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Chapter 5: The Academic as Politician, Episode 2: Chicken in a Pineapple Patch

Wan Azmi Ariffin was one of my early students in USM.  A teacher in Sik, a small district in Kedah State, he joined the USM off-campus program in 1971, which required that such students will study full-time in their final year on campus, having spent the previous four years doing part-time study. He was a geography major, who took two of my courses in the second year of my return from overseas. Obviously active in UMNO politics, he was a long standing member and leader of Sik division while serving as a teacher, at a time when teachers were the bedrock of UMNO grassroots politics, until businessmen took over in a later era.  Over the years after graduating in 1976, he rose through the ranks as is the usual path for a budding politician, to the position of vice-chief of his division.  It was Wan Azmi, when he heard of my entering front-line politics through the 1993 MKT contest, who likened a politician’s life to a chicken entering a pineapple patch. Whichever way  you turned or moved, you are bound to get scratched, even if you are following someone.  Wise words of a seasoned politician.  Pak Lah had earlier warned me, even before I formally entered politics, at the end of one of those MAPEN Steering Committee meetings, that once when you are in politics, your list of friends will shorten while the enemies’ list will lengthen.  He would know better.

I entered politics intent on keeping my friends, in and outside the party.  As naïve in politics as that principle was, I stuck with it till the end, even after many betrayals and loss of faith.  In politics, friends can become enemies, in the constant pursuit of position, influence and favours.  As the adage goes, and one Azman Attar, a grassroots politician par excellence if there is one, and leader of the Batu UMNO division in the Federal Territory, was quick to inform me when seeking his division’s vote in the 1993 UMNO Supreme Council elections, that there are no permanent enemies nor permanent friends in politics. The art of the possible and all that.   In the trenches, politics is a war of attrition, and the survivor is he or she who is nimble enough to change sides, and the winner is not always the one who led the charge uphill.   These were lessons I would be learning over the next eight years in politics.

Soon after joining the UMNO Supreme Council, I sought advice from Rahim Tamby Chik, the newly elected Youth Chief, whether I should retain my position as MIER executive director.  Thinking about MIER’s position of influence, he must have thought that that is a good thing for UMNO, a link to a think tank, no doubt an advantage also for my nascent political career.  Other close friends had various views, but in the end I returned to my original thought that holding on to that position is untenable.  In the end I had to reaffirm what I started with, the importance of the independence of MIER in its mission.  So I went to see Tan Sri Basir Ismail, who had by then taken over the chairmanship of the MIER Board of Trustees from Tun Ismail, in his Petronas office to tender my resignation.  He understood and appreciated my position, and reluctantly accepted it.   I recommended that Suleiman Mahbob, who was then head of the Economics Department of the Ministry of Finance, to take over the post.  At the parting, Basir asked me what I was going to do for a living.  After all, politicians have to earn a living too, like everyone else.  I told him I had started Tenggara Cement, on the back of a 100% leverage: he said he too had to do that when taking over FIMA.  So, after eight years of establishing, laying the foundation and seeing it rise in reputation, I left MIER.

One day while driving back from an outstation trip, I received a call from Anwar Ibrahim, the newly minted Deputy President of UMNO and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.  He wanted me to be secretary to UMNO’s Economic Bureau which he chaired.  I was also asked by Ghani Osman who chaired the Human Resource Bureau to join him as a member.   The bureau set up in the party allows party sympathisers including civil servants, business people and academics to join party leaders in the formulation of policy.  Papers resulting from deliberations of the bureaus got to be presented to the Supreme Council when such items get into the agenda.  This did not happen often, for often the topics the President raised in his opening speech at council meetings took priority and often if serious enough ended  up taking most of the three hour meeting.  On those occasions, it usually involved the political issue of the day or week.  One such report of Ghani’s Committee did manage to get through to the Council, the proposal to establish the Rakan Muda programme under the Ministry of Youth and Sports, to which portfolio Ghani had just been promoted as minister in the new Cabinet.  This proposal was a follow-up of the National Youth Corp which we had proposed as part of the UMNO Youth 1985 Economic Recovery Plan some ten years before.  It is today implemented as the Program Latihan Khidmat Negara (PLKN).  Later a paper from the Economic Bureau which I drafted on the issue of strategic land acquisition by the federal government (to solve the problem of replacement of Malay Reserve land being alienated to private hands), along with other recommendations considered by the bureau including the promulgation of a community land law a la the Labour Party plank in the UK, did not make it into the Supreme Council’s agenda.  It can be a frustrating experience, for often politics and vested interests override rational policy making. But who really knows the motivations of politicians in power when public and private interests clash, especially when the issues are not openly debated but resolved behind closed doors.

