Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is again trying to achieve his dream of becoming Umno president but with a national agenda in mind. Some say he is pushing his luck; he says he is proving a point.
DRIVING into Gua Musang, one is greeted by a huge banner announcing a religious event at Masjid Razaleigh.
The mosque is named after the constituency’s nine-term MP, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who began representing the expanse of jungle and village settlements way back when the area was known as Ulu Kelantan.
And the area is ulu (remote, with the connotation of backwardness). Gua Musang boasts the largest population of orang asli in Kelantan and they revere him. Razaleigh, in turn, attends to their modest needs and supplies them with bicycles so they can get around.
Razaleigh grew up in a wealthy, political family. His father was Kelantan mentri besar before Merdeka but even as a young man, Razaleigh had his sights on the federal capital.
Now, into the second weekend of the Umno polls, the contest for the party leadership looks like a badly listing ship. Razaleigh has not, to date, received a single nomination.
Conversely, the heir apparent Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has already received 43 nominations out the 58 (30% of 191 divisions) required to qualify him for the top post.
Razaleigh and Najib are the only contenders for the helm, and Razaleigh actually threw in his hat first. He had offered himself as the alternative to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi months before the latter announced he was relinquishing the position to his deputy.
At 71, the dignified, soft-spoken Razaleigh is a generation older than his 55-year-old opponent. There is a yawning gap of experience between him and the outspoken, mostly ambitious division chiefs who are at least 20 to 30 years his junior. But he does not see age as an impediment.
“Age is based on our ability to think,” he said with a smile.
Their old family ties make it just a bit awkward for Najib today to stand against his former mentor. When Razaleigh was managing Petronas, Najib’s father, second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, had asked Razaleigh to take his son, freshly back with an economics degree after several years’ study in the United Kingdom, under his wing. Najib was told to carry Razaleigh’s briefcase and learn everything he could from him.
In keeping with his old school refinement, he has never hinted, not even in a fleeting, private moment, that Najib, or anyone else, “owed him”.
Now Razaleigh wants to make a point. He wants to remind Umno delegates that democracy is very much a party tradition and the quota system — whereby candidates were required to get a certain number of nominations to qualify to run, plus entitling them to bonus points to boot — was alien to the party spirit. Razaleigh’s repeated attempts to abolish the quota system have failed, however.
If “the purpose of any political party is to win elections”, as Kelantan state Opposition Leader from Kok Lanas Datuk Md Alwi Che Ahmad asserted, then the role of politicians is to lead.
Razaleigh is no exception. He has his ambitions, if tempered by national exigencies. Looking at the crop of younger aspirants and their naked ambitions has not been reassuring.
“This time I am forced to come forward because no one else has the courage to stand, especially for the Malays who have no choice,” said Razaleigh.
Quietly, he has been traversing the country to remind people that he is still to be counted.
“Next general election, Umno might be rejected. And the Malays will not have a platform. Some say there is PAS. But PAS’ struggle is different.
“I heard that not only the Malays but even Umno members themselves voted the DAP. We were almost wiped out in the Federal Territory. In Permatang Pauh (by-election), there are 20,000 Umno members but Barisan received only 10,000 votes.”
He holds “the collective leadership, not any single individual leader, responsible”, meaning the Cabinet and the Umno supreme council.
Razaleigh is proud to be a lifetime member of Umno and cannot imagine leaving the party “unless they do something really detrimental to the Malays”.
“I want to democratise the party. The leadership should not have too much power. Members are now afraid of leaders, whereas it should be the other way round.”
If he were to win the president’s post, he proposed giving members, rather than delegates, the right to vote in the party leadership. He would also propose that the president hold office for not more than three terms, while state liaison chiefs be limited to two terms.
In the spirit of democracy, Razaleigh has declined to name a running mate, leaving that choice to party delegates.
This is Razaleigh’s final stab at the top party post — and by extension the prime minister’s job. He challenged (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1987 and famously lost by 43 votes. According to sources close to him, Razaleigh had banked on Najib’s support but some time that day, Najib had had a change of heart.
“When I was not chosen, I backed down,” Razaleigh said simply. The quota system was introduced after that divisive party polls.
In 2004, only Gua Musang had nominated him and Razaleigh became ineligible to run for party president.
