The Umno rank and file is unsure whether Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s continuing criticism of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak will help the government or bring it down.
EVERYONE in Umno could see what it meant when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak turned up in Kedah to preside over the Jerlun division meeting.
The Jerlun chief is Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir whose famous father had declared that he was withdrawing support for Najib.
Mukhriz has been stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place ever since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad used his blog to criticise Najib, torn between father and boss, trapped between filial love and loyalty to the party president.
Mukhriz is still trying to establish his foothold over the Umno ground in Kedah, to win over the many political warlords and this was the last thing he needed on his plate.
Some in Umno are saying it was just as well Mukhriz did not win the vice-president post in last year’s Umno election because he would be unable to defend his president against his father. He would be a lame duck in this situation.
Najib’s presence, as such, was a crucial gesture of support for Mukhriz, to signal to Mukhriz’s detractors in Kedah that the president is not blaming the son for his father’s actions.
But there was also something symbiotic about the whole thing. Both men had their own reasons to be seen together.
Najib wanted to use the occasion to show that he is taking whatever Dr Mahathir is doing in a professional way and he is not going to be personal about the criticism.
He wanted it known that Mukhriz’s leadership in Kedah would continue to have his support. In fact, a day after the Jerlun event, Mukhriz was in Putrajaya to present the Kedah government’s proposal on an international airport in the state.
Mukhriz had said that his father’s critique is an act of love for the party and the president. He has tried to paint it as a case of tough love, that you have to be cruel to be kind. He said his father is speaking out because he wants the president to succeed.
But not everyone in Umno sees it that way.
Many Umno leaders are worried sick especially after Dr Mahathir made his second attack, this time taking issue with the 1MDB sovereign fund scheme. His beef was the use of government funds for the scheme, and he had a string of questions about it.
The Umno rank and file know that Dr Mahathir has the licence to say things that others cannot. They believe the former premier means well, that he is concerned for the ruling coalition. But many of them disagree with the way it is being done.
They believe him when he says he is not out to topple Najib but they are concerned that if he goes on in this way, he will eventually cause Umno and Barisan Nasional to lose ground and votes.
Shortly after Dr Mahathir’s first critique, a total of 173 division chiefs from all over the country had converged at Najib’s official residence.
Sharkar: Organised division leaders’ meeting with Najib.
It was supposed to be a hush-hush thing but there is no way one could hush up a gathering like that, especially when their cars were lined up along the road leading to Seri Perdana.
The division chiefs belong to a Telegram chat group set up by Najib loyalist Datuk Sharkar Shamsuddin, who is Lanchang assemblyman and Temerloh division chief. The discussion in their chat group led to the gathering – they wanted to hear from Najib what was going on and how they could help.
A turn-out of 173 out of 191 division chiefs is no mean feat and it was quite obvious that the gathering was also about a show of support for Najib. All but one of them turned up in red shirts. The odd man out had been sent the wrong shirt size and came in green instead.
“We discussed many things, Tun Mahathir was one of the topics. We agreed to accept his views as fatherly advice, there will be no confrontation,” said Sharkar.
A delegation of four division chiefs was sent to meet up with Dr Mahathir. They were Sharkar, Datuk Tajuddin Rahman (Pasir Salak), Datuk Johari Abdul Ghani (Titiwangsa) and Datuk Seri Syed Ali Alhabshee (Cheras). Syed Ali was roped in because they knew Dr Mahathir had a soft spot for this tough-talking Cheras warlord.
Dr Mahathir was about to leave for London the next day for a holiday with the family and the four men had to catch up with him in a hotel where the owner was hosting a belated birthday dinner for him.
“We wanted to hear it from him. He spoke, we listened, we told him our concerns. It was a cordial and respectful session,” said Johari, who is also Titiwangsa MP.
The group had probably approached the elderly man, thinking they could persuade him to soften his stand. But they realised quickly that Dr Mahathir had made up his mind. He told them he is almost 90 and that he has to think of the country. He said not all the questions he asked were answered, so he went public.
