MALAYSIA - Meet Malaysia's Mr Tough Guy.
Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told his senior staff on Monday: "At the Home Ministry we can smile, but when we take action, do not play the fool with us."
That principle - brandishing a big stick - has made him the most popular leader in Umno today, but controversial outside government circles, as he sends police to fight gangsters and immigration officials to nab illegal workers, while swatting away criticisms of heavy-handedness.
The rising profile of the 60-year old Home Minister is timely ahead of Umno's internal elections this year when he is expected to easily defend his vice-president's post, and projects him as a leader to watch.
Mr Zahid has had several bends in his career. He was chairman of the Bank Simpanan Nasional savings bank, became Umno Youth chief, and was then arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for allegedly supporting Anwar Ibrahim's Reformasi movement. He was out in the cold for several years until former premier Abdullah Badawi picked him as deputy minister in 2004.
Just three months into the job, some of Mr Zahid's no-holds-barred statements have grated a section of the public - like when he told those unhappy with the electoral system to migrate.
He also suspended the screening of a Malaysian-made movie - The New Village - saying it portrayed the Malayan Communist Party in a too-positive light. Meanwhile, he allowed another controversial movie, Tanda Putera, or Mark Of A Prince, to be shown despite complaints that it inaccurately and negatively portrayed Chinese Malaysians in the 1969 racial riots.
"He is showing that he is a tough guy and his ministry handles some of the toughest issues," said political analyst Azman Ujang. "He is the most high-profile minister today."
The Home Ministry is one of Malaysia's hottest Cabinet seats today. Mr Zahid takes over from two predecessors who struggled with handling dissent at a time when the country's democratic space was opening up.
The previous home minister was criticised within Umno for failing to stop street protests calling for electoral reform. He was also criticised by activists for using tear gas and water cannon on protesters. The minister before used the Internal Security Act - now repealed - several times, including against a journalist over a report she wrote.
Mr Zahid has shown firmness in supporting the police force, scolding the deputy minister in charge of Indian affairs P. Waythamoorthy, who claimed police executed five young Indian suspected gangsters when they could have been brought in alive.
In the past few days, Mr Zahid has defended the tough action against illegal workers, amid complaints that the foreigners were being treated like criminals when they had helped the Malaysian economy by working on construction sites and oil palm plantations.
Some worry whether Mr Zahid is leaning too much to the right.
"He will sail through the Umno elections, but over the long run he may have problems with the Chinese and Indians if he is too Malay-centric," said an Umno leader who asked not to be named.
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