The Malays in UMNO have not felt this vulnerable in decades and the mood in the party is that their political power is under threat. All this is simmering beneath the surface in the party’s election campaign.
FEW expected much of the Kangar stop for the UMNO campaign roadshow because Perlis is a tiny state with only about 2,000 delegates.But the Friday event held in the hall opposite the Mentri Besar’s house drew a huge and spirited crowd. It was taking place a day before the three wings were due to vote and there was a whole lot of pent-up feelings being released after weeks of campaigning.
The boisterous mood also had to do with the man playing host that morning, namely Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim who is synonymous with Perlis politics.
Shahidan has a big personality and he dominated the stage. Love or hate him, it is hard to ignore him. He had everyone giggling when he welcomed them with a pantun: “Itik jantan pulang petang, itik betina ternanti-nanti. Dari jauh tuan datang, kami di Perlis sedia menanti”. It was a cute rhyme likening the Perlis delegates to a hen waiting for the returning drake.
It is easy to forget that he is no longer the Perlis Mentri Besar (MB). However, he is the Perlis UMNO Chairman and although there have been two other MBs since he moved on, he still pulls the strings in the state’s politics.
Shahidan is also not shy about projecting himself as the top political personality in Perlis. Some of his supporters were distributing pamphlets of him as Superman. A giant banner draped across the stage showed him alongside Umno’s top two, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
Shahidan kept the event lively. If the candidates tried to run up to the stage, he would tell them not to be so eager and to take their time. If they walked too slowly, he would tell them to hurry up because voting day was around the corner. He also made a song and dance about his ballot number, 01. The number is easy to remember and that is important when it is time to vote.
Friday’s roadshow covered Perlis, Kedah and Penang and it was the final leg for delegates to meet and evaluate candidates.
The roadshow, as a whole, has turned out to be somewhat of a farce. The method worked when there were only 2,000 delegates.But there are now more than 145,000 voting delegates and it is estimated that barely 20% of the delegates have been able to attend the roadshows for various reasons – the events were held during weekdays and had an urban bias because they were held in the state capitals. The mainstay of UMNO is still quite rural and they were left out.
There have been complaints about candidates having to rush through three states in a day. It was like running a crazy marathon especially on the east coast leg where people were expected to start in Kota Baru in the morning, rush to Kuala Terengganu by 3pm and be in Kuantan by 8pm. And all this to be paraded onstage for a few minutes and to meet just a fraction of the delegates.
In Selangor, the venue was so cramped and unsuitable that some are clamouring for another session.
The southern leg was equally impossible for some to keep up with. Candidates were expected to hop from Seremban in the morning to Malacca in the afternoon and down to Johor Baru by nightfall. The next day, they had to be in Kota Kinabalu.
Some have described the whole exercise as a “pretend campaign” or what the Malays call melepaskan batuk di tangga (half-hearted effort). “It had no impact at all. In Perak, about 1,000 delegates came but we have more than 10,000 delegates in the state,” said a delegate from Batu Gajah.
It explained why most of the top guns did not bother to attend the official roadshows. For instance, most of the vice-president (VP) candidates did not join any of the events, leaving delegates disappointed because they want to see their heroes in the flesh.
This has been a sharp contrast to the last party polls where everyone, whether top gun or small fry, turned up for the roadshows. Those who held government positions preferred to go through the state UMNO machinery to hold “official gatherings” of their own where they could make speeches and address their audience in a more personal way.
It is time for a revamp. But as incumbent VP Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein pointed out, there has not been the usual flurry of poison pen letters and agenda-loaded political books this time and that is a good trend.
The maligned roadshow system has, however, inspired others at a more local level where it has worked much better.
In Kapar, Selangor, incumbent Deputy UMNO Chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah has been organising mini roadshows for the 50 or so candidates vying for posts in his division. All posts in Kapar are being contested. Faizal himself is vying to be the new division chief against Datuk Abdul Rashid Asari.
All aspirants have been introduced to branch level leaders at a series of group sessions. Candidates for division chief are allowed to speak for 10 minutes, the deputy and vice chief candidates for five minutes while those going for committee posts are introduced by name.
“It is amicable and aboveboard, no dirty tricks or name-calling. We are all in one family and we want to stay friends, win or lose,” said Faizal.
Faizal’s usual pitch goes like this: “My friends, if you think that my good friend Datuk Rashid is the better candidate, please give the vote to him. I will accept your decision with an open heart. But if you think that I am a little bit better, I accept the responsibilities that come with it. There is no menu or Team A, B or C. If I am elected, I am ready to work with anybody.”
The VP race has become a more level playing field now that it is clear that the top leadership did not give any instruction about the contest. UMNO president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is taking a hands-off position, whether for the VP posts or the supreme council.
Most Chief Ministers and Mentris Besar, including Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir, are also going with the flow on the VP race. The forerunner Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is still in pole position despite an embarrassing incident in Malacca where he threatened to close down the newspapers if the reporters did not leave a closed-door event where he was speaking.
The Home Minister has acquired a reputation for his hardline stand on organised crime and he has probably been carried away by his tough-guy image. The incident will hurt his public image but it will not dent his campaign, given the way the crowd at the event was cheering him on in the background.
But the Zahid campaign team has advised him not to over-react and to keep his mouth shut. He is only a few metres from the finishing line, and they do not want any more trip-ups.
During an interview on a TV talk show, he said that he was willing to risk his political career in defence of the Malays and Islam. The quote has been resonating on the Malay ground.
After all, UMNO is the abbreviation for United Malays National Organisation. Its members are essentially Malay nationalists, patriotic to king and country and bound together by the religion.
The Malays in UMNO feel politically vulnerable as a result of events in the last few years. The last time they had felt this way was during the 1970s. They feel that their opponents are chipping away at all the symbols of Malay power – the royalty, the religion and their party.
There is a mood in UMNO that the party has strayed from its origins and that it must once again assert its voice. Those articulating the Malay agenda will win support.
For instance, the Alor Setar event began with the singing of the Negara Ku followed by the UMNO and Barisan Nasional songs. Then a new song came on. It had a nostalgic melody accompanied by images of the rough politics that took place in 2008, of street protestors challenging the law.
The message was crystal clear – UMNO is under threat. There were watery eyes even among some of the men as the song drew to a close.Those who thought that VP candidate Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir has been playing it rather cool changed their minds when they arrived at the Alor Setar stop of the campaign roadshow.
Two giant banners hung from the complex next to Mentaloon, the grand official residence of the Mentri Besar where no Mentri Besar wants to live because it looks rather haunted inside. Everywhere around the spacious grounds were colourful banners from various Umno divisions in Kedah declaring support for him.
Somewhere along the campaign trail, Mukhriz and fellow VP aspirant Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam have bonded and they have taken to wrapping their arms around each other when posing for the media.
The full results for the three wings will be known today but for aspirants for the VPs and supreme council posts, it will be a mad dash for the finish line.
Many delegates have already decided on the three VPs they want. The combination varies, depending on the state. Shahidan played the teasing game when asked about his VP selection.
“I will vote for Zahid and ... errr ... I cannot remember,” he said with a laugh.
There are three VP posts to fill but with Zahid in such a dominant position, the VP race has boiled down to five people vying to fill the two remaining slots. A frantic week lies ahead.
Joceline Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org