What began as a contest for posts in GPMS, a Malay NGO with close ties to Umno, has erupted into a full-scale power strugglebetween the arch protagonists – one, a rising star in Umno Youth, and the other, an Anwar Ibrahim look-alike. JOCELINE TANhas the report.
FOR many years, Datuk Suhaimi Ibrahim's chief claim to fame was his physical resemblance to former Umno leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Some claimed the tall, fair and handsome Suhaimi even talked and walked like Anwar.
The association with Anwar was once a huge boost to Suhaimi's image but it is now dogging him like a shadow in his bid to retain his position as president of the GPMS, the Malay acronym for the Federation of Peninsular Malay Students.
Suhaimi is being challenged by Reezal Merican Naina Merican for the GPMS leadership.
And the challenge is not to be taken lightly for Reezal is also the political secretary to Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in the latter's portfolio as Finance Minister I.
The impending challenge, which has been brewing for the last couple of months, boiled over this week.
On Tuesday, Suhaimi sacked two top office bearers – deputy president Shahrir Rejab and Terengganu GPMS secretary Syed Anuar Syed Mohamed.
The sacked leaders retaliated with a coup d‘etat the next day and announced an alternative leadership with Shahrir as the acting president. They also “sacked” Suhaimi from his post a day later.
It was very messy with both camps claiming to be acting according to the GPMS constitution.
It was high drama for the over 50-year-old association.
“GPMS has a crisis on its hands,” said Datuk Syed Hamid Albar, Foreign Minister and one-time president of another youth body, the Malaysian Youth Council (MYC).
What had begun as a contest for posts has grown into a full-scale power struggle.
Reezal's interest in the top post has been an open secret for many months now and, Suhaimi, a former Umno assemblyman in Pahang, did not do himself a favour when he told Siasa, a popular fringe publication, that Umno should re-accept Anwar Ibrahim.
Suhaimi is an Umno member and his statement went against the general sentiment in the party. Umno members were upset and that was when Reezal's campaign began to gather steam.
Umno's attachment to GPMS goes back to the 1950s. Its reputation was built on its nationalist outlook and pioneering role in Malay education and language issues in the post Merdeka years.
It later became a platform for Umno to air certain Malay views as well as a vehicle to tap into the potential pool of future members among students, especially in colleges and universities.
The organisation has produced a number of prominent national figures, including the present Prime Minister who was president during the 1960s when he was a young civil servant.
Said another former MYC president Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah: “GPMS has always been seen as pro-Umno but there's nothing wrong with having political content in youth groups.
“Just as you cannot stop politicians from holding posts in these groups, you should not stop youth organisations from taking political positions. But the youth idealism must be there.”
Some think Suhaimi, 46 now, and GPMS president since 1997, has overstayed.
The Universiti Malaya graduate was already MYC president when he decided to contest against academic Datuk Nordin Kardi for the GPMS presidency. He lost but went on to take the post when Dr Nordin was disqualified on technical grounds.
His ascent in GPMS was viewed as pro-Anwar Ibrahim forces making inroads into the organisation.
Suhaimi is unapologetic about his old ties with Anwar.
“Anwar is a family friend. Why should our political differences come between us? Yes, I visited him in Munich. What's wrong with that? When I said Umno should take Anwar back, it was my personal opinion,” he said.
He said he was ready to make way in GPMS but through “a smooth transition.”
“Instead they used the media to attack me. I am really sad and upset that they said I have not performed but I stand by my track record.”
Suhaimi is currently caught in a Catch-22 type of situation.
Those in Umno are still suspicious of his past ties with Anwar.
The Malay culturists claim he has become too much of a cheerleader for Umno on key Malay issues and that GPMS has joined a number of Malay NGOs in “dumbing-down” issues.
The Anwar clique is not comfortable with him because he had not rallied behind the reformasi movement in 1998.
Can he hope to retain his post against such odds?
“I have strong support. I also have no problem with Reezal's challenge. It’s part of democracy. He can come in and fight me anytime ? no hard feelings,” said Suhaimi.
But Reezal is no lightweight.
He is a rising star in Umno. He is only 32 but has made his way up the slippery steps of Umno politics with considerable skill.
An International Islamic University economics graduate and Penang-born, he was political secretary to Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil before moving into his current post in the Finance Ministry I.
He is also vice-Youth head of the Kepala Batas Umno division.
Last year, he blazed into the Umno Youth exco with the third highest votes.
Many think he will win without much trouble because his position as a political secretary to Abdullah will lend him the clout and mileage.
The assumption is that he has the blessings of the Prime Minister given that GPMS was an early political platform for the latter.
Others think Abdullah is quite above the tussle going on in GPMS.
“I don't think Pak Lah has any strong preferences. But he has not stopped Reezal from going for it either,” said a Putrajaya official.
Reezal is not without hurdles of his own.
His bid for the GPMS post reinforces his image as “a young man in a hurry.” He is in danger of appearing rather too ambitious, something that seasoned Umno politicians know can easily backfire in one's face.
The intensity of the power struggle, especially the coup d’etat has also stunned onlookers.
“Why the big fight, especially during the fasting month? It's just an NGO, it's not as though there are million ringgit contracts involved,” said a senior journalist.
There are no juicy contracts but GPMS is certainly not just another Malay NGO.
Apart from its traditional connection with Umno, GPMS' 400,000-strong membership makes it a coveted power base for aspiring and ambitious politicians.
Said an aide to a minister: “If you lead GPMS, you rub shoulders with top leaders of Umno, you go places. It is a powerful post.”
But the leadership struggle, said Umno's Syed Hamid, has hurt the image of GPMS.
“They won't like what I have to say but this type of behaviour is just not right – one side sacking the other side, this camp ousting the other. It is very funny business. Where is the interest and idealism that GPMS is supposed to stand for?” said Syed Hamid.
The AGM that will elect the new GPMS leader is scheduled for December.
Will the fight worsen or will both sides come to their senses?
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