Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad kept his composure and ended his final Umno general assembly as president and Prime Minister dignified and high spirits. He intends to exit with the political transition firmly in place, writes JOCELINE TAN.
IT was a beautiful morning as Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad's jet-black Proton Perdana glided into the VIP entrance of the PWTC for the final day of the Umno general assembly.
His eyebrows went up as he peeped out of the window and saw a huge crowd of people milling around the entrance. They had spilled over from the broad, red-carpeted corridor that led to the Dewan Merdeka.
He had barely stepped out of the car when some of the elderly ladies began to wipe their cheeks with the sleeves of their baju kurung. Soon, even the men were teary-eyed as they inched forward to try to shake his hand.
The Prime Minister controlled his emotions well. In fact, he has been consciously doing that for the last few days as hordes of Umno members besieged him for autographs, or to have their pictures taken with him, or just to touch his hand.
They had made the special journey to see him at his last assembly as Umno president and Prime Minister.
Umno Youth leader Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein Onn saw all this as he escorted Dr Mahathir in and he thought to himself: “Looks like it may be an emotional evening.”
The emotions had been building up since the assembly opened on Thursday. It has been a near nightmare for the security staff for everyone wanted to get up close to the big man. Even the short distance to walk from his car to the hall would take up to half an hour.
For those Umno members, bidding farewell to the man who had been Prime Minister for 22 years was like saying goodbye to a family member. For instance, the Puteri girls had talked about having been “given birth” by him and had even taken to referring to him by the affectionate sobriquet “ayahanda.”
By mid-morning yesterday, the crowd at the PWTC had swelled to about 30,000. It had become near impossible to move through the lobby area where the bazaar was.
Some of those outside the hall grew weepy just looking at pictures of the Prime Minister carried in the papers. In the bazaar, Malay pop singer Nora’s CD Perjuangan Belum Selesai was selling like hot cakes.
“I’ve never seen this many people at an assembly, not even during an election year,” declared Wan Harun Wan Ismail from the Kubang Pasu division of which Dr Mahathir is a member.
As he spoke, an elderly lady in a simple white telekung was slowly making her way towards the Dewan Merdeka, helped on each side by two Puteri girls.
Her face was deeply lined and she had trouble walking but Datin Siti Maimunah Idris, 78, said in a clear voice: “I've come to see Dr Mahathir.”
Apparently, she had been crying and begging her family to bring her here since watching Dr Mahathir's opening speech on Thursday.
Her granddaughter Siti Rosmah Jamaluddin who brought her said: “My grandmother said this will be her last assembly. She said it doesn’t matter if she cannot come again but she just had to come today.”
Umno leaders were worried that something similar to last year would occur. Their concern was that the president must be able to complete his winding-up speech.
Word went out from the state chiefs that delegates were to control themselves and allow Dr Mahathir to speak without interruption. After that, they were free to express their emotions.
Datuk Idris Jusoh, deputy Terengganu chief, immediately started sending text messages (SMS) to all the Terengganu delegates.
“The PM has been holding back his feelings. I see him deep in thought as though trying to distance himself. He’s willing himself not to cry,” said Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar when he visited The Star press booth in the morning. But even as he spoke about Dr Mahathir, his own eyes turned red and watery.
But the Umno leaders need not have worried.
Dr Mahathir, true to form, was about to do exactly the opposite of what people were expecting him to do.
When the assembly reconvened after lunch, he looked calm and refreshed in his powder blue baju Melayu and matching blue-and-silver kain samping.
A Sabah delegate pointed out rather sadly that when he first arrived for the assembly, the giant poster on the stage that depicted Dr Mahathir and his deputy waving happily had looked like a “Hello there!” type of poster.
“Now it looks like he is waving goodbye to me,” said the delegate.
The winding-up session saw more speakers than usual this year, including an unprecedented opportunity by a representative from the media, Datuk A. Ahmad Talib, to pay tribute to Dr Mahathir in the form of a sajak (poem).
As one supreme council member after another said their piece, the expectation built up.
These were top leaders of the party – Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – and their speeches were sophisticated and relatively free of the rhetoric that delegates had been bombarded with over the past two days.
There were several common themes in their speeches, including a deep gratitude to the outgoing president for his accomplishments and a commitment to support Abdullah in his eventual choice of deputy prime minister.
Both Muhyiddin and Najib left no more doubts that they would not challenge whoever Abdullah picked as his No 2.
Najib, who gave an eloquent and succinct speech, went a step further when he pledged that, “whoever is chosen by Abdullah as the deputy prime minister will be accepted by us as the deputy president.”
He added: “Pak Lah, be assured that I and the others in the party will give you our fullest support to lead the party and the country.”
There were a total of five standing ovations, one of which was for Datin Seri Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali who was seated up on the gallery to the left of the stage.
It was Abdullah who gallantly praised her for her commendable role as First Lady. As the hall erupted into applause, her husband gazed up at her with a half teasing, half indulgent smile.
The delegates had also clapped wildly when Abdullah held up the booklet of Dr Mahathir’s opening speech on which the latter had inscribed: “May Allah bless you when you take over.”
When Dr Mahathir finally rose from his seat to speak, the hall rose as one. This was the moment they had been waiting for the last three days.
But if they were expecting tears, they were about to be disappointed. Dr Mahathir was calm, collected and, as he continued to speak, clearly in high spirits.
In fact, he was in superb fighting spirit especially when taking on PAS, slamming them for exploiting religion in their politics, their exclusionist policies and the way they were undermining the faith.
He defended his criticism of the new imperialism by the “bangsa Eropah” and advised the Malays: “Don’t look for the easy way when doing things. Look for the correct way.”
Both he and Abdullah also paid tribute to the unsung heroes.
“These are the everyday Umno men and women who hold the party together, who have brought in the winnings. I’m glad they remembered this group,” said Zakhir Mohamed, an observer to the assembly.
Dr Mahathir’s speech took 80 minutes with his composure intact and without a single tear being shed.
Delegates were both disappointed and relieved at the same time. Disappointed because there is nothing like a good sob when saying goodbye to someone they love, relieved because the president was going in good spirits.
For instance, he had recalled that his mother used to tell him that when eating something he really liked, to always stop midway. It was a form of discipline. As such, he said, he did not want to go only when he was chased out, or when he had destroyed the party, or when he was too old.
“He was a master politician till the end,” said an Umno official.
Indeed he was. He had set the stage for what he wanted to achieve when, in an exclusive interview with Mingguan Malaysia before the assembly, he expressed concern over a contest for the top party posts.
As a result, the top party leaders were pressured into declaring that they would support whomever Abdullah chose as deputy prime minister.
The pledge was formalised yesterday when all three vice-presidents gave a firm commitment on the issue of the next deputy prime minister.
“He saw the mood, he went for it and he got what he wanted. He is handing over to Pak Lah a party that is strong and intact,” said the Umno official.
“My father is leaving with a heavy heart but he is also looking forward to his retirement,” said Datuk Mokhzani Mahathir.
By not succumbing to the prevailing mood of nostalgia and sentiment, Malaysia’s Prime Minister extraordinaire had ensured that this assembly was less about a farewell than about the political transition in Umno.