The next Umno deputy president will also be the new deputy prime minister and, hard as it may be to believe, the likeable candidate may actually do better than the capable one.
THE Seremban Umno division made news in all the newspapers when it gave one of Malacca’s most famous faces, Tan Sri Rahim Thamby Chik, the “ticket” to contest for the post of Umno vice-president (VP).
Rahim was only one nomination short of the 20 needed to qualify for the Umno VP contest and, as the maverick Seremban Umno chief Datuk Ishak Ismail put it: “The other eight VP candidates had qualified so we thought, why not give it to Rahim. That way, he will remember Seremban till his dying day.”
Seremban also nominated Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for the coveted deputy president post.
Ishak played a big part in that because he had pushed for Muhyiddin’s name at the division AGM.
“If it was about friendship, I would have nominated Mat Taib (Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib). He helped me during a time when I was so down and out I had to travel by bus and sleep in the mosque.
“But at this hour, Umno needs the best to survive. They say Muhyiddin is not accessible, doesn’t smile, doesn’t chit-chat. It’s difficult even for me to see him but he’s the man for the job,” said Ishak.
The three candidates for the post of deputy president are Muhyiddin, Muhammad (or Mat Taib) and Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam.
However, not everyone in Umno shares Ishak’s opinion on the choice of Umno’s next No. 2 because Mohd Ali has emerged as a surprisingly strong contender against Muhyiddin in the weeks following the close of nominations.
Many in Umno were flabbergasted when Mohd Ali’s name popped up on the radar screen for the deputy presidency. But he gathered 47 nominations against Muhyiddin’s 91 and Mat Taib’s 45.
He was seen as a lightweight even though he is now in his third term as Malacca Chief Minister. He was a deputy minister before that, but never a minister and, as various quarters in the party have pointed out, he is not particularly fluent in English.
Moreover, he has not shone the way Muhyiddin has, be it in terms of world view and intellect or track record.
But he has something which counts for a lot among Umno members – likeability. That is his X-factor.
He takes calls from all and sundry and visits people when they get married, when they fall ill and even when they die.
Even the most humble kampung folk have no qualms about going to his grand Chief Minister’s residence, so much so that his house, said a former staff member, resembles a pasar malam on most mornings.
But it all adds up to his “Mr Likeable” image.
Some even suggest he has the endorsement of a former Umno leader who, in his heyday, was one of the most powerful figures in the country.
Mohd Ali is also known as “Pak Lah’s candidate”. The outgoing Prime Minister had caused a stir in November when he appeared on national TV to say there was no reason for Mohd Ali to pull out of the contest.
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has since then been very subtle about the whole thing.
But the circle around the Prime Minister has made no secret of their preference for the Malacca leader.
It is not because they think Mohd Ali is qualified for the job but because they cannot forgive Muhyiddin for his role in bringing forward the leadership transition. They can hardly be blamed because Muhyiddin has really scuttled their political ambitions.
They have been campaigning along the lines that Prime Minister-elect Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak needs a Ghafar Baba-like deputy.
For instance, Datuk Norza Zakaria, the former political secretary to the Finance Minister II, argued that the most uneventful period of Tun Dr Mahathir’s era was when he had Ghafar Baba as his deputy. Najib, he suggested, needed another Ghafar Baba.
In other words, Mohd Ali would be like Ghafar Baba, there to warm the seat and not present a threat to the Prime Minister.
Muhyiddin, by implication, would be too smart and ambitious and may also want his turn at the top job.
“As they say, you cannot have two tigers on one hill,” said Norza who is also a supreme council member.
This argument should win a Guinness award for the oddest campaign lines ever used, but it seems to work among people in Umno.
As such, the contest for the No. 2 post may be about who is more likeable and accessible rather than who is more capable and experienced. The more generous and accessible candidate may also score more points than the one who is tight-fisted and overly serious.
The contest for vice-president in the 2004 Umno polls is a good indication of where these three men stand in the popularity ratings.
The trio was among the six candidates vying to become Umno vice-presidents. The top slot went to then Federal Territories Minister Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad, followed by Mohd Ali and Muhyiddin. Mat Taib was edged out into fourth place.
It was a rude shock for Muhyiddin. He thought the delegates would appreciate his ability as a thinking politician but they went for likeability.
Muhyiddin is not naturally outgoing or sociable and has a tendency to monologue. He is not only serious-minded but has a naturally grave face and is not given to frivolous behaviour, silly jokes or small talk.
The only time when he was seriously flustered was when Dr Mahathir turned up at his Hari Raya open house last year.
But his intellect is beyond dispute and he chairs one of the party’s most complicated committees on Constitution and Regulations.
Umno members talk about his muka masam or dour face, with some comparing him to Britain’s Gordon Brown. What is clear though is that he ranks among the top performing ministers.
But the post of deputy president is serious business. The Umno No. 2 is also by convention the deputy prime minister, hence the public interest in and concern over how the contest will turn out.
The post of deputy prime minister demands more than just likeability especially given the bumpy road ahead.
But the March polls is about electing Najib’s team and Umno delegates who will vote in the next Umno leadership line-up will very likely be influenced by the incoming man rather than the outgoing man.
They will be looking to Najib for hints and signals in the weeks leading to the party polls.
Najib has yet to say anything publicly about his preferences but the choices made by those close to him speak volumes.
For instance, Kota Baru and Wangsamaju, where Najib’s political secretaries Datuk Fatmi Salleh and Datuk Shafie Abdullah are the division chiefs, endorsed Muhyiddin.
Muhyiddin also got the nomination from Kuala Kedah where the division chief is Datuk Latt Shariman who is the special officer to Najib in the Finance Ministry.
It was the same in Padang Terap where the deputy chief, Datuk Ghazali Ibrahim, is Najib’s special officer.
Tanjung Piah also endorsed Muhyiddin. The deputy chief there is Nasir Safar who is one of Najib’s special assistants.
“I think they are sending the signals about who their boss wants,” said an aide to Muhyiddin.
But delegates will be watching for signals from the boss himself in the weeks ahead.
In Umno, capability is secondary