Umno's long, hot summer

Flavour of the month: Ahmad Zahid, seen here posing for a wefie with admirers in the Jempol Umno division, has drawn rapt receptions when officiating at party division AGMs.
PHOTO: The Star/ANN

There are undercurrents rippling through Umno but the mainstay of the party is with Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak with one Umno division after another pledging support for him and Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

It was already late afternoon when Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi arrived for the Kapar Umno division meeting.

As he stepped out of his car, he whispered to Kapar Umno chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah that he had yet to perform his asar prayers. Faizal, who had planned a rather long speech, quickly made a mental note to pare down his own speech so as to give his VIP guest more time at the rostrum.

Every day has been a long day for Ahmad Zahid since he became Deputy Prime Minister and Kapar in the Malay heartland of Selangor was his third annual general meeting (AGM) stop that day. But his megawatt smile had not dimmed and the way he worked the crowd, it was as though there was nowhere in the world he would rather be than in Kapar at that moment.

Ahmad Zahid is the type of politician who regards everyone as a friend. It may seem superficial but little things like this mean a lot to ordinary Umno members.

"His PR is first class. He shook hands with almost everyone, even those standing way back from the line. He just went through the crowd to shake their hands," said Faizal.

Faizal was super-thrilled. His division had invited the Home Minister but he was now playing host to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Ahmad Zahid, who has Javanese roots, peppered his speech with Javanese words and phrases after learning that 60 per cent of the delegates were of Javanese descent.

He kept things light but he also drove home the message of loyalty and solidarity, speaking of the years when he was forced to resign as Umno Youth chief and also of his detention under ISA after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's sacking. He reminded everyone that he remained loyal to Umno and did not sulk or rebel against Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's leadership.

It has been a long, hot summer in Umno or, as one of Faizal's friends put it, a perfect storm is blowing through Umno.

"The grassroots are confused and some were angry. They said they put the leaders up there to solve problems and not to cause headaches," said Faizal.

Opinion among Faizal's circle was divided immediately after Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was axed from the Cabinet.

"But many of them also said they would have done the same thing if they were the party president. Some of them even said they would not have waited this long to do it," said Faizal.

Party members in Selangor are more likely to understand the intricacies of the 1MDB issue better than those elsewhere. They are critical, yet, the situation in Selangor Umno has been quite well contained.

Part of the reason may also have to do with the fact that the sophisticated party membership do not appreciate the way Dr Mahathir is trying to impose his will on them again. Their thinking is that they, rather than Dr Mahathir, should decide whether Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak stays or goes.

In a normal year, the division meetings would revolve around issues like repairing mosques, building kampung roads and maksiat (vice) problems affecting the youth.

But Penang Umno chief Datuk Seri Zainal Abidin Osman said that national issues have taken centrestage this year.

The psychology of holding on to power is a little different among Penang Umno members who are overwhelmed by the domineering might of DAP. They see DAP as a Chinese chauvinist party just as DAP sees Umno as a racist Malay party.

"The fear is that because of all these national issues, DAP could be sitting in Putrajaya. That, we cannot accept," said Zainal Abidin who is also special advisor (northern corridor) to the Prime Minister.

Zainal Abidin singled out ministers Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan and Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob for their impact on Penang Umno. The two leaders have officiated at several AGMs where they spoke extensively on the 1MDB issue.

"In the weeks leading to the division meetings, some delegates told me they were unhappy, they wanted to speak out and criticise the leadership during the AGMs. I was quite worried because we have a saying about the Malays here - tak sayang mulut (shoot off one's mouth).

"But Rahman and Ismail helped a lot. They used simple language to explain everything and it defused the situation. Some of the delegates said they can now explain to their friends, they can sit in the coffeeshop and argue with people," said Zainal Abidin.

There have been mini eruptions here and there. For instance, the strong language used by a Wanita Umno delegate from Langkawi to criticise Najib caused ripples. In Tampin, the Youth wing passed a resolution asking Najib to step down.

In Kuala Kedah, the division chief criticised Najib for postponing the party election.

A Wanita Umno delegate in Pasir Gudang handed over a 12-point memorandum to Najib asking him to "take a rest".

At the Kluang division meeting officiated by Muhyiddin, the debate was a no-holds barred affair with speakers threatening aggressive action and questioning Najib's track record.

Pontian division chief Datuk Hasni Mohamad, who is close to Muhyiddin, claimed the Cabinet reshuffle was decided via a WhatsApp chat group.

He claimed the Umno division chiefs had discussed it and given their support. But the division chiefs do not use WhatsApp. They have an exclusive Telegram chat group where they discuss everything and anything to do with Umno politics.

One Umno minister described these incidents as "little arrows" aimed at the leadership. The "little arrows" have made news and gone viral.

Yet, an overwhelming bulk of the 100 or so divisions that have met so far have passed resolutions supporting Najib and his deputy and more will follow suit over the next two weeks.

For instance, the division meetings in Malacca have not made the news because they endorsed the leadership.

"There are issues and problems but the party is not split," said Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Idris Haron.

There are six divisions in Malacca and four have convened their AGMs, all of which passed resolutions supporting the leadership.

Tangga Batu and Masjid Tanah will meet this weekend. No prizes for guessing the likely outcome of the last two division meetings in Malacca, because Tangga Batu is Idris' division while Masjid Tanah is controlled by Datuk Rauf Yusoh whose loyalty to Najib is beyond question.

Idris admitted that the party is stirred and shaken but the situation is nowhere near the scale of the 1998 crisis when angry Malays poured into the streets to protest Anwar's sacking.

He said the worst crisis was the 1987 split that set off a chain of events - Umno was deregistered, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah led an exodus out of Umno to form Semangat 46 and Umno fell in Kelantan.

The state to watch is Johor where the rumblings over the sacking of Muhyiddin are still unfolding. Muhyiddin's hold over Johor has diminished somewhat since the days when he was seen as a dynamic Mentri Besar who made things happen.

But there is this Johor solidarity thing going on, party members are still coming to terms with it and there is also some Palace play happening in the background.

"Eruptions of unhappiness are to be expected. A deputy president has been booted out of the Cabinet, you would expect this in his home state," said Johor Baru MP Tan Sri Shahrir Samad.

Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin startled everyone when he seemed to take Muhyiddin's side in urging Umno members to continue to seek answers on 1MDB.

Khaled used to be a protege of Shahrir and there is really no love lost between the pair and Muhyiddin. It was evident that Khaled was doing some sort of the balancing act because he needs to accommodate Johor sentiments on Muhyiddin.

"The MB has his own style of expression. Like all of us, he wants to see a solution to the 1MDB issue. We want to give Najib time to settle the 1MDB issue. At the same time, we have to allow for discussions on the issue," said Shahrir.

Najib can withstand all those "little arrows". His problem is a "big arrow" named Mahathir Mohamad.

Some claimed that Malaysia's grand old man is starting to sound like an old record. But even old records have their fan base and one cannot underestimate his influence.

He is still going at Najib but apart from that, no one, not even those close to him, can quite predict his game plan.

"What else is there to say about Mahathir - he has crossed the Rubicon," said Shahrir.

There are still some 70 more division meetings to go over the next one week and also more "little arrows" will fly through the air.