Viewed as the PM’s man, I was privileged to be up close to witness the workings of a brilliant political mind, and a determined leader who pushed through his own ideas, and expect support, if not loyalty, from his colleagues as a matter of course.   And interesting to see first-hand the maneuvers and set plays of the leading and aspiring players in the inner sanctum of political power.  The game of catching the President’s eye was in full display. But even at this juncture, and in this inner-most political setting, I tended to revert to character and assumed participant observer status.  In hushed tones, and in active political rumour mills, the president is assumed by the party establishment to harbour certain expectations and plan for his sponsored candidates.

As 1994  rolled by, and with the approach of the coming General Elections which have to be held by 1996,  the party management was engaged in the decennial redrawing of the constituency boundaries at both federal and state levels, a task which is the responsibility of the Election Commission to accommodate population changes on the ground.   This exercise by implication involved the realignment of party divisional boundaries, with the setting up of new divisional organizations, as well as some subdivision and amalgamation of existing constituencies, particularly in the urban areas where most of the population redistribution had occurred through urbanization.   Three new parliamentary constituencies were added in the Federal Territory:  Bandar Tun Razak, Segambut and Wangsa Maju.

Wangsa Maju was carved out of the existing Batu and Titiwangsa divisions.  With its ethnically mixed urban population, with Malays in a slight majority, it is considered a plum constituency because of the high proportion of postal votes and the large military presence there, including the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) headquarters, the Pulapor police training camp and the Wiederburn army camp.  Over the years, retired army and police personnel had taken up residence in Wangsa Maju, a new suburb in the Kuala Lumpur masterplan built out of the Wiederburn rubber estate.  New divisions always involved the appointment of a pro-tem committee to organize the new party set-up involving old and new branches, all of which will have to be re-registered with the Registrar of Societies, prior to elections for a new divisional committee.   The pro-tem divisional chairmanship, which gives the inside track to an aspiring leader aiming to be elected the new division chief, is a highly coveted position at the grassroots level, affording  immense influence in the party hierarchy, and a major stepping stone to a local leader aspiring to move up to higher posts in the party.

Setapak, Wangsa Maju today
I had a personal familiarity and affinity with the Wangsa Maju area. In the early sixties when I was studying in VI, I used to cycle with my friends on weekends from our Kampung Baru house through the Wiederburn rubber estate for excursions to the newly built Klang Gate reservoir there, and often swam in the Mindef  swimming pool and would sneak in to watch weekend movies in the Pulapor community hall.  But I had absolutely no idea and certainly no ambition over the intervening years that I would one day return here and be playing a role in the formation of the new parliamentary constituency.  My association and concern if at all had always been for a return to my Semanggol village, and the Bagan Serai constituency.  As word filtered down during the MAPEN sessions that I was being considered for the 1992 general elections, I was asked to test the political waters there, for which I did make a couple of visits and was in touch with some of the local politicians, many of whom were distant relatives and friends in my earlier days.  But nothing much came of that then.

The appointment of a new division’s pro-tem chairman is entirely at the discretion of the party leadership, which will also have to endorse the divisional committee proposed by the nominated chairman.  Prior to this stage of the game, political fights and much jockeying among aspiring leaders and rival factions in the existing divisions involved in the redrawing of the new division boundaries take place.

Azman Attar, the UMNO Batu division chief, had been eyeing the new Wangsa Maju constituency since plans for it were first mooted.  Azman, a seasoned street fighter and his supporters had been involved in a factional struggle with another group led by the division's Wanita chief, Dr. Noridah Ibrahim, a former academic attached to UTM.   The rivalry reached a head during the divisional elections for the 1963-65 term, leading up to the UMNO MKT elections that I had been involved in, when charges and counter-charges were thrown at each other accusing the other of vote-buying, phantom members and other improprieties.   After a formal complaint by Noridah's faction, the divisional elections which was won by Azman’s team were subsequently declared invalid by the Supreme Council, and suspended.  A new election for the divisional posts were ordered be held after the UMNO General Assembly.  The Council, when reconvened for the new term, had appointed me and Ibrahim Ali to represent it in supervising the new Batu division elections, which was again won by Azman’s faction.

