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Chapter 5: The Academic as Politician, Episode 1: Curtain Call


I had resisted from getting directly involved in politics as a career for a long time.  Yet in another sense I was always in politics. Most of that time I was in the background, behind the curtain, so to speak. I was a participant observer, among friends who are in politics, watching, analyzing, advising sometime musing at their tribal rituals as they play out their political games, and always learning. That detachment, being inside yet outside of the political machinations, grew out of my training and development as an academic.  That was about to change, with that fateful call from UMNO headquarters in April 1993.  It was a curtain call.

I was prepared and not prepared for this.  I was prepared because I was up close and personal with many of the players, young and emerging, as well as the well-established leaders.  But that was still from an outside-in perspective.  I was never on the inside, engaged in the party process with the attendant heartbreaks and triumphs of a political player.  I was not prepared for the rough and tumble of everyday politics.  It was a whole different world from academia, even with its own politics, but never like real politics.  I have seen friends and students of mine (at the time before UCCA when Division A government officers were still allowed to) enter politics, some mainly teachers even before they arrived on campus to complete their studies, others after tasting politics as student leaders, upon graduation.  Several of them had begun their political involvement in the party even before coming to campus, later to rise in the party to become federal ministers, chief ministers of states (I counted five of them at one point later), while numerous others became state executive council members and municipal councilors.  From this perspective actually, I was just a late-comer.

But it was and still is a difficult thing for the highly academically trained, or professional, or promising civil servant to enter UMNO politics from the ground up, for local party leaders often felt threatened by their entry.  At higher levels there was also suspicion for the newcomer bordering on a streak of anti-intellectualism, and of course fear of competition.  Such breakthroughs had occurred before for the highly qualified in UMNO politics, especially in the early days of the party, only through higher- level recruitment or sponsorship.  Or, if they were picked as a  candidate (a “parachute” as the political colloquialism goes) to stand in the general elections at state or federal level.  From then on their progress and fortunes are dictated, and expected, by continued allegiance to the “sponsor”. That is part of the culture of UMNO politics, built over the years on a patronage system which is feudal in its structure.  It was into this political milieu that I was brought directly into the dominant ruling party that is UMNO.

My entry into politics was thus, sponsored.  It began with the nomination to contest for a position in the UMNO Supreme Council, the highest decision making body of the party. It was not something I was looking forward to, but it was a challenge I decided to take.  Except for contesting for presidency of the Malay Society of Victoria when I was in Monash, and for the similar post in just the first year of my return to USM for the Academic Staff Association, I had never been in an election for political office. And at the highest level in a political party at that.  The network of friends I had built up over the years would turn out to be of the greatest help.

But first I had to have a political base, a home division to assure me of one nomination to the UMNO Supreme Council elections. I needed at least a second UMNO division nomination to be eligible to contest in the Supreme Council elections.  The process has to start at the branch level; I was not at the time even a member of any branch.  Abu Bakar Lajim, a successful businessman, whom I had helped campaign for when he was fighting Wan Azmi Hamzah for the presidency of the National Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry the previous year, invited me to be a member of his branch in an apartment block in Bukit Kerinchi, in KL federal territory, one of the more than a hundred branches in the Lembah Pantai UMNO division then, from where I was nominated a branch delegate to the annual divisional meeting for that party election year.  With Bakar Lajim’s influence and the concurrence of the division chief, Kamal Hussein, who gave me his blessings when assured that I will not challenge him for the division’s top post (which would be too presumptuous at that stage anyway), I won as one of the ten elected delegates to the party general assembly in October 1993. And the division’s nomination to contest for one of the twenty-five elected ordinary members of the UMNO Supreme Council.  Kamal Hussein himself was also nominated to contest for a seat on the MKT.  One down.  Eventually I had seven divisional nominations nationwide. So, I am now off to the races!

