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Chapter 5: Academic as Politician, Episode 4: This Political Life

Life as a grassroots politician in Wangsa Maju reminded me of the British New Wave film This Sporting Life, featuring Richard Harris’s debut acting in a leading role, which won Best Film at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.  This film was one of the regular Saturday evening screenings in the RMC canteen, among many great films we enjoyed during our years in the college. Based on a Richard Stone novel of the same name, This Sporting Life tells documentary-like the working class life of a pugnacious Yorkshire coalminer turned professional rugby league player.  It is not so much the tragic realism of the storyline that reminded me of my political life, but what the critic John Russell Taylor wrote in 1980 that,"every scene in the film is charged with the passion of what is not said and done, as well as what is”.  That seems to summarize what it was like in UMNO local level politics in my constituency, and higher up in the power hierarchy.

Suleiman is on my left (1996)
Suleiman Salleh was my political alter ego in those days in Wangsa Maju.  A loyal and experienced political lieutenant, he was wise to the ways of UMNO politics, blooded as he was in the UMNO Youth movement. He more than anybody else in my inner circle, embodied the resilience and gobblededash of grassroots leadership. Beyond my own engagement at the grassroots, he  was my eyes and ears of the activities of the different factions, and goings-on at the branch level.  Over the seven years I was in UMNO Wangsa Maju, Suleiman showed me the ropes, first as divisional secretary, and later as advisor after I moved him to become general manager of Yayasan Wangsa Maju, which I had set up early in my term to serve my constituents.  With his calm demeanor and natural diplomatic skills, we managed to keep the peace among the ambitious individuals and factions in the division.  Each began to sponsor new branches in order to increase their influence, at the same time expanding the division in terms of membership, the goal being to achieve greater representation and seigneurial control, and eventual victory in divisional elections, with the division chief’s post as the ultimate prize, and where political ambitions never end, the upper reaches of political representation.

UMNO as an organization had always been feudal and patriarchal, from its early foundation to the present day, even though it professed and on the surface practiced a working democracy. As a Malay political party this feudalistic milieu is to be expected, as Malay society as a whole despite modernization and education is still a feudal society.  As the stakes in economic pay-off got bigger in subsequent years, and the political struggle within the divisional party got nastier, fanned by the networks of loyalty to and fortunes of the particular leadership higher up the hierarchy to the national levels of political power, these political games throughout the divisions eventually consolidated into a culture of “warlordism” in UMNO, fueled by money politics.  In this feudal structure underlying UMNO politics, the lord-vassal relationship between national and grassroots leaders had remained unchanged if not becoming more entrenched.  Suleiman Salleh understood all this, and through him and beyond my own personal relationships with the various UMNO national leaders, I became even more attuned to the nuanced interplay of politics and personality in UMNO’s political culture.

Mat Ya in on the left and Suleiman on the right
If Suleiman was the administrator-strategist, Ahmad Yahya (Mat Ya) was the master tactician. Mat Ya was the epitome of political loyalty, the consummate party worker (the “gurkha” or the self-deprecating term “balachi” in local parlance) and closely lined up with the national leadership (mainly Pak Lah).  Having decided on a strategy, not just in ensuring the success of our “slate” of candidates in a divisional election and therefore maintaining control of the local party organization to ensure the leader’s political longevity, but in the everyday maintenance of peace and good relations among the factions, Mat Ya would be my “go to” guy to take the necessary action or initiative.  It is a lot of hard work, and meetings and “teh tarik” sessions.  And intrigue. It is Umno politics, so cool and calm on the surface, so much decorum, least as manifest in the long list of salutations at the opening of every speech, but so vicious underneath, so uncouth sometimes. More so, these days. In politics you don’t play by the books; it is run by expedience and ambition. The favourite tagline in my speeches and small group interaction was for practitioners to desist from creating something out of nothing, nor to reduce something (significant) to nothing, to make the small large and the large small!  But,  such exhortations merely fell on the proverbial duck’s back.  It was just how things are, and how things are done, whether at the grassroots or at the higher levels of politics. “Stories” whether true or not true, are the currency of politics.  As some wise guy had cracked, rumours usually are half-truths, which in politics you confirm or deny, or simply make no comments depending on your political moment.  Mat Ya, as loyal as he was to me, having mastered the game, practiced it.

This political life takes a lot of hard work, endurance, skin and compromise. I was not made nor trained for it, no matter how long I had associated with politicians before I became a politician of sorts myself. This is why I think I admired politicians who went on to achieve success at the higher levels, for their survival instincts and political longevity.  With UMNO in power for so long, politics became a professional career, and some felt almost a hereditary right.  That’s feudalism.  I almost knew, when I decided to take up the challenge, that without a high post in the political hierarchy, or government, my political life will be foreshortened by half.  I will not survive it, and my future in Wangsa Maju was proportional to the amount of money I was willing to spend to maintain my position. I was not so naïve to expect anything less.

Over the seven-year period I was the ketua bahagian in UMNO Wangsa Maju, and as wakil rakyat for a good part of the period, I had spent from my own sources an estimated total of RM5 million to pay for the local party organization and its activities, to pay for staff in both the party and wakil rakyat office, and make “contributions” to all and sundry that approach you for “help”.  It was part of the job and the expectation.  Usually, politicians at this level are “sponsored” by towkays (expecting a return on their favours), or maintained by a business, or survived financially on contracts or “projects” handed down to loyal followers of a minister, or genuine donations from friends or relatives. Solicitations for funds, at the official and personal level, were the order of the day.  Different pretexts and devices are proffered to extract or exact tribute (con-tribute?) from the political leader - a program here and a khenduri there – to sustain the political process.  I was fortunate to have an on-going business to keep this political business going, but it was not sustainable. It will not last; that I knew.

I was amazed at how over the years the party had become, in the small and in the grand order of things, an efficient machine for the extraction of tribute and rent, from small donations, through to contracts, and to grand corruption today.  This was a far cry from what I had thought, or convinced myself, as to the purpose of my joining UMNO, to serve the country and the people, as I had assumed was the aim and purpose of all the friends I had engaged with in politics.  How naïve I was!  In the early days of my direct involvement in UMNO I had asked myself, often, how do the party grassroot members maintain their participation in party activities, or continue to loyally support their leaders - is it for the “cause” as embodied in the party song? Loyalty to the party flag?  I wondered whether they ever tire of the political games and routines, and eventually, at some point in their membership and support of the party activities, attending functions and rallies and putting in the time and energy to man political campaigns at election times, to eventually ask “what is in it for me?”.  I have never heard it asked, not directly, but it was palpably there; it was in their action, in their body language, and their insinuations.  It, their political participation, is sustained by expectations, of some benefit; and their support, and loyalty, disappears eventually as the expectation dissipates.

In pursuit of the purpose I was sent to Wangsa Maju, and my election as the wakil rakyat, I tried to maintain a level of service to my constituents.  But no matter how much I tried to plan them as a genuine service, the activities and programmes I implemented took on the form of a political pay-off or a personal appropriation.  Or expectation thereof.  Or even if it was meant to be a genuine service, such as when I donated computers to the schools in the district through the Wangsa Maju Foundation I had set up at the beginning of my term as wakil rakyat, my opponents still manage to turn it into a political exercise, or spin it as a mere political gimmick.  Or, when I donated to a mosque committee that genuinely sought assistance and I genuinely meant it as an infaq, the branch leader whom I sent the donation through extracted a personal “commission” (without my knowledge) before passing the remainder on to the mosque.  Or, when a branch leader asked for personal assistance for the tenth time but this time to support his child’s school fees, and I failed to oblige, he switched camp and withheld his support for me, even though I had acceded to his other requests the previous nine times.  And all individual votes counted, as though it was every time the deciding vote.  In politics, all values are relative and loyalty contingent. Increasingly, your political tenure is as long as you continue to finance it.  To ignore this was at your personal peril as a political leader.  So on to the political games politicians play.

This monetization of politics reaches its height during the party election season, which comes on every three years.  This is the time when money flows like water; politicians call this season, “durian runtuh” (durian harvest). From the branch elections, the field of play moves through the divisional elections on to the national party runoff, with higher and higher payoffs.  It is not uncommon to see branch and divisional officials and delegates to the national party general assembly during the election season having new motorbikes and cars at the end of the political harvest.  This is how the political process in UMNO gets corrupted.

At the end of my first term, after an extended honeymoon period since sponsoring the set up of the new UMNO division, I had to face fresh divisional elections for the next three year term, and the prospect of being challenged for the Wangsa Maju division chief post.  Through the first four years, I had tried to maintain an equidistance from the several factions in the party.  I could not escape, however, being identified with the Lembah Pantai group that I had brought over with me when forming the new division, plus the new branches we established in the Setiawangsa section of Wangsa Maju. 

The whole constituency was conveniently divided into two geographical subdivisions by Jalan Genting Kelang, which cuts the old Setapak area from the Jalan Gombak junction of Jalan Pahang that takes you from the KL central area to Ulu Kelang to the northeast of the city, through the old Wiedeburn Rubber Estate (which was my old route to the Klang Gate Dam during my early years growing up in Kampong Baru).   To the north of Jalan Genting Klang was the former parts of Setapak which were in the older UMNO Batu Division before the subdivision including Taman Ibu Kota, Taman Melati and Taman Wirajaya, while to its south were the newer Setiawangsa sections including Mindef, the armed forces headquarters (18,000 military votes strong).  In this section were included the old parts split off from the Titiwangsa Division. The older Setapak zone were made up of branches that were the stronghold of the faction led by Nuraidah, my deputy, and Shafie Abdullah, the Youth Division chief, both of whom led the opposition faction to Azman Attar in the old Batu Division, which had considered themselves the legitimate leadership successor when the new Wangsa Maju Division was formed, and were largely lined up against my Lembah Pantai/Setiawangsa alignment whom they considered usurpers to the division leadership, whose relatively newer branches in the latter southern zone constituted my main political support.  For a time.

