ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 12, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 45

Razaleigh with a portrait of his late father, once Kelantan's chief minister Chan Looi Tat for Asiaweