Sabtu, 20 September 2008

Mahathir's son, but his own man - Straits Times Singapore


KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 17 - Riding in the front rows of the Malaysian political roller-coaster of the last six months, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir has seen his fortunes rise and wane repeatedly. In recent weeks though, he has been in ascendance. It is partly because he is trying to control some levers of the ride himself.

Mukhriz is making a bid for the top Umno Youth post and has stuck his neck out by demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after the March 8 polls left his party in near shambles.

He has refused to budge despite criticism, and is now lodged firmly in the anti-Abdullah camp.
When Abdullah was on a surer footing after he announced his planned retirement in 2010, Mukhriz's star dimmed a little. But as the Premier struggles anew for his political survival, Mukhriz's fortunes have revived.

People see, fairly or unfairly, Mukhriz as a counterforce to Abdullah. The reason being, of course, that he is the youngest son of the formidable former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Mukhriz, 44, is far from a Mahathir clone, though. He's soft-spoken, but has shown himself to be steely in the face of fire.

In fact, for someone with his neck on the chopping board, he is sanguine. He opines on politics in the same relaxed tone that he talks about his two-month-old baby girl, his fourth child. She was born on his father's birthday, and he quips that it took a lot of planning to arrange that. He is married to Datin Norzieta Jalil.

Umno is now heading into one of its most intensely fought elections, and Mukhriz is in the thick of it. He was the first to throw his hat into the ring, officially. His likely challenger for the Umno Youth post is Khairy Jamaluddin, the 32-year- old son-in-law of Abdullah.

The third candidate could be former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Khir Toyo, and the fourth, Zahidi Zainul Abidin, a division chief from Perlis, who is unlikely to make any headway.
"I hope I can bring a difference, a breath of fresh air. The party needs new direction. I would rate my chances as fair to good, though I won't say it's excellent," he says.
Each of them needs 38 nominations from the 191 divisions, and the contest could end up a three-corner fight. It has already been pitched as a fight between the proxies of Dr Mahathir and his hand-picked successor, Abdullah.
Dr Mahathir, 83, has spent the last three years trying to topple Abdullah, 68, whom he blames for damaging his legacy, Malaysia and Umno.
The Mahathir name will prove a burden, or advantage, that Mukhriz carries into battle.
To many, he is his father's puppet. At the same time too, it is unclear how much influence and stardust the Mahathir name still has on the Umno warlords. Not when the battle is rife with vote-buying, a phenomenon which even the top party leaders have admitted to.
"I don't even pretend to disassociate from him," says Mukhriz. "I can't. I do agree with many things he says, and I'm proud of him."
He adds: "You may say it's an unfair advantage but I think by now, people would have seen that I'm my own man without needing to delink me from my father."
His father's legacy is not his, he says, but he is also aware that Umno may not mind having Dr Mahathir's firm hand pushing him along. At a time when the ruling coalition is panicking about the real threat posed by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, they yearn for the strong leadership Dr Mahathir once represented.

"They feel his absence strongly, and they see me as providing some continuity," he says.
As such, he is astute enough not to play down his family name too much. It makes for a good contrast against Abdullah who is seen as weak.
It may also work against Khairy to have his father-in-law running for the top party post. One family holding two powerful positions gives off whiffs of dynasty- building.
Mukhriz alludes to that, saying: "If I went his way, I could be the party's deputy president by now."
He acknowledges that there are parallels between him and Khairy in that both come from prominent families, but insists that the similarities end there.
They have known each other from childhood, when Mukhriz was a student at Sophia University in Japan and Khairy's father was Malaysia's ambassador to Tokyo.
But they are not close, given their 12-year age gap. Today, they have nothing but dislike for each other.
Mukhriz points out that his father allowed his children to be active in politics only after his retirement, much to their disappointment. Thus, he insists that he never really rode on the Mahathir name.

He is a businessman who runs a company supplying fibre optic cables to telecommunications firms. He also has other interests in the leisure industry.
He made his entry into politics when his father retired in 2003, and rose swiftly up Umno Youth's ranks. He polled the highest number of votes in the last party elections for a committee member post.

He is going into battle with a call for change. For one thing, he says, Abdullah, who has made many missteps since March, has to go within weeks, not in 2010.
He is equally blunt in saying that Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has very little time left to show his leadership qualities, and to take charge of a crumbling party.

He says he was disappointed that Najib was so indecisive when the party and country needed a strong leader. "I wonder if he might be the right guy for the job after all," he says.
Mukhriz says he is aware that Umno is seen as racist, corrupt and arrogant. And he thinks that race issues were badly handled when its leaders allowed emotion to drive the debate.
Umno Youth has traditionally been the radical arm of Umno; it's allowed that leeway and takes on a more distinctly Malay voice than its parent body.

But its current chief Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein took that mandate a little too far when he repeatedly brandished the Malay dagger or keris at Umno assemblies, despite protests from non-Malays that it was a symbol of aggression.
Mukhriz takes the line that Malay rights must remain close to the heart of Umno Youth, but handled in a more delicate way. "Emotions are running high now. We want things to cool off, but at the right moment and place, we still need to address issues in a controlled manner," he says.
He believes that the fundamental positions taken by the government are not wrong, as Malay rights are written into the Constitution. But he insists that this can, in no way, infringe on the rights of other communities.

"We have to understand that Umno, on its own, cannot win elections."
He is discreet enough not to criticise Education Minister Hishammuddin, who is likely to bid for a more senior post in the party polls. But Mukhriz makes it plain that he will not indulge in Malay rhetoric.

A balance can be found, he maintains. While Malay rhetoric has discomfited the non-Malays, he says the majority community now feels that it is expected to make all the concessions and swallow Islam-bashing without a peep of protest.

"There has to be a balance. We raise the issues when appropriate, but not in a way that would raise concerns among our friends," he says.
He uses the same word ~ "balance"- to talk about issues like freedom of speech and openness. To him, over-emphasis on individual rights can lead to a chaotic situation when there is an absence of leadership and vision.

These views may not be conciliatory enough to win back the hearts of non-Malays or idealistic youth "the largest bloc of voters to abandon the BN" but his prime constituency for now is the Malays. In particular, Umno Malays.

He firmly believes that a moderate stance with strong Malay leadership is the most stable position. "Umno is still relevant. The BN is still the best formula," he maintains.
Anwar, he says, was winning the war only by default - because people disliked Umno. "He knows how to manipulate sentiments, and he benefits from it,"he says.

Mukhriz's time may have arrived, or perhaps not. Malaysian politics is fluid. The Umno Youth battle, for a confluence of reasons, mirrors closely the bigger leadership struggle. And that alone makes it worth watching. - Straits Times Singapore

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