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November 30, 2000

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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek

MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

The Wily Prince
Razaleigh mounts a behind-the-scenes campaign for a top post in UMNO - and the nation

Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek
Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

Loyalty is a prized trait of the Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers serving in a number of the world's armies. For some years now, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the Malaysian prince from Kelantan state, has often compared himself with those extraordinarily disciplined troops. The implication is that he is a loyal member of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), committed to uniting the party rather than heading it. Lately, however, Razaleigh, 62, has been at the center of a bizarre political game. Speculation is rife that after a failed attempt in 1987, he is once again aiming for the party leadership. The spreading campaign could well turn into an open challenge to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's anointed successor Deputy Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi - or even Dr. M himself.

The drama unfolded late on the night of Feb. 17 after the Supreme Council of UMNO, the party's highest decision-making body, concluded a closed-door meeting. Led by Mahathir, the council's 46 members reiterated their Jan. 3 decision that when UMNO holds its triennial leadership elections beginning May 11, the PM and Abdullah will be nominated unchallenged as party president and deputy president respectively. The occupants of the two posts automatically become the prime minister and the deputy PM. Although Mahathir said that "the council made a unanimous decision" that the two party posts would not be contested, sources in UMNO say that not everyone had agreed verbally. Neither had there been a show of hands. According to sources, among those who said nothing was Razaleigh, who is an appointed member of the council as party liaison chief for Kelantan. Perhaps because there was no open dissent from Razaleigh, Mahathir referred to the prince's oft-quoted claim that he has "no plans" to challenge either the PM or his deputy. Said Mahathir: "I hope he keeps his word."

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On his way home to the northern state that night, Razaleigh told reporters that "maybe I am no longer needed" and that "probably that's why there is no support" for him. "But if members have plans [to nominate me] then I'll see first." The open-ended statement confirms what Asiaweek has learned from reliable sources: there is a nationwide campaign by Razaleigh's supporters to pitch him as a nominee for either of the two top posts in UMNO. "If you want me, I am available," is the message Razaleigh is understood to have sent out to the party rank and file.

That Razaleigh is positioning himself for one of the two top party posts was known days before the Feb. 17 Supreme Council meeting. Aware of the looming challenge, Mahathir had warned that a contest for the two offices would destroy party unity, fragile after last year's bruising general elections. For the first time in history, UMNO got less than half the number of parliamentary seats in the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, indicating that the party has lost significant support among the majority Malays. Most of the damage resulted from Mahathir's 1998 dismissal of deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim, whose reformist movement caught the imagination of many Malays.

Just how much of a threat Razaleigh is to Mahathir is not yet clear. A better idea of his potential strength will be known by the end of March, when UMNO's 165 divisions, with 2.7 million members, will conclude meetings to decide nominations for a range of party posts. Each division will elect 12 delegates who will attend the party general assembly in May and vote members to the various posts. Under a rule Mahathir introduced in 1987, anyone contesting the party presidency needs the backing of at least 50 divisions. (Contestants for the No. 2 post must have the support of no less than 33 party divisions.) Even candidates who win an election unopposed must have the minimum number of nominations.

Political tension is clearly building but is not manifested in formal campaigning. There are no reports of open campaign-related meetings anywhere. Rather, lobbying takes place wherever UMNO members gather to discuss politics throughout Malaysia. Neither Razaleigh nor Abdullah are touring the country to publicize their cause. That crucial task has been left to their supporters. Even Mahathir has been active, holding discussions with the heads of various UMNO branches.

Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah

Abdullah's supporters are portraying him as a "clean, trustworthy man, with proper Islamic credentials to lead the party in the future." In sharp contrast, Razaleigh's backers are steering clear of projecting him as a candidate for either of the two top UMNO posts. Reason: Razaleigh cannot afford to campaign publicly because the party's Supreme Council opposes a contest. The prince's camp is therefore hoping to capitalize on the substantial anti-Mahathir sentiment sweeping Malaysia, plus a general public demand for change at the top in keeping with the legacy of Anwar's reformist agenda within UMNO. Party sources admit that the dismissed deputy PM still retains considerable support in UMNO. Reformists in the party may not necessarily throw their lot behind Razaleigh, sources point out, but they are clamoring for a leadership change.

Razaleigh's strategy is to offer himself behind the scenes as an alternative to Mahathir and then try to gauge what sort of response he gets. This explains why Razaleigh has been saying that although he has no concrete plans to challenge Mahathir, if UMNO members want him to contest for the party leadership he will do so. There is a powerful precedent for the success of this strategy. In 1993, Anwar had challenged the incumbent party deputy president Abdul Ghafar Baba in much the same way - all the while insisting publicly that he was not contesting. When the nominations for the post came in, Anwar's name topped the list, forcing Ghafar to withdraw in his favor. So far, Razaleigh is said to enjoy the backing of a handful of UMNO old guard sidelined by Mahathir over the years. Razaleigh's supporters include Ghafar, who has criticized the Supreme Council's no-contest recommendation.

Razaleigh has tasted defeat at Mahathir's hands before. In 1987, he challenged the PM at the UMNO general assembly, losing by a narrow margin of 43 votes out of 1,479 ballots cast. He left UMNO in a huff with his supporters and formed an opposition party, but quietly returned to the fold in 1996. This time, if Razaleigh realizes that he won't get enough nominations for the top post, he will likely aim for deputy - after all, Dr. M has said that this may be his last term as PM. Winning, however, won't be easy. Razaleigh will have to fight Abdullah, 59, the cultured and suave politician who replaced Anwar as the party chief in Penang after the deputy PM was sacked. In last year's elections, UMNO won comfortably in Penang - to Abdullah's credit. (Razaleigh, on the other hand, failed in his mission to win Kelantan back from opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia.) As home minister, Abdullah won plaudits for his calm but firm handling of the Anwar crisis. "Abdullah is able and experienced," says former deputy PM Musa Hitam. "He has proved himself." People refer to him as "Mr. Clean" and "Mr. Nice Guy" - titles Razaleigh cannot hope to match. Yet another factor may work in Abdullah's favor. After all the bitter fighting between Mahathir and Anwar in recent years, many in UMNO want peace in the party, which a smooth election should help ensure.

But Razaleigh has already roiled the waters. On Feb. 19, he issued a statement that UMNO divisions ought to nominate their leaders by secret ballot instead of by a show of hands. This, said Razaleigh's spokesman Ahmad Shaberry Chik, will protect members from "possible threats or bribery." Abdullah publicly rebuked Razaleigh, saying such matters should be taken up with party councils rather than aired in the media. As the controversy built up, Mahathir surprised everyone by appearing to agree with Razaleigh. According to the party rule book, said the PM, secret balloting was not forbidden. In fact, he pointed out, the practice is followed in his party division. But each division, Mahathir added, was free to decide on how it should vote. The PM's comments have left Malaysians wondering why he appeared to support Razaleigh on an issue as sensitive as secret balloting. It is possible that Dr. M wants to keep Abdullah on his toes, while allowing Razaleigh to fight him. That way, goes one theory, the PM can pass his mantle on to the stronger man.

It is in this fluid situation that Razaleigh has captured the attention of the country. Hordes of UMNO members call on him daily at his residence. "Some are Mahathir's supporters, wanting him to contest the No. 2 post," confides one party source. "Others are Abdullah's supporters wanting him to go for No. 1." For now, about the only thing that seems certain is that backers of the PM and his deputy want to protect both the leaders from one man: the wily prince of Kelantan.

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