Those were the battle lines that had formed by the time in 1996 when the new triennial divisional elections for the new leadership came around.  The divisional campaign was intense, as was to be expected.  While I was unopposed in the first previous term, on account I was the leader chosen by the UMNO Supreme Council to sponsor the formation of the new division, Shafie Abdullah, now free from further deference to me, this time provided the main challenge to my divisional leadership post.  He chose Haji Ghazalie as his running mate for the deputy division chief, while on advice of Suleiman to appease the Setapak branches I chose the branch chairman of Taman Wirajaya as my candidate for deputy head of the division.  Nuraidah, my incumbent deputy division head, was conscripted by Shafie into his chai for the Wanita chief post, while I nominated the wife of Hj. Ghazalie as the Wanita chief candidate on my slate.  Politics!  But this still did not take the cake in this ongoing political game of thrones.  Unbeknowest to me and to my absolute surprise, Mat Ya also decided to throw his hat into the ring and formed his own slate of candidates.  So, the contest for political leadership of the Wangsa Maju division had now become a three-cornered fight.

At that time I felt betrayed by Mat Ya.  My main support group, led by both Suleiman (who by then had resigned from the divisional secretary’s post to avoid a conflict of interest in working for me in this new contest) and Mat Ya, that had been solidly behind me that had contributed to my hold over the division in the past four years, seemed now to have broken up.  This split would certainly undermine my chances of retaining the division chief’s post.  But Suleiman appeared calm when I turned to him to make sense of what was going on.  I had got wind of this breakup earlier through the political grape vine, but had then thought that that was just rumour mongering.  Games politicians play!  At the time, I had sensed building up in the division a wave of resentment from Mat Ya’s faction, following some changes in the divisional committee when I appointed a new hononary divisional secretary to replace Suleiman (after I moved the latter to Yayasan Wangsa Maju), as well as a new information chief, and made Hanafiah Yunus as my political assistant in the constituency office to handle my wakil rakyat duties.  Mat Ya’s associates, who were also my supporters, were not happy with these personnel moves.  But, I had faith in Mat Ya, and his personal loyalty to me.  

In fact, I did offer him the secretary’s post much earlier but he had opted against it.  He had preferred to remain in charge of special projects in UMNO Wangsa Maju, which was his forte.  I had appeased him, and to show my gratitude, by giving him a quota for his cement dealership from my Tenggara Cement business. But his “people”, those of his own followers did not take favourably to these developments.  To them, erroneously from my point of view, the changes I had made at the divisional administrative level had political motives and was seen as a discrimination against their so-called “marhein” (wretched of the earth) status which they claim to represent, to contrast with the “elite group” (represented by Hanafiah, Samsuddin Hussein and Azman Idris) whom they accused I had seemingly favoured because of my business association with them at the time.  That was the impression that I had inadvertently created, but certainly not my intent!  In politics, perception often to stumps reality, and I was still too polically wet behind the ears to realize the implications of the changes I had made.  As Sirajuddin, the political correspondent of Utusan Malaysia, had subsequently implied in his column, the corporate side of my persona had evidently overtaken the political side.  But, heck, from my side of the table I am an academic by training, a professional by vocation, and still learning the political ropes.  However, that was not what the political folks of Wangsa Maju expect, and that excuse was not acceptable.

To handle this  split in my support, and in hindsight seemingly in frustration, I called Suleiman and Mat Ya to conference, and set an ultimatum: resolve this factional matter between them, or I will stand down as candidate for reelection as division chief.  I told them that I want the matter resolved and that the two sides in my support group come back together by the time I returned from my Australian holidays.  I didn’t tell them that I had not planned for the trip yet, but deep down I was playing my own political card.  The two sides did subsequently send me to the airport to catch my flight to Melbourne.

Suleiman and Mat Ya did resolve matters, in their own way.  My slate did win the subsequent divisional elections held in June of that year, and I was successfully returned as Wangsa Maju division chief for another three-year term to 1999.  I did have to go through the three-cornered fight with Shafie and Mat Ya, and they both lost.  Apparently, Suleiman and Mat Ya had contrived the political gambit (the three-sided contest) in order to prevent the so-called marhein group who had backed Mat Ya from going to Shafie’s side, the real challenger to my
who had previously been briefed on the divisional election results nationwide as is his responsibility, would remark in congratulating me on my success when we met later in the Member’s Lounge in Parliament, that I had come of political age when “snaring both fishes on the same line” in the Wangsa Maju elections.  He well knew Mat Ya’s reputation, and I was ever grateful to both Suleiman and Mat Ya for their political skills to secure my political longevity.

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