Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil has been fighting for her political survival in the face of all sorts of allegations about her family but in Johor yesterday, she was fighting off speculation that she is resigning as a minister.
EVERYONE noticed that Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil was not her usual self in Kulai, Johor, where the senior Umno ladies were gathered for a political retreat.
She looked tense, the megawatt smile was missing, she has lost weight and it was evident she was trying to avoid the media people. Even Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was there to give a closed-door talk to the ladies, looked unusually solemn.
Reporters waiting outside the hall later learnt that the ladies had used the forum to lobby for Shahrizat to stay on. It was apparently quite emotional inside because the word going around the whole morning had been that Shahrizat was preparing to announce her resignation from the Cabinet.
One of the ladies coming out of the hall was heard saying: “We are still with Kak Ijat. Why should she have to step down?”
Neither Muhyiddin nor Shahrizat were in a talkative mood and he ended the press conference after just a few questions. Both of them then quickly went off in their respective cars.
Shahrizat had another event in Pasir Gudang where Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was launching another of the wing’s election programme. The area was packed with hundreds of women.
The press corps was also there in full force and full of expectation. But it turned out to be an anti-climax. Mentri Besar Datuk Ghani Othman spoke, then it was Shahrizat’s turn. No announcement. Then Najib spoke. No announcement.
During the press conference, Najib would neither confirm nor deny that Shahrizat was going or staying. Her Senatorship expires on April 8 and her post as Women, Family and Community Development Minister is on the line. There is still no solution to Shahrizat’s predicament even as the National Feedlot Corporation issue is getting bigger by the day.
Shahrizat, according to sources, was ready to let go of her Cabinet post. But there is a loyal circle around her – people whom she appointed to positions after taking over the wing’s leadership and they are the ones now fighting hard for her political survival and organising support for her.
They apparently indicated to the Prime Minister that Shahrizat cannot go if Umno wants to be strong and prepared for the general election. And that is where the matter now stands.
But Najib, more than anyone else, knows that the NFC issue has dragged on for too long. Shahrizat has become a sitting duck for the opposition and after so many allegations, the project is beginning to resemble a property investment spree rather than a scheme to rear cattle for meat.
“Every new allegation you hear, you just shake your head, you don’t know what is coming next,” said the straight-talking Johor Baru MP Datuk Shahrir Samad.
Out of every four or five allegations, the family is able to refute maybe one and that is not good. Almost everyone has an opinion on the NFC and, unfortunately for Shahrizat, it is mostly unsympathetic.
Even Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the man who opened the door for her to national politics, has said that she should “not love her position too much”.
The low-profile Tun Daim Zainuddin, whom the Chinese papers treat like some sort of political oracle, has identified the NFC as one of the burning election issues.
“It’s disappointing things have reached such a stage. The NFC has raised so many questions – the way the project was implemented, how the funds were spent, it affects our credibility. Governance is based on trust and the situation is such that she (Shahrizat) has lost the moral high ground,” said Shahrir who had visited the project in Negri Sembilan when he was Domestic and Consumer Affairs Minister.
Shahrizat’s loyal circle knows the next few weeks are crucial for Shahrizat. They aim to petition and pressure the Umno leadership to extend Shahrizat’s Senatorship.
They want to show the top leaders that Shahrizat is still loved and needed and that she has support in the wing, hence the series of high-profile events involving her over the last one week.
The circle around her point to all this activity as proof of her political energy and commitment. They are angry that people are blaming her for what has happened in the NFC. They insist she has nothing to do with it and that their boss is a victim of fitnah or slander.
This group led by Selangor Wanita Umno chief Raja Ropiah Raja Abdullah had approached Najib during a political event in Port Klang a fortnight ago to ask him to “please, help Kak Ijat”. They were also upset about the police saying that there was a case against several NFC executives.
Round of appeals
Najib said that as far as he knew, there was no case against Shahrizat but he added that the issue of perception was a different matter and he would have to assess that part of it. When the ladies appealed to him to help Shahrizat’s family, he stressed that the matter was beyond his control and only the Attorney-General could decide.
