This will be Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s first Umno assembly as Deputy Prime Minister and he will have to bring on all of his political skills to wade through the political ripples.
THERE was a sort of urgent rustling sound as Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s entourage passed through the main lobby of the PWTC. One might even say it was the sound of power.
|Strict yet friendly: Dr Ahmad Zahid is a natural smiler but those who work for him say he is a no-nonsense boss who expects orders to be followed.
Anyway, the power thing is no joke. Dr Ahmad Zahid is the Deputy Prime Minister as well as Home Minister and you do not want to mess with him. People stopped to stare as the entourage made its way to the VIP holding room where his interview with The Star would take place.
As he stepped through the door of the room, he spotted the elderly man in the wheelchair waiting to see him. The man was his former deputy in the Bagan Datoh division who was unwell, living in Kota Baru and who needed his help.
As he moved towards the man, the power thing dropped away and he was just plain Zahid, the grassroots politician from a kampung in Perak. He wrapped his arms tenderly around the elder man and planted a kiss on each of his cheeks and on his forehead.
As he ushered the man towards a side room, he saw The Star Media Group CEO Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai who was also there for the interview.
“Hey!” he called out, his face crinkling into a broad smile and they exchanged man-hugs. When Wong jokingly asked him about life in the corridors of power, he laughed and pointing to the carpeted floor, he said, “no corridor, I am down there”.
The scene that had just unfolded offered a glimpse into why Dr Ahmad Zahid is one of the most popular leaders in Umno today.
In the space of minutes, he was the powerful politician, the party comrade and the old friend and it was so spontaneous and natural.
It has been a dizzying few months for the new No. 2 and his schedule has been packed back-to-back.
His main downtime these days is spending a few hours in the evening with his grandchildren. He was recently spotted queuing up at a McDonalds outlet in IOI Mall with his grandchildren in tow.
He no longer has time for his passion for big bikes, but he still rides his BMW 650 sports – or his scooter as he calls it – to the surau. It was a gift from the Sultan of Pahang and bears the royal number plate SAS38.
SAS stands for Sultan Ahmad Shah while 38, he said grinning, is “sum fatt” which sounds like “triple luck” in Cantonese.
The day after the interview, he left for CHOGM or the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta. It was his biggest moment on the international stage since becoming Deputy Prime Minister. He went in place of the Prime Minister and he was representing the government of Malaysia.
“It is a big stamp of approval, it’s like the PM saying ‘I trust you’,” said an Umno insider.
Moving up in Umno politics is like climbing a slippery ladder and Umno’s “Mr Likeable” has finally arrived. At the same time, he is aware that he was propelled into the job because of a party crisis.
Umno sources said that after being informed by the Prime Minister that he would be taking over, he went twice to the Prime Minister’s official residence, the second time late at night, to persuade Najib to keep Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in the Cabinet.
“I wouldn’t say I declined the post, but I know the feeling when somebody is to be replaced. I wanted to tell the PM that he (Muhyiddin) is still capable to assist the PM,” he said.
The politician in him also knew there would be some resentment especially from Muhyiddin’s supporters and he needed to correct the perception that he had lobbied for the job.
More recently, he is said to have discreetly persuaded Najib and several other supreme council members against removing Muhyiddin from his party post. He pleaded with them not to rock the boat.
His courtesy calls on Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Musa Hitam shortly after his appointment were a show of respect to the two Umno grandees and also an assuagement of sorts.
“What happened to me was divine intervention. I did not plan, I don’t take food from other people’s plate, that is my principle,” he said.
Basically, the top Umno vice-president is also trying to soothe the ripples ahead of the Umno general assembly this week. It will be his first as the Deputy Prime Minister and he will have to sit beside his predecessor for three whole days.
“I have no problems with Muhyiddin. At the first supreme council meeting after the reshuffle, I was sitting on his right, he entertained my questions as if nothing had happened to both of us. Hopefully, the same mood is there when we are at the Umno gathering,” he said.
