Sunday, October 19, 2008

Muhyiddin Yassin

2008-10-19 00:00

What can Malaysians expect from Muhyiddin Yassin, the 61-year old Minister of International Trade and Industry who is now front-runner for the Deputy Presidency of Umno, possibly our next Deputy Prime Minister?

Although he is not the easiest of politicians to read, a lot of who he is has to do with his deep roots in Muar. He draws a great deal of his personal strength and popular appeal (not to mention his solid grounding in Islam) from Johor, where his father ran a private Islamic school.

Johor, as I have often noted before, is unique amongst the states in Peninsula Malaysia. The racial ill-will and suspicion elsewhere doesn't seem to be a big an issue there, but its politicians never shy from speaking their minds. All of this shows in Muhyiddin,

In the aftermath of Umno/BN's disaster in the March 8th polls, he quickly repositioned himself as an independent voice in the party. Muhyiddin, interestingly enough, kept himself above the orgy of race-baiting some Umno leaders chose to engage in.

"Umno cannot stand alone in situation that's changed like this. We need the support of the non-Malay communities." His frankness is reassuring when he says: "For example, people say the component parties in BN lost because they were overly dominated by Umno."

"He is not one to quibble over the minute details of protocol either."

As he goes onto explain: "This has never been something we've dealt with. We need a new arrangement within the BN family. We need to make meetings more regular. We need to strengthen the rapport. Otherwise the situation quickly gets truncated."

"I feel this is very important. We must reinvent the BN. We have to go beyond the surface and deepen relations. It's about form and content I the need for a common mission and vision."

"The polarization of the past few decades is undeniable. It is a clear failure of government policies. These are the serious issues of the day.

"At the same time, the younger generation doesn't have the baggage of the past. History is just too remote for them! Laws and the constitution are not enough in themselves. We need to ensure these codes are embedded in our conventions - the way we live day-in, day-out."

"We need to create a new consensus. However, it needs time to evolve. As were doing this we need to engage with the younger generation. But it's a two-way flow. You can't force them and they're very exposed and sophisticated."

Whilst some might be sceptical of Muhyiddin's emergence as a multiracial figure, his interest is undoubted. Back in 2007 he was already talking and publicly about the unwritten 'social contract' and the need for it to be renewed. Certainly, for those who've despaired of Umno - especially among the non-Malays, he's been a crucial figure, talking sense when others were locked in hollow, self-serving rhetoric.

Also to his credit is his command of English and his sharp mind- he's not the kind of politician that has to rely on a phalanx of special officers or advisers. He is a tactical player who holds his cards close to himself and often springs the odd surprise mood. He is not one to quibble over the minute details of protocol either.

Furthermore, Muhyiddin has a sizeable curiosity about global affairs both political and economic as well as the mental agility to contrast and compare emerging trends with our own situation here in Malaysia. This is the sort of leader that Umno ought to encourage: he's a welcome return to an almost endangered Umno paradigm - namely the cosmopolitan, multilingual and principled Malay technocrat with his feet planted firmly on the ground.

But of course, Muhyiddin is not without his flaws. He comes across to people who don't know him as dour, unsmiling (which he ought to do more often) and distant- almost a Gordon Brown-type figure without the New Labour beliefs.

His record as a Menteri Besar and Minister are not without its critics. Furthermore, despite his reassurances many non-Malays are still fearful that yet another Malay ultra lurks beneath his cool exterior.

Nevertheless, Umno could do much worse as it faces a long period of internal instability leading up to the March General Assembly and the leadership transition. Many see a Najib-Muhyiddin as almost inevitable, and Malaysians shall have to wait and see if this equation can work in the long run.

We cannot get away from the fact that, however, that Umno needs more straight-talking realists like Muhyiddin in order to survive. In order to win back the support of moderates and liberals alienated by the recent times, he needs to clarify his position on civil liberties - legal and judicial reform, media freedoms and such like.

Applying his straight-talking to these vital issues will undoubtedly assist in his path to power. (By KARIM RASLAN/ MySinchew)

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