Razaleigh is an astute, experienced politician. But his palace background limits his combat in action. Uncle to the Sultan and Raja Perempuan of Kelantan, Razaleigh is fastidious about maintaining his princely stature.
In fact, it has become second nature to him, even in his short-sleeved cotton-shirted days when as Semangat ‘46 president he had consorted with the opposition in the Barisan Alternatif. Wallowing in the mud fighting for party positions is beneath him.
He admitted, after just a whisper of hesitation “on a Friday, so I can’t lie” to having held discussions with the Pakatan Rakyat “on general matters” without getting into the specifics of posts and positions. It was they who had approached him, he said.
“I was happy to talk to them to know their plans and they met me to get my views.”
In the current political whirlwind, Razaleigh has been the only candidate to offer an alternative blueprint for the Barisan Nasional’s continued survival. He suggested a single, expanded multi-racial party to which individuals could directly subscribe.
Just as Abdul Razak had formed a unifying coalition in the Barisan Nasional in 1974, after having suffered at the polls in 1969, so too, he felt, it was time for a fresh direction after the ravages of the March 8 general election.
“We must open doors so individuals can join,” said Razaleigh, although conceding that for now “it’s just a proposal which may not materialise”.
That idea was picked up by Abdullah and announced at the Gerakan assembly. Non-Malays lauded the proposal for direct membership to the coalition and an instant TV3 short-messaging service (SMS) poll showed that more than 70% of respondents supported the idea.
The proposal echoed a similar suggestion by Umno founder Datuk Onn Jaafar in the years before Merdeka. But Umno at that time was not ready.
Apparently, today it still is not prepared to accept such a drastic policy change. A clutch of Umno leaders promptly responded that it was premature and that Umno still had a role to play.
Obviously if Malaysians could subscribe directly to the Barisan, the individual component parties would become irrelevant. On such a level playing field, the Malays in particular would feel threatened that their tacit privileged position in Malaysian politics would be eroded.
With such sentiments gripping Umno in the months leading up to its March party election, the idea dissipated as quickly as it was floated. It was, however, an idea very much in keeping with the country’s current mood, as proven by Anwar’s winning of Malaysian multi-racial hearts.
Anwar has dominated these past few months on the political roller-coaster.
“He called the shots,” said a blogger aligned to the maverick figure.
Abdullah’s untimely departure from the national stage was hastened by Umno’s fears that Anwar was imminently to form an alternative government. Meanwhile, the Umno grassroots were restless and the supreme council was unable to keep their own ambitions in check.
Nevertheless, the blogger does not think that Anwar can now pull it off. “The moment has passed,” he said reflectively of Anwar’s initial deadline to form a new government on Sept 16.
A man to respect
If Razaleigh harbours any personal agenda, apart from wanting to rescue the battered economy, it is just to prove that he can do it.
Before Abdul Razak died, he had called seven people to his bedside, including Dr Mahathir, (Tun) Musa Hitam and Razaleigh, recounted Alwi.
Razak had told them: “My successor will be from among you all. Take turns according to seniority.”
Razaleigh held by that. So after Dr Mahathir, it should have been Razaleigh, then Musa, said Alwi, the Prime Minister’s political secretary.
Now Razaleigh “wants to tell the public Umno is a democratic party where you can challenge anybody if you have the credibility. So he wants to give that option. It is not a question of him winning, getting nominations,” explained Alwi.
To him, Razaleigh’s credibility does not stem from his royal roots — which do count in Kelantan — but from his experience and stature.
“He has the stature of Dr Mahathir and Musa. He is of that generation, not ours. We cannot reach his level of thinking. That’s why we must think of him as a statesman and don’t fight him, (but) listen to his advice,” Alwi said.
The theoretically logical solution earlier mooted by some that Razaleigh become president and Najib his deputy, at least for a term until things cooled down politically, has received lukewarm response.
“Of course, he’s out of place. Out of time, out of place. But you can use his talent, his stature to strengthen Umno. Razaleigh is such a personality. He must be respected,” said Alwi.
Those who have given up on Razaleigh’s prospects must understand that generational factor, he added.
“As Pak Lah said: Umno doesn’t understand Pak Lah; Umno doesn’t understand Razaleigh. They come from that first generation. And Umno now is not that generation.”