VERY few missed the fact that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was standing beside Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak when the latter confirmed he would contest the Umno presidency.
A picture, as they say, speaks a thousand words and many of those at the Umno Raya gathering in Kuala Terengganu on Thursday did think they were looking at the next Umno president and his running mate.
Supporters of both men insisted it was “a coincidence,” saying that Muhyiddin had been in neighbouring Kelantan and had decided to come over in his capacity as Umno vice-president.
There will probably be more of such “coincidences” in the weeks ahead as the Umno divisions begin to nominate candidates for the party leadership.
“We want the best for the party and this is a good partnership. I admire Muhyiddin for being frank and sincere when others were hiding their feelings,” said former Terengganu Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh.
Idris’ Besut division has nominated Najib and Muhyiddin for the top posts. Most divisions in Terengganu will probably do the same except for Kuala Terengganu where Datuk Wan Farid Wan Ahmad, the division chief and also the Prime Minister’s former political secretary, is critical of Muhyiddin.
The race for the party’s top posts effectively began the day after Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he would not defend his post as president.
Najib has to contend with the possibility of facing Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Muhyiddin, on the other hand, is one of four names interested in the deputy president post.
Former Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam announced their interest the day Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he was withdrawing from the No. 2 race. Then there is Pulai MP Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed.
There has never been this many contenders for the No. 2 post and Umno members have been left scratching their heads.
It had begun with Zahid causing a stir on the third day of Hari Raya when he said he was going for the post.
It was apparent that Zahid was being used by the group around Abdullah who wanted to undermine Muhyiddin for derailing the original leadership transition plan.
Sources said Zahid was personally asked by someone very, very high up to go for the post and he had no choice but to agree. This happened just a few days before Hari Raya.
But Zahid changed his mind this week after a meeting with Najib on Tuesday. Both Najib and Zahid are 55 years old, but Najib has always been a sort of mentor figure to Zahid. They go back a long way and Zahid was political secretary to Najib from 1987 to 1993 before he moved on to become an ally of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Some said Zahid had a “heart-to-heart talk” with Najib, while others said the Deputy Prime Minister gave him a no-nonsense talking-to. The outcome was that Zahid heeded his mentor’s advice and duly pulled out of the race.
Zahid had been among the top three members of the supreme council for two consecutive terms but he is not deputy president material, or at least not yet. He will now probably contest for one of the three vice-presidents’ post and do well at that.
If Zahid is deemed less than qualified, what does that make Jazlan, who at 42, has never vied for a supreme council seat. He has a famous father in former minister Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat, but he has not exactly shone in the party.
Even the media did not take him seriously because news of his intention came out as a filler in most newspapers. Only TV3 went to town with it.
Jazlan seems to be a “protest candidate” who is trying to make a point.
“Since the general election, the voters have acquired an appetite for change. I am sending out a signal for the future, that if we don’t think out of the box, we are staring at defeat,” he said.
Mocking the leadership
Some think he is trying to thumb his nose at the leadership or what the Malays call perli, to mock the powers-that-be. In Britain, his action would be seen as eccentric but Umno is a conservative party and is unlikely to be amused by such antics.
Jazlan admitted being fed-up that the party had not progressed after the March elections. He was unhappy that the leaders had not taken responsibility for the losses.
“I told the PM to resign in April when he met the Johor Umno liaison committee. I did not do it behind his back, I said it to his face,” said Jazlan.
He knows his chances of geting the nominations are “as thin as an A4 sheet of paper,” but he said he was determined to state his point of view.
Jazlan’s action is also putting his reputation at stake because he may not be taken seriously in future. Even his own Pulai division is unlikely to nominate him.
Muhammad and Mohd Ali are both senior party figures but party members have also questioned their suitability.
Muhammad or Mat Taib as he is known had been a three-term vice-president before losing in the 2004 party polls while Mohd Ali is a first-term vice-president.
Mat Taib’s interest in the No. 2 post is a calculated one. He knows he would not win in the vice-president race because of the younger faces coming in. He figures that even if he lost in the deputy president contest, it would not be a great loss of face.
Muhammad, who is also Rural Development Minister, is quite assured of securing the 38 nominations needed to qualify as a candidate.
“Selangor Umno will deliver the bulk of nominations to Tan Sri Mat Taib because he is our state liaison chairman,” said Selangor Umno Youth deputy head Faisal Abdullah.
Mohd Ali’s game plan is harder to fathom. He has not stood out as a vice-president and he is way out of his league in the race for deputy president.
But he has great grassroots appeal and it is said he had a good chance of retaining his vice-president seat.
Given all this, it is unsurprising if Najib is perceived as leaning towards Muhyiddin. The International Trade and Industry Minister is a thinking politician and among Umno’s most serious-minded leaders. He has extensive political and administrative experience and a good grasp of economic management.
He also demonstrated leadership at a time of crisis. It is not easy to speak the truth in the face of power and he showed courage in doing so.
Those at the press conference where he announced he would contest the deputy president post were impressed by the polished way he fielded some tough questions.
Many of his supporters were there for him and some came with a banner proclaiming support for Najib as president and Muhyiddin as deputy president. And below that in bold script: “Pak Lah we love you. Your deeds and sacrifices will always be remembered. From the Umno grassroots of Selangor.”
The transition has been smoother than most people in Umno could have hoped for. And it could not be better summed up than by the message on the banner.
If only Umno can now keep in mind that whoever they pick as deputy president must also be the sort of deputy prime minister whom all Malaysians can accept.