Kapar Umno division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah said Dr Ahmad Zahid has a huge base because he has a good memory for faces and names. Faizal was just getting active in the Selangor Youth wing when he got to know Dr Ahmad Zahid in the 1990s.
“He was in a multi-cornered fight for the Umno Youth leadership, but he was the only one we knew as a ‘brother’.
“There was never a gap between him and us, he made us feel like we are friends and, you know what, he is never moody – always smiling and first class PR,” he said.
Selangor was his first stop in his countrywide rounds to meet the state Umno grassroots leaders.
Dr Ahmad Zahid who has Javanese roots felt at home with the Selangor Umno crowd which has a significant Javanese presence.
“His speech was about politics, Islamic values and friendship. He speaks our lingo and he gets the vibes. There was not a word uttered against Muhyiddin or Tun Mahathir,” said Faizal.
His parents were religious teachers and he is famous in Umno for what some call his “kampung politics” – that ability to put people at ease, to make them feel loved and, of course, to make them love him back.
At the same time, they like his tough guy style as Home Minister. There is a strict and no-nonsense personality beneath that easy-going style and his ministry staff say he can be demanding and he expects orders to be followed or else. That side of him came out when he had to deal with gangland crimes a few years ago.
“I am strict, but those who know me, they know I am gentle and kind. Am I praising myself?” he said, laughing.
But there is no denying that his primary appeal in Umno is his Malayness. For many Umno members, people like him represent the reason they chose to join Umno.
The average Umno member can also identify with his humble origins in the backwaters of Bagan Datoh. He is what the above Umno insider calls the “real deal”.
Yet, his constituency is 56% Malay, 20% Chinese and 24% Indian. The fact he won there time after time speaks of his ability to connect with all races.
He has his share of detractors and admirers and many Chinese were worried about him. In an interview with The Star, he spoke about his late Hainanese foster father whom he used to help sell ice cream at a canteen.
His Malay branding will always be core to his standing in Umno and he would not want to lose that authenticity. But he will have to balance it with his image as a leader of Malaysians.
These are still early days and the honeymoon is still on between the top two. Some think Najib will be more comfortable with Dr Ahmad Zahid because the boss-subordinate relationship is better defined whereas Najib and Muhyiddin were contemporaries.
Dr Ahmad Zahid rose up the Umno Youth ranks when Najib was the national Umno Youth leader and he later became Najib’s political secretary on Oct 1, 1987 – the date is etched in his head.
“He is my boss, my friend and also my dear brother. It was a special relationship, we had good chemistry and I learnt a lot from his style of leadership – always calm and patient. He never raised his voice. I only know he is angry when his face is red,” he said.
Just how special the relationship is remains to be seen. Najib should not assume that his deputy does not aspire to move up.
Everyone assumed that of Muhyiddin simply because he was older than Najib, but the elder man began to see himself in the top job after the last general election and the relationship went downhill after that.
The other thing is that Dr Ahmad Zahid’s loyalty to Najib has been tested many times. In the 2009 Umno election, then Premier Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had personally asked Dr Ahmad Zahid to contest against Muhyiddin for the deputy president post and he agreed.
But Najib, who had committed to Muhyiddin as his running mate, called Dr Ahmad Zahid and asked him to not to challenge Muhyiddin.
Najib told him that he had other plans for him and would take care of him. He was disappointed because he would have won hands down, but he obediently pulled out the next day. Najib, one might say, has kept his word to his loyalist.
Dr Ahmad Zahid is still trying to carve out a role for himself.
With his unique people skills, he will be quite ideal as Najib’s trouble-shooter in the party, the pacifier and fixer, the umbrella to bring together the different factions.
The appointment of Dr Ahmad Zahid has been described, by the above Umno insider as the “second coming of Najib”. Najib seems to be taking from Dr Mahathir’s playbook in dealing with his opponents and dissenting views.
If that is the case, Dr Ahmad Zahid may not be his last deputy given how Dr Mahathir went through four deputy prime ministers before calling it a day.
Dr Ahmad Zahid has had more than his share of ups and downs, but he is finally on the big stage.