When the new divisional pro-tem chairmen were announced by the Supreme Council, I was designated to lead the Wangsa Maju division.  Mahathir, before going on leave overseas, had left instruction with Anwar, who chaired the party management committee, to ensure that I be appointed to that coveted post. As mentioned earlier I had not thought about that at all; if at all, it was the Bagan Serai division that I would have preferred to play a role.  But I would have been as comfortable to remain an ordinary Supreme Council member and lead a party think tank, or something.  My first inkling of the new development was when my support group in Lembah Pantai division, led by its erstwhile Youth chief, Suleiman Salleh and Ahmad Yahya, took me around in their car to show me the Wangsa Maju area, as they said “our kawasan”!  Subsequently, coming down from an MKT function I was introduced to Noridah and her group in the restaurant of the Pan Pacific Hotel, a favourite haunt among many KL hotels, of the UMNO political operators (nicknamed “gurkhas”) during the UMNO season.  Noridah and Azman were independently lobbying for that post, because of the inside track the eventual division chief will have to be nominated a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary General Elections.  This was all new to me, but it is a supreme game politicians play for.

Azman didn’t give up.   At the tea-break, he button-hold Anwar, and tried to make his case, which I supported by saying that I would just as well join Bagan Serai in any capacity.  Without much thought, and together with Mohamed Mohd Taib, the new UMNO vice president and appointed Federal Territory UMNO liaison chief, Anwar stuck with the earlier decision.  Gently stroking Azman’s sliver of a beard, Anwar closed the case by asking Azman to stay put as head of Batu division, with no prospect of being a wakil rakyat there.

I learned quickly that every move in politics, strategically and tactically, involved a political calculus. Service was secondary, and an excuse for political positioning. Strategy has always been my forte, so I had left most of the tactical tasks to my team, for they are more experienced at that.  But naming a team is both a strategic and tactical move, hence the designation Kamal’s men, as in Mahathir’s man, or Anwar’s man! When I set about choosing the members of the new Wangsa Maju pro-tem committee, including my deputy and other senior committee posts, I was mindful of the fractiousness of the politics in the Batu division.  But the new constituency is made of a section from the Batu division and another to a lesser extent in terms of the number of UMNO branches to be incorporated into Wangsa Maju, from the Titiwangsa division, the rest from the newer housing estates undertaken by PGK, a DBKL joint venture, in the Setiwangsa area.  So when I brought along my core team led by Suleiman and Ahmad Yahya from the UMNO Lembah Pantai, to undertake the task of putting together the main players from the two rival factions in the Batu division and the fraction from the Titiwangsa division, I sold it as a confluence of three rivers moving in the same direction.  They bought that idea, at least at the start of the new division.  For I know that when the real divisional elections come around after the pro-tem period, the political rivalry, if not warfare would resume with full force again. But my job was to bring some unity to the separate lots and create a new division.

After the initial soundings and consultation amongst the veterans, meaning the branch chairmen of the two divisions involved, I put together a pro-tem committee where Noridah became my deputy, the Youth chief from her faction as the new Youth chief, and Suleiman Salleh the pro-tem honorary secretary, the financial controller of my Tenggara Cement company, who happened to live in Setiawangsa as treasurer, and Rahman Hashim previously in Lembah Pantai but had since returned to Wangsa Maju as information chief, with the rest of the committee made up of a balance amongst the three fractions.  The names were formally registered by party headquarters, after endorsement by the Federal Territory Liaison committee chaired by Mohamed Mohd Taib.

The real battle would follow in under twelve months, when the real divisional elections will be held, but at least now we made a start to build and consolidate the new division with new branches and a membership drive.  I and the new pro-tem committee were formally introduced to the members one evening at the official launch of the new UMNO division in the Wirajaya community hall.  In his introductory speech, Azman Attar, still Batu division chief thanks to Anwar Ibrahim, generously expressed his support for this new leader, a political spring chicken by the standards of his (Azman's) long experience in UMNO politics, while I set off in my own speech some ideas I have dug up from my not so political experience, about the issue of political work (kerja politik) and the politics of work (politik kerja).  I didn’t think I did get that distinction across to the assembled crowd this early in the game, and later as events unfolded in a few years, I was to be proven right on that assumption – that that was a wrong credo right from the start.   But, that was how this chicken got his first scratch.

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