UMNO General Assembly in Merdeka Hall,
Putra World Trade Centre, Kuala Lumpur
Now for the harder part.  A nationwide party campaign is no small matter, especially for a newbie.  Many who had been UMNO members for ages, division heads, even deputy ministers, and those already nationally known in and outside the party, have tried and didn’t make it.  And it is a costly affair.  I had only my nationwide reputation as executive director of MIER, and being often on television news and in the newspapers, to help me.  But that proved to be valuable currency.

I was fortunate that I had a senior Mahathir operative, Major Salleh, also son-in-law of the UMNO Information Chief, Datuk Hussein Ahmad, and chief of Rantau Panjang division in Kelantan, to provide support and assistance.  I duely made the former my campaign manager, and invited Hashim Hussein Yaacob, my lecturer colleague in USM who by that time had left the university, as his assistant.  I sold a tranche of my Kwong Onn Industries Berhad (Tenggara Cement) shares to fund my campaign budget, and proceeded to hire election workers.  I made Siti Aishah Mohd Desa, my human resource manager in Tenggara, to be head of campaign headquarters.  And took over Ghani Osman’s previous campaign headquarters in Section 12, Petaling Jaya to launch my own national campaign for a UMNO Supreme Council seat.

I had captured the thrill and spirit of political campaigning when following the Team A-Team B UMNO leadership contest in 1987, at the time only in my second year of heading MIER.  It was fun, as a bystander.  It was a different matter when you are a contestant yourself.  I cannot contest on reputation alone and expect to win, even when one was already in such a comfortable position of influence.   Many of my friends, academics as well as in politics and government, couldn’t figure out why I would choose this path.  It was a tall prospect.  There were an equal number of supporters and skeptics of the whole enterprise.   For me it was a challenge, and at the back of my mind then a chance to actually offer my services (“Serve to Lead”) to the nation.  As has been said often, naivet√© makes a person courageous and a tendency to overestimate one’s strength.

My national campaign began in my own division, a maiden speech to an assembly of supporters from Lembah Pantai itself who were to be campaign workers for me and Kamal Hussein, the division’s two nominees.  By friendly accounts after, I passed this first test. But it was still three months of travelling, handshaking, speeches and political elbow grease to follow.

This was the year of the “Bahtera Wawasan” campaign.  Emerging from the 1987 TeamA-TeamB split, and the subsequent outlawing of UMNO to be replaced by the New UMNO (UMNO Baru) party under the leadership of Dr. Mahathir as the incumbent president of UMNO (and by tradition the sitting Prime Minister) with Ghaffar Baba, as his deputy  and deputy prime minister, a team of Young Turks, all strong supporters of the Prime Minister and were senior members of his cabinet (including two MBs), formed a slate dubbed Bahtera Wawasan – the “vision ship” – (a salute to the Vision 2020 goal of Mahathir for the country to achieve developed nation status by 2020) to contest the 1993 UMNO MKT elections; led by Anwar Ibrahim, then Youth Chief, the slate included Najib Tun Razak, Muhyiddin Yassin, Mohamed Mohd Taib (MB of Selangor) and Rahim Tamby Chik (MB of Malacca State).  Anwar was contesting the Deputy President’s post, Najib, Muhyiddin and Mohamed Mohd Taib for the three vice presidents post, and Rahim Tamby Chik for Youth Chief.  Arrayed against them for the three VP posts were Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Sanusi Junid (both ministers) and Isa Samad (MB of Negri Sembilan).

Anwar’s challenge for the UMNO deputy president’s post was against the incumbent Ghaffar Baba, Mahathir’s partner on the Team A ticket during the 1987 party contest.  Now, under a bonus vote system introduced among a slew of changes to the party constitution for the 1993 contest, an allocation of 30 votes for every divisional nomination to the top five positions in the Supreme Council will be counted towards the final delegate count in the party General Assembly voting for the respective candidates.  The effect was something like an American primary caucus voting system; theoretically a successful divisional campaign would give a huge advantage for the senior candidate going into the general assembly.  This was the new wave in UMNO politics, riding on the campaign style of the previous TeamA-TeamB contest, and the beginning of money politics in this new era.

