THE Puteri Umno annual meeting for the Pendang division in Kedah was due to start at 9.30am but the area around the Umno building in Pendang town was already a mass of pink by 8.30am.
The Pendang Puteri division is big, with more than 1,000 members, and many of the delegates were college students who had made a special trip home from Kuala Lumpur a day earlier.
Suraya Yaacob, the Puteri head for Pendang, is a confident, articulate and energetic British-trained lawyer. She is also Kedah Puteri chief and true to her unconventional style, she had included a lucky draw as part of the AGM, with prizes ranging from crockery to electrical goods.
Pendang is not a mundane constituency. Umno and PAS waged a fierce battle for the seat last year after the death of incumbent MP and PAS president Datuk Fadzil Mohd Noor.
As a party division, Pendang is also known for its rivalling warlords or, as Suraya put it, “everybody here claims they know Dr Mahathir, so they think they know a lot about politics.”
In her opening speech, she spoke out against those who constantly belittled Puteri and who insisted on protocol and red tape even for simple programmes. It was an outspoken speech but the real surprise came after the teabreak, when the meeting proper began.
Minutes after the meeting commenced, Suraya stood up to move an emergency resolution: to do away with the age limit on the leader of Puteri Umno. Her proposal received a unanimous “Setuju!” from the floor.
Elsewhere that weekend, several other Puteri divisions made similar resolutions. Some proposed that the 40-year age limit for the Puteri national chief be quashed, others asked for it to be extended and one division wanted all new members below the age of 35 to be channelled to Puteri.
They drew parallels to the Youth wing where there is no age ceiling for the Youth leadership.
One of these divisions was Kepala Batas whose Puteri head is the pretty and vivacious lawyer Azlina Mehtab Mohd Ishaq and whose division head is no less than Acting Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The significance was too great to be missed by anyone in Umno. Besides, Azalina had opened the Kepala Batas Puteri meeting.
It was evident something was cooking.
The Puteri girls, new as they may be to politics, are using the division meetings to build up support to scrap the age ceiling on the Puteri top post. And try as they may to downplay the association, the move is clearly aimed at extending the leadership of Azalina who will be 40 this year.
Besides, a number of the divisions who tabled these resolutions are headed by young women who Azalina appointed as state chiefs and staunchly loyal to her leadership.
Kedah chief Suraya makes no bones about the fact that “I totally believe in Aza.”
Azlina, whom her almost namesake Azalina calls “Mehtab,” is Penang Puteri chief whereas Batu Pahat which moved a similar motion is headed by Johor Puteri chief Haliza Abdullah.
“I know people will misinterpret the proposal but there’s no alternative to Aza at this point in time. She’s still needed and it has nothing to do with her not having something to go to in Wanita,” Suraya said.
Besides, Suraya added, the Puteri top post is equivalent to a vice-president and that calls for someone who is experienced, mature and understands politics.
Much has been said and written about Azalina and it is possible no other new face in Umno has invited as much excitement, publicity and controversy.
At the same time, there is no denying she managed to draw thousands of young Malay women into the party when it was its lowest ebb and much of what Puteri is today is a result of the sheer force of her personality and effort. But politics being what it is, she has also made more than her share of enemies and adversaries.
Thus, while the resolutions may reflect a genuine desire among the Puteri girls to retain her, there are also those who are inclined to view the move as an attempt by Azalina to avoid facing the prospect of making a fresh start in Wanita Umno.
“It’s obviously done to accommodate Azalina because the Puteri have always said they don’t want older people to lead them. We won’t support it,” said one Wanita official .
Azalina has tried to mend bridges with key Wanita figures, namely, Wanita chief Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz the past year but the senior women have indicated that they are not going to make any exceptions for her.
An Umno Youth observer said: “No matter how much she kisses Rafidah’s hand, she will still have hurdles to cross in Wanita. It’s only to be expected.”
Even the men in Umno think the proposal is a thin disguise for what they view as political ambition.
“It's the taste of power, very intoxicating and you always want more,” said an Umno official close to the leadership.
They also felt uncomfortable with the fact that Kepala Batas Puteri was among the divisions that tabled the motion.
“It looks like they are trying to ride on Pak Lah’s division,” said the same official.
But not all Wanita figures are dead against the proposal. Wanita figures like Kamilia Ibrahim, Wanita head of Kuala Kangsar, have come to appreciate and acknowledge the role of Puteri.
“If you confine leadership to age, you may not find the right person. Azalina has done well and she deserves it,” she said.
Datin Shuhanie Deraman, the Tanah Merah Wanita head whom Wanita Umno had wanted to contest the Puteri chief post last year, said: “I’m okay with extending the age limit but I guess they have to convince the party first.”
The age limit issue is going to be much more sensitive and complicated than it appears.
In the first place, it involves amending the constitution. As it is, some in the party say the Puteri girls ought to have raised the matter with the party leadership instead of taking matters into their own hands.
“They seem to think that amending the constitution is like making kopi susu, as and when they feel like it,” said an aide to a Minister.
Some of the Puteri girls had tried to broach the issue with several top Umno figures.
When one of them asked Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib what he thought of the idea, the Umno vice-president was non-committal and merely smiled.
Another VP Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, when approached, was more direct. He suggested that Puteri give others a chance at the top post.
But it looks like Puteri has not given up trying to win over the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister for they have invited him as guest of honour at a “Sembang Malam” next week.
The Wanita cannot be blamed for seeing the change as another attempt to accommodate one person. When Puteri was in the process of being formed, the Wanita wing had wanted a 35-year age ceiling for both the Puteri head and membership.
The top Umno leadership agreed that 35 would be the age limit for Puteri members but raised the ceiling to 40 for the Puteri leader to accommodate Azalina. She was then 36 and the only person with the potential to lead Puteri.
There are also other more pressing reasons and it has to do with, as Youth exco member Khairy Jamaluddin aptly put it, the principle of young people being able to lead themselves.
“Puteri should be led by someone young, otherwise there’s the danger that it will be used by senior people as a vehicle for their personal ambitions. There have been times when Pemuda was led by people who were anything but young,” he said.
Although the Umno Youth wing has no age limit on its top gun, the exco members have made it clear that in future, the wing’s leadership must reflect the Youth profile and age will be a crucial consideration.
This, said Khairy, is to avoid repeats of the past where politicians well past retirement age and with less than remarkable reputations had vied for the Youth leadership.
“I can understand the dilemma of Puteri but let the matter be debated in the party,” said another Youth exco member Dr Shamsul Anwar Sulaiman.
Where does Azalina, the woman who is basically at the centre of the controversy, stand?
“It's too premature to comment,” she said.
But, she added, “I will take my directions from the leaders.”
It remains to be seen whether the Umno leadership will entertain the Puteri proposal.
If it works out, the still fledgling woman’s wing will have much to gain from Azalina’s dynamic leadership while she will have a chance to further consolidate her position in the party.
But in the process, she and her supporters will have to live with the perception that they had moved the goalposts to score a goal.
Is this the sort of reputation they want to be stuck with?