Missing jet drama boosts veteran Malaysian politician

Missing jet drama boosts veteran Malaysian politician

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's missing plane has made Hishammuddin Hussein a globally recognised lightning rod for foreign criticism of his country's handling of the crisis, but could end up catapulting him to prime minister someday.

Hishammuddin, 52, has become a household name thanks to his daily press briefings on the crisis, broadcast live to rapt audiences around the world.

As defence and transport minister, it has fallen to him to face the often combative foreign press corps that has descended upon Malaysia, demanding answers from an authoritarian government accustomed to swatting away or jailing its critics.

But Hishammuddin, a son of the country's third prime minister who harbours ambitions of following in those footsteps, is scoring points at home for appearing to steady an initially chaotic message projected by underlings, and for pushing back at overseas criticism.

"I see him as the only one (of future prime ministerial contenders) with PM qualities and the tragedy has shown that he is more of a leader and statesman than his cousin (current premier Najib Razak)," said Azrul Azwar Ahmad Tajudin, who heads the opposition-linked think tank Institut Rakyat.

Najib, 60, has largely stayed on the sidelines in the crisis.

Destined for top leadership

Even before the drama, Hishammuddin had ticked several of the boxes required to someday lead the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled tightly since independence in 1957.

He is already one of three party vice presidents, has the requisite bloodline - his grandfather founded the party - and has solid credibility with his fellow Muslim Malays, the majority ethnic group and UMNO's bread-and-butter.

Hishammuddin famously brandished a keris - a Malay dagger and symbol of controversial Malay-supremacy policies imposed by UMNO - at a party assembly in 2005.

That angered multi-racial Malaysia's large minority communities but scored with powerful pro-Malay hardliners.

Hishammuddin was tarnished early last year as home minister, in charge of internal security, when a ragtag group of more than 200 Filipino Muslim militants invaded the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.

The episode exposed security lapses, and Hishammuddin appeared unsure how to handle the month-long crisis, which ended after a full-scale Malaysian military assault.

But few current top UMNO leaders are seen as having the ability to engage internationally - another key leadership criterion.

UMNO moderate Saifuddin Abdullah, a former deputy education minister and ex-schoolmate of Hishammuddin, said the MH370 crisis has given a clear boost to the telegenic minister, who attended schools in Britain and has spent 15 years in the cabinet.

"Any vice president of UMNO is a PM candidate, but on this day, Hishammuddin seems to have stepped up and stands out," Saifuddin told AFP.

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