I rode along on this campaign “ship”, more like a stowaway, as did a majority of the seventy-odd candidates vying for the 25 elected posts in the MKT on offer.  The Bahtera Wawasan would travel to all the states except Sarawak (where UMNO has no presence), holding rallies where all elected delegates (and sundry supporters and observers) from the UMNO divisions in the state would attend.  After speeches by the main speakers, led by Anwar with his oratorial gifts on full display, the attending candidates would be introduced to the crowd.  This was a bonus for me, having previously been campaigning as a lone contestant, introduced to the party operatives and delegates at meetings organized by my friends in the party who were themselves contesting for positions, including Muhyiddin, Mohamed Mohd Taib, Ghani Osman and a few other friends.  My own campaign organization made some inroads especially in the east coast states and Sabah.  Name recognition was evident, but few gave me much chance of success; from previous experience, the “chai” (or slate - a list of preferred  candidates to guide delegates in their voting choices) would have been pre-filled out with those holding posts in government (ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries) or well known divisional leaders or are incumbents.

Ghaffar Baba had no chance, and he saw the writing on the wall midway through the campaign.  In the end he surrendered to the Anwar onslaught, who had garnered more than half of the bonus votes going into the UMNO General Assembly in October of 1993.  This outcome had saddened me, for Encik Ghaffar along with the President, the secretary general and the UMNO information chief were the supporters of my sponsored MKT candidacy.  But Anwar was also a friend, as was all those vying for the VP posts.  In the end, the Bahtera Wawasan team led by Anwar won the day; Pak Lah and Sanusi lost.

As for my own candidacy, at the state caucuses on the eve of the general assembly elections, I won the endorsement of my home state delegation, Perak, and by later accounts the support of the Johore, Terengganu, Federal Territory and Sabah delegations.  My campaign team was optimistic, and the prayer mats (everyone had contributed something, a notepad and pen, a sarong or whatever as gift!) I had donated to the delegates might help.  But, as in most recent Era Baru UMNO elections, things can change overnight, and in the wee hours of election day, things did change.  Sometimes, the President’s Policy Speech at the opening of the General Assembly might influence delegates to change their minds, or a rumour might make the rounds on certain individuals to affect their count, even that morning’s paper predictions.  I remained cautious of my chances, though I couldn’t contain my anticipation as the day progressed.  It rained heavily that day.  Megat Junid had warned me to not have too much hope – the slate is loaded and usually longer that the eventual winning list, and the odds are against the newcomer.  A clairvoyant, who was brought to my campaign headquarters sometime in the middle of the campaign, had as related to me by Major Salleh predicted that “I would not win, nor would I lose!”.  Even then, I was still unfazed.

When the results were announced later that evening, I didn’t make it into the list of 25 elected ordinary members of the MKT for the 1993-1996 term.  I came in at number 26 in the rank order of votes, 21 votes short of the cut-off tally for the last candidate in.  Mohamed Rahmat, the secretary general, remarked to me enigmatically after, that I was “lucky”.  Huh?  Major Salleh, who was my counting agent and present in the closed-door vote counting hall, would later inform me that there were 31 spoilt votes with my name ticked on it. That was how close I got to winning; if only those delegates concerned were not so careless! Sigh!  That evening at the celebratory gathering at Anwar’s Bukit Damansara residence, I was congratulated by Malik Munip, who wondered how I did manage to do it.  Coming that close to winning, against traditional odds, was I guess an achievement in itself.

After the drama and dust had settled down, more than a month or two after all the delegates had gone home, UMNO headquarters announced that I was one of the 10 nominated members of the Supreme Council under the prerogative of the President, and duly took the oath of secrecy at the first MKT meeting of the new term.  Aside from the defeated VP candidates, Pak Lah and Sanusi, Asiaweek had pronounced that, together with Afiffudin Omar, Ibrahim Ali and Hassan Harun, I was among the President’s Men of the new MKT.  So, the clairvoyant was prescient and correct after all:  I had not won, but achieved the goal anyway.

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