Umno's moderate image appeals to women voters but even Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was surprised by the warm support from the senior generation during a recent visit to Kelantan, where both groups are crucial in the party's bid to regain ground, writes JOCELINE TAN.
THE SKY over Kota Baru was still dark at 6am and Kelantan Umno information head Alwi Che Ahmad was just about to climb out of bed when his mobile phone rang.
It was Datuk Osman Desa, the political secretary to the Acting Prime Minister, calling Alwi to go over some final details for Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's visit to Kelantan that day.
The deputy Umno president was due to touch down in Kota Baru at 8.30am for a day-long visit that had been packed back-to-back with programmes and those involved in the planning wanted to ensure that it went without a hitch.
The schedule was so hectic that by the end of the day, even pressmen complained they were worn out “chasing Pak Lah” from one venue to the next.
The night before, Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Mustapa Mohamed had gone from tahlil prayers for a late relative in Bachok to personally check on the preparations for the string of programmes lined up for the visit. Known for his meticulous and workaholic style, Mustapa headed first for Pasir Putih, the venue for a women's rally, then Kubang Krian, which was to host a gathering of Umno veterans.
It was Abdullah's second visit this year. His periodic visits to the PAS-held state are seen as the Federal Government's commitment to the Kelantan people.
“It is also an endorsement of Datuk Mustapa's leadership,” said Alwi.
During Abdullah's earlier visit, he had focused on the issue of new faces and rejuvenation. This time, his focus lay with the women voters and the senior generation, two groups fundamental to the survival of any political party.
Abdullah, with Mustapa by his side, arrived in a black executive Proton Perdana to a boisterous welcome in Pasir Putih.
It was a “women power” event and Wanita chief Senator Datin Nik Azizah Nik Yahaya and Pasir Putih head Kamaruddin Mat Nor were on hand to receive the Umno deputy president. It was a Friday and most of the men were in formal baju Melayu so that they could proceed to Friday prayers, while the thousands of women who turned up resembled a sea of pastel and floral.
“Many of them are like fund managers at home because they hold the purse strings,” said Bachok Umno head Datuk Dr Awang Adek, who is also chairman of Tenaga Nasional Bhd.
Kelantan women, Awang added, are also famed for their industry and business acumen and are known to hold independent political views.
Abdullah made no bones about Umno's intention to tap into these traits of Kelantan women. Women, he said, would always have an important role in society under the Barisan Nasional government.
He spoke of their contributions and how so many of them had been able to realise their potential to the extent that women were now to be found as “secretary-generals of ministries and even as the Governor of Bank Negara.”
“We will make sure that people, regardless of gender, get equal treatment,” he said to loud applause.
The issue of women's role in society has always been PAS' Achilles heel and it is clear Umno will exploit this to the fullest. This is particularly relevant in Kelantan where Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat is known to harbour conservative, even Victorian, views on women.
It was near noon by the time the programme ended and after a quick lunch, the men left for the mosque. Abdullah's entourage streamed towards the spectacular “blue mosque” in Kubang Krian, not far from the site of the afternoon programme for Umno veterans.
The state Umno leadership plans to have every division host an event officiated by the party's top leadership. The Peringat division had hosted a buka puasa with Abdullah and the Kota Baru division a Raya gathering with Abdullah early this year.
Just a day earlier, the head of the Kubang Krian division, Tuan Hashim Tuan Yaacob, had been busy arranging a ceremony that saw 178 PAS supporters from Beta Hilir, a kampung in Kubang Krian, crossing over to Umno. The group handed their applications to join Umno to Mustapa.
Such cross-overs, whether from PAS to Umno or vice-versa, might be viewed with disdain by non-partisan onlookers, but they have impact in the competitive politics of Kelantan.
“Minutes after the ceremony, we heard that the tok guru of Beta Hilir (a PAS supporter) had announced that our new members had hilang akidah (lost their faith) and were no longer part of the ummah. It's wrong to twist religion like that but that's so typical of PAS,” said Tuan Hashim.
The success of the programme for the veterans was a good reminder to Umno politicians of the significance of the senior generation vis-à-vis the need for rejuvenation and new faces.
Abdullah was particularly touched by the sight of so many elderly men and women who made the effort to be present, sitting cross-legged on mats and listening with great enthusiasm to the speeches.
He spoke for nearly 40 minutes, praising the veterans for their loyalty and commitment and talking of their past contribution. He thanked them for turning up in such great numbers and appealed for their help in turning around the politics of the state.
They related well to Pak Lah's low-key style and the humility with which he approached them.
“You could see they really liked him,” said Tuan Hashim.
The senior men also enjoyed the speech by one of their own - Tan Sri Hussein Ahmad, the former political strongman of Rantau Panjang, a division near the Thai border. Hussein, now nearing 70, seems to have lost little of his flamboyance and machismo and the old Kelantanese dialect he used pleased the elderly audience.
In fact, one of them was so swept away by the atmosphere that he stood up and, leaning on his cane, made an impromptu and impassioned speech, urging the party to hand over the legendary keris tanding sari so that veterans like him could carry on the struggle.
“Make use of us. Even if we cannot walk, we will go on our hands and knees for Umno,” said the elderly gentleman.
The programme for Umno veterans was apparently set into motion by Datuk Ramzi Abdul Rahman, Abdullah's political secretary at the Home Ministry.
Ramzi, a Kelantan-born, had been somewhat concerned that all the talk about new blood and new faces might alienate the senior generation and had, together with Hussein, set about to bring Umno's veterans together.
“It really gave us hope to see the spirit in all these veterans. I had thought the old people preferred PAS,” said senior Umno politician Datuk Rozali Isohak.
The Acting Premier is said to have instructed that other states follow Kelantan Umno's initiative on this.
Things are beginning to fall into place for Kelantan Umno. There is a new focus and direction to their politics and it did not escape the notice of many that Abdullah went from the veterans' programme to an audience at the Palace. He was accompanied by Mustapa, Implementation and Planning Unit director-general Datuk Ramli Abdul Rahman and State Civil Service director Datuk Zainal Ariff.
Mustapa's sober and thoughtful political style has also gone down well with Kelantan people. He has gone from strength to strength and events of the past few months have finally established him as the unequivocal leader of Umno in Kelantan.
“He is a patient man and his patience has been his most strategic weapon. He prefers to engage rather than aggravate,” said his aide Juhaidi Yean Abdullah.
For instance, his approach towards the mercurial Datuk Ibrahim Ali is beginning to show results. Ibrahim, head of the Pasir Mas division, was deeply disappointed when excluded from the leadership revamp in January and made known his feelings.
But last month, Mustapa readily accepted an invitation to attend the Maal Hijrah ceremonies in Ibrahim's division. There was a brief moment of awkwardness between the two men but when they shook hands, everyone cheered and applauded loudly.
Later in their speeches, Mustapa stressed party unity while Ibrahim urged support for Mustapa.
Ibrahim still has his area of support. During the Maal Hijrah, he had planned to sacrifice a pair of camels, but so many people turned up they had to slaughter an additional two buffaloes. In fact, with just two camels, he managed to draw so many more people than a Peace Malaysia function in Kota Baru organised by the state Umno Youth and which featured the nasyid group, Raihan.
Mustapa's style of engagement echoes that of his boss Abdullah.
At the final function of his day-long visit, Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, walked towards Abdullah and grasped his hand in a firm and warm handshake.
Abdullah knows that Umno needs everything to be just right in order to take on PAS in Kelantan.