There is no stopping Dr Mahathir – he will do what he has to do and he wants Najib to relook some of his policies.
The group left the meeting wishing him happy holidays, told him to relax, enjoy himself and forget about everything, which was wishful thinking on their part.
“He is 89 years old, he was 22 years in power, he is a statesman. What else could we say?” said Johari.
Johari was a product of the Mahathir era. He went overseas for his studies, returned to a good job and is now establishing his place in Umno.
“Let me put it this way. My father may not always be right but if he reprimands me, there’s no way I would argue back,” he said.
Johari: Generation gap between the two administrations.
Or as one Putrajaya official put it: “You cannot raise your voice to your father. He can criticise you openly but you cannot hit back publicly and drag the whole family in.”
For a while, the Umno crowd was hopeful that Dr Mahathir would back off, especially after he joined the Cabinet at the Merdeka Day parade. He was also there with Najib and several other ministers to witness the return of the third batch of victims of the MH17 tragedy.
He has also confirmed that he will be attending the opening of the Umno general assembly which he has not missed since Najib took over.
All that was his way of saying he can still sit at the same table with Najib even though he has withdrawn support.
According to a Mahathir insider, his chief concern is the next general election. He wants to pre-empt the hot button issues, to detonate those issues now rather than have them explode closer to the general election.
He has seen how the Barisan has slipped downwards since 2008. He wants to arrest the slip, hence his comments about throwing money to get votes and public concern over issues like race and religion.
Various groups and individuals have also been to see him with all sorts of concerns.
He is said to be sceptical of the advisers around Najib whose ideas do not seem grounded in local culture. A case in point is the practice of getting the crowd to hold up signs with the “I love PM” slogan. American-style superlatives like this have not gone down well with everyone.
Syed Ali: Worried sick about impact on government.
“Tun Mahathir does not want us to lose the general election. His whole legacy would be gone if that happens,” said Kok Lanas assemblyman Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad.
Alwi has been down that road before. He was political secretary to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when the latter opted for a so-called “elegant silence” when he came under attack from Dr Mahathir.
“You cannot win fighting Tun Mahathir. But keeping quiet is also not the solution,” he said.
But Dr Mahathir’s admirers are uncomfortable with the way he is going about the whole thing. They do not like the confrontational way he is taking on Najib. Some joked that he is trying to “remote control” the Prime Minister.
Former Election Commissionchairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman sees him as some sort of minister mentor, always keeping an eye on the future of the country.
“I support him giving his opinion but why this way? Surely there are more peaceful and discreet channels of communication?” Abdul Rashid said.
Dr Mahathir will always command an audience when he speaks, with that sharp wit, often acerbic tongue and the wealth of experience behind the words.
Abdul Rashid: Questioned necessity of public attacks.
His critics point out that not all of Dr Mahathir’s policies had turned out well either.
Some of his policies were wildly successful and beneficial for the country, some did not work so well and a few failed. His own journey had its ups and downs but, as his supporters pointed out, he won every single general election hands down.
Najib’s supporters insist that the Prime Minister should be given the chance to govern as he thinks fit.
They see a generation gap problem in play and they say it is unfair to expect the formula that had worked during Dr Mahathir’s time to work in the new and challenging landscape. Even Umno is not like it was before – it has the first Youth chief who is an Oxford graduate and the first Wanita chief to don a tudung.
But when your opponent is Dr Mahathir, you want to be extra careful.
The Umno crowd will continue to tip-toe around him. They know that more criticisms or teguran (admonishment), as they call it, lies ahead.
“Dr Mahathir knows what he is doing, I am sure of that. I just don’t know where it will all lead,” said Abdul Rashid.
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Intolerance is rampant at every level and in all age groups of the society, but it is more visible amongst the younger generation as our youth can be seen losing their altitude of patience over petty issues. We seriously need to think over it as what we are going to inculcate in them, which may help them seek success in future. Will it be tolerance or intolerance?
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