The post of Selangor Mentri Besar is one of the most powerful in Malaysian politics but it is also a hot seat.Will Datuk Seri Dr Mohamad Khir be overwhelmed like his predecessors or will the top job propel him further up the Umno ladder?JOCELINE TAN reports.
DATUK Seri Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo is visibly slimmer these days. The paunch he had begun to carry since becoming Selangor Mentri Besar three years ago has disappeared but his thick mane of hair and bushy moustache have also turned a paler shade of grey.
The past few months have been hard on him. He has been faulted by his ratepayers and pilloried by the media on issues ranging from the alienation of state land to raids on “vice activities” and, more recently, his handling of the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ) affair.
As the old adage goes: “It never rains but it pours.”
And it could not have come at a worse time, that is, on the threshold of the Umno general assembly. It certainly took the fizz out of what might otherwise have been an opportune moment for him to impress his peers as well as party delegates.
Khir, a number of people noticed, was rather low-key and moved around rather self-consciously throughout the three-day party event but that did not stop him from delivering a powerful speech at the Umno Youth assembly.
“He spoke very directly, with little rhetoric. That’s how I like it,” said a Youth delegate from Kedah.
Khir touched on a number of topics but the gist of his speech acknowledged Youth leader Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein as his “boss” in the Youth wing. It was a humble gesture given that much of his movements in the past year had seemed aimed at positioning himself for Hishammuddin’s post.
Khir, at 37, is the youngest Umno politician holding a top government position today. His political career has defied definition.
The then practising dentist became Youth chief of the Tanjung Karang division only in 1998. The following year, he contested and won in the general election. In the party polls in 2000, he came in last among the 20 Youth exco members.
But his days of obscurity were about to end a year later, when he was picked over other more senior candidates to replace Datuk Abu Hassan Omar as Mentri Besar.
The question on everyone’s lips then was: Who is Khir Toyo?
Much has been written about him – his poverty-stricken childhood, his academic determination, his career as a dentist, the long hours he spends on his work as Mentri Besar and his efforts at learning English and Arabic.
But, as recent events seem to suggest, the early fascination has evaporated and the honeymoon is over.
“His intentions are good but he seems too abrasive on certain things,” said Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar.
A Selangor assemblyman added: “He’s still green and it doesn’t help that his advisors are not very much more experienced than him. But he is learning.”
A more seasoned politician would have given more thought to some of the issues that have threatened to drag him under in recent months.
“He’s actually very hardworking but he has a serious image problem,” said a government backbencher from the state.
For instance, when Khir led his enforcement officers to raid massage parlours, his aim was to give them the moral backing. Instead, the public saw it as publicity-seeking and contended that, as Mentri Besar, Khir should have other more serious duties to attend to.
His effort at tackling the long-standing applications for state land was perceived as a bid at popularity. DAP assemblyman Teng Chang Khim dangled the list of recipients before him during the State Legislative Assembly, prompting Utusan Malaysia to publish the names of the well-known recipients who included senior government servants, politicians and Khir's driver and bodyguard.
“I thought he would have learnt some lessons from his predecessor,” said Teng who has seen two earlier Mentris Besar from Selangor go in a cloud of disgrace.
When allegations were made against the MPAJ enforcement head, Khir did what he thought was the right thing as the state CEO – he stood up for his men. But the ratepayers saw it as a cover-up and accused him of being insensitive and incompetent.
It is possible that Khir underestimated public opinion on a number of issues. Over the years, Selangor has grown more middle-class and sophisticated. The population is informed, aware of their rights and do not appreciate being talked-down to.
It has been a painful learning experience for Khir.
But in one of those curious aspects of Umno politics, Khir's woes with the public have had minimal impact on his standing within the party.
The Malay politician generally has two sets of constituencies – the general public and the party.
Where Umno is concerned, a good leader is one who stands up for Malay rights and issues, can recite from the Quran, is a good orator and takes care of the Malay grassroots.
“The thing about Malay leadership is you are judged on what you can do or have done for the Malays,” said Nur Jazlan Mohamed, deputy head of Pulai Umno division.
Khir, in that sense, is still seen as an effective Malay leader among Umno members although his credibility has dipped in the general milieu. In fact, his raids on “vice activities”, disparaged as moral cleansing and self-righteousness by the media, were applauded by conservative Muslims.
Former Mentri Besar Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib is perhaps a classic example of duality in politics. He is discredited in the public eye but remains a hero of sorts among the Umno grassroots.
Khir probably appeals to that segment of Umno Youth that clamours for a leader with a bit of the firebrand in him. This is the segment who finds Hishammuddin somewhat too sober and part of consensus politics, and who do not agree with his “use proper channels” style or his “don’t rock the boat” approach.
Moreover, as some insisted, Khir has not done all that badly.
“There was an economic downturn and Umno was in crisis when he took over. I think he has done quite well despite his inexperience,” said Zakhir Mohamed, a Malay professional and Umno member.
His supporters insist that he has been a dynamic Mentri Besar who has come up with all sorts of projects and who starts work after subuh prayers and goes on till 1am or 2am.
He is also a keen learner. He spends two hours, two days a week, on English tuition, another two on Arabic lessons, and one each studying the Quran and Hadis.
His supporters also say he has no guiles and attribute his blunt talking style to his upbringing.
But Khir’s somewhat simplistic way of explaining things, coupled with his body language, has often worked against him. He has a habit of tilting back his head when speaking, a gesture that through the camera's eye, comes across as aloof and patronising.
He lacks the subtlety and social manners that comes so naturally to politicians from more privileged backgrounds. But he is learning.
Still, his raw, kampung style is not exactly a disadvantage. A large segment of Umno are probably very comfortable with his down-to-earth ways.
“He does not have the social graces but he is sincere,” said an Umno Youth ex-co member from Selangor.
Khir's recent troubles have lent a certain tragic air to the Selangor Mentri Besar post. The complex and rapid-growing nature of the state has always given its occupant an unusual degree of power as well as controversy, right from the days of Datuk Harun Idris.
Or as one Terengganu politician put it: “It's a uniquely tempting post and as Oscar Wilde said, you can resist everything but temptation.”
One of these temptations must surely be the urge to use the post to move up in the party.
Many in Umno are convinced Khir will use his position as a stepping-stone to the Youth leadership. At the same time, they are amazed that anyone would contemplate going for such a post – it is equivalent to a party vice-president – after merely five years in active politics.
Khir's support is still largely Selangor-based whereas Hishammuddin has the loyalty of the Youth exco and controls the Youth leaders at the state level (they are all appointed by him) and these are the people who control the ground.
Others say it is likely that Khir is also being pushed to go up by ambitious supporters.
“Sometimes their ambitions become your ambitions,” said the above Terengganu politician.
Khir has told those close to him that he has neither made up his mind nor does he have an agenda for the Youth leadership. He and his supporters are probably aware that everything hinges on how well the Barisan Nasional fares in Selangor in the next general election.
“He has this ambitious slogan of Zero Opposition in Selangor. If he delivers, there will be no stopping him,” said another Youth exco member.
Khir, whatever the public may think of him, is worth watching in Umno politics.