfare of his state. He often drives himself around to have a first-hand look at projects and things taking place in his state. The Tuanku is also known for performing Friday prayers in different mosques in order to mingle with his subjects.
PAS leaders know he is by and large a popular sovereign and they are watching the current scenario with some concern.
“We understand the political situation in Kelantan and we hope that political parties will not bring other institutions into the political sphere,” said PAS MP for Tumpat Datuk Kamarudin Jaffar.
And although Mustapa would be loath to admit it, the royal nod has lent him new political clout. It has redefined further his central role in Umno’s agenda to take on PAS in the next general election.
The palace is supposed to be above politics but the political stakes in Kelantan have been so high in the past decade that every possible factor counts.