This loyal group had also gone to Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein’s home late one night back in January, demanding an explanation regarding the case.
It is a good thing the Home Minister has a notorious habit of bringing work home and working late into the night but he was quite piqued that this entourage had gate-crashed without any notification. They were not satisfied when Hishammuddin defended the police, who were then still investigating the case, and they told him they were going to see the Prime Minister the next day.
Unfortunately, they did not have an appointment and Najib’s staff were apparently stunned at the aggressive behaviour of some of the women. Not only were they denied a meeting but they had quite a shock when, quite coincidentally, the Inspector General of Police and some guests emerged from the Prime Minister’s office.
The ladies aligned to former Wanita Umno chief Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz are having the last laugh now.
“Rafidah would never have allowed us to harass the PM like that, not even when she was dropped from the Cabinet,” said a Rafidah loyalist.
Her critics, on the other hand, are incredulous that Shahrizat, who has always shown such polished EQ, or emotional intelligence, cannot see that her family’s problems have damaged the party.
They are worried sick that she will cost the party votes in the way that Datuk Zakaria Derus and his palatial house in Klang added to the Barisan’s crushing defeat in Selangor in the last general election.
What upsets them most is the implied threat among her supporters that they will rebel if Shahrizat is dropped from the Cabinet.
But, said Wanita Umno deputy chief Datuk Kamilia Ibrahim: “The women are mature, we want the Barisan Nasional to do well. If anything happens to her (Shahrizat), it does not mean the women will not vote for the Barisan. Our vote does not hinge on one person’s position, the leadership should know that the women’s loyalty is not affected by her personal problems. I feel some of the women have created the impression that Wanita Umno will turn against the party if anything happens to her. I can understand they want to help her hang on but it should not be a form of political blackmail.”
Shahrizat has insisted that the opposition is going for her because she is the Wanita Umno leader. But many in Umno think it is also because of her Cabinet position.
The NFC project began when she was a minister in Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Cabinet and it exploded while she is still a minister.
“The issue became so big because she is a minister. She should know it unless she does not see the impact of it on the Government,” said Shahrir.
Shahrizat’s foray into Umno politics began in 1989 when she became Kepong Wanita Umno chief. But her career took off in a big way after winning the Lembah Pantai parliamentary seat in the 1995 general election. Despite living such a public life, she remains very much an enigma and no one can quite figure out her game plan.
In private, she says she has no intention of clinging on and that all she is asking is to go without losing too much face, to be allowed a graceful exit.
At official Wanita Umno meetings, she talks about having the support of the Prime Minister and is confident that he will help her. To the media, her standard line is that it is up to the Prime Minister to decide on her Cabinet post.
“She should not pass the problem to the PM. She should make her own decision. It would be easy to believe she didn’t know anything if it was just her husband who is involved in the NFC; husbands do not tell their wives everything. But all her children are working there. How could she not know what was going on?” said Terengganu Umno politician Datuk Wan Albakri Mohd Noor.
No one is forcing her to step down as the Wanita Umno leader because she won the post fair and square. But she is no longer a winnable candidate and it is a foregone conclusion that she will not be a candidate in the general election.
Shahrizat’s political style has always been cautious and solicitous. Her fear has been how people will interpret her going. She is unsure whether they will see it as an admission of guilt or an act of honour. Some think she has waited too long and the window for a graceful exit has closed.
There was a great deal of sympathy for her among many in Umno when the issue first erupted but after so many stunning allegations, they have gone from worried to exasperated.
Many Wanita Umno ladies admit they are under pressure from their male counterparts regarding Shahrizat’s position. They complain that the men in their divisions joke about eating beef from “cows that live in condos”. One Wanita Umno politician who recently performed the umrah said that even in Mecca, Malaysians talked about it when they got together.
Shahrizat is someone who takes a lot of pride in herself and her work but the NFC scandal has turned her life into a terrible torment and her political career is in jeopardy. She is clearly holding on as though her life depends on it.