Party elections are still a year away but Umno Youth circles are already buzzing with talk that its two biggest stars,DatukHishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo,will be going for bigger things.JOCELINE TAN reports.
DATUK Hishammuddin Hussein cut a youthful and attentive figure as he sat listening to Pengkalan Chepa Umno division head Dahli Hussein make his opening speech last weekend.
The Umno Youth leader had been invited to the joint opening of the Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings of the division – a three-in-one ceremony that many divisions are adopting to economise on time and effort.
Dahli, who has been fascinated with politics since his university days, spoke for about 20 minutes.
A guest in the audience noted that “exactly 12 minutes” of Dahli's speech was spent in praise of Hishammuddin – about how he was the “only leader” with the ability to lead the Youth wing, his impeccable political lineage and how he was “destined for key destinations.”
The object of adulation, to his credit, looked more amused than flattered.
From the meeting, Hishammuddin went to the home of Ezanee Abdullah, a Youth exco member from Kelantan, for a luncheon with former Youth heads of divisions in the state. It was a sort of reunion for his boys and also a deft move at keeping in touch.
The Youth and Sports Minister has come into his own over the last couple of years after a difficult start. He took over mid-term from Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi after the Anwar Ibrahim upheaval, inheriting an exco still largely loyal to Ahmad Zahid in the process.
After retaining the top post without a contest in 2000, he has consolidated his position and put his house in order. He also appointed new Youth heads in the states, people he could work with and who understood where he was coming from.
“The results are showing. Umno Youth is solid, there is greater discipline and the machinery at the division level is working. You could say he is on auto-pilot now,” said exco member Norza Zakaria.
Along the way too, this scion of Malaysia’s third Prime Minister has refused to be pressured into the aggressive and strident political style that previous Youth leaders were known for. He has opted for a more thoughtful and sober approach to issues and problems.
Subahan Kamal, another exco member, added: “People were sceptical at the start but he has done well as a leader who can promote a more tolerant and moderate society.”
Recently, at a dialogue with the Young Professionals Chamber, or Promuda, he was so erudite and polished that the young and highly-educated crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“Overall, it’s the way he carries himself. Even the Youth leaders of other Barisan Nasional parties look up to him,” said Norza.
Hishammuddin’s steadfastness to Umno in the immediate aftermath of Anwar’s sacking was crucial to the party's stability, a point that has not been lost on senior party leaders. If Hishammuddin, then deputy Youth chief, had also swayed to the reformasi group, the wing might have crumbled. In effect, he helped anchor the wing to the mother ship in those difficult days.
The stability and maturity he has brought to the movement has quite inevitably projected his political prospects for the party elections next year.
For some time now, there has been talk that he may be ready to move up to contest one of the three vice-president (VP) posts.
It is true that, at 42, he can afford to wait. The well-remembered Youth chiefs are those who have served at least two terms, that is, six years. But by 2004, Hishammuddin would have served some six years, of which two were as the acting chief plus a year’s extension because party elections have been postponed from 2003 to 2004.
Besides, as many in Umno are aware, the next party polls will be marked by a rare vacancy in the VP posts for one of the VPs will move up to become the next deputy prime minister. For aspiring candidates, that means one less mountain to scale.
Will Hishammuddin go for it?
“No one dares ask him, I think,” said Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh, with a laugh.
Temerloh vice-head Ismail Sabri once broached the subject with him and was told: “Why talk about party elections? Our focus now is the general election.”
Hishammuddin is keeping things close to his chest, something he seems to have learnt from Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad who gave him his first break in politics.
But politics is not unlike physics in that to every action there is a reaction.
Curiosity over Hishammuddin's future plans has led to speculation that Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo is interested in the Youth leadership. The speculation gained weight when the Selangor Mentri Besar took over from Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah as president of the Malaysian Youth Council (MYC) in June last year.
Both Hishammuddin and Khir are currently the two biggest stars in the Youth wing.
Khir was only 35 when he was appointed Mentri Besar. Few expected it because he had won his Sungai Panjang seat with a slim 165-vote majority and was the final one to trail into the 20-seat Youth exco.
But his appointment was based on the premise that he had led a modest life, had a clean slate and being young and energetic, he would be the “youth face” in the government.
Some say he has done a commendable job despite his limited experience. Also, that he has come so far despite a childhood of poverty and hardship is quite inspiring and lends an endearing side to his somewhat rough diamond image.
The majority of Umno members come from modest backgrounds and would be able to empathise with Khir’s experience in life.
“He has been lucky. He was given immense opportunities at a young age and he has enjoyed a high profile,” said a Johor politician.
But some of his policies to “clean up” the state, especially raids on entertainment outlets, may have backfired and even those in Umno are doubtful whether such religion-driven policies are suitable for a multi-racial society.
“We don't want Selangor to be another Kelantan,” said a Youth exco member.
Khir is probably falling back on the traditional formula of race and religion, which may not sit easy on all Malays but one cannot underestimate the conservative heart of Umno.
The Selangor leader has not made any public statement about his intentions but action sometimes speaks louder than words.
He is the only other Youth figure with a schedule as hectic as Hishammuddin this April. He makes it a point to meet up with division Youth heads each time he is out-station, whether in his Umno or Malaysian Youth Council capacities.
To date, it is the Youth politicians in his state who are most gung-ho about him. A number of them have even taken to kissing his hand although they are older than him.
They are the ones moving around and talking of Khir’s future and it is pertinent that Khir has not denied such speculation.
The majority of the Youth exco are loyal to Hishammuddin and are naturally opposed to a Hishammuddin-Khir fight.
Even deputy Youth chief Datuk Aziz Sheikh Fadzil who was, at one point, perceived as eyeing the top post said: “I don’t think they will take on each other. If Hisham stays back, no one will contest against him. If he moves on, he stands a good chance because he’s got a good track record.”
Some think Khir will not vie for the top post unless Hishammuddin decides to go for the VP post. They also think Khir will base his decision on how well he delivers Selangor this general election.
The key prerequisite Youth members have regarding the top post is that the candidates must come from within the Youth ranks. They are averse to senior ambitious politicians “helicoptering in” to lead the win.
Incidentally, the No. 2 Youth post may eventually turn out to be the hotly contested seat. Aziz has reached the 40-year age limit or, as the Youth members like to tease him, “masuk menopause.”
Five Youth exco members have already expressed interest: Azimi Daim (Kedah), Ikmal Hisham (Kelantan), Norza Zakaria and Affendi Zahari (Federal Territory) and Datuk Hamid Nazahar (Pahang). Azimi, a gifted orator, is said to be the forerunner for the moment.
Many in the wing think that both Hishammuddin and Khir will not make a move without a tacit nod from the top leadership.
“Contests in Umno have become more consultative over the years and people don’t want to jump into the ring if they think it will upset the big boss,” said Wan Farid.
Hishammuddin, in particular, enjoys a special relationship with the Prime Minister. They are known to exchange notes with each other – a quaintly traditional trait in the age of e-mail.
It is unlikely Hishammuddin will make a big move without first consulting Umno’s top two. And Khir is also savvy enough to check with those upstairs before jumping into the fray.
In the meantime, every word and action of the two stars of Umno Youth will be closely watched for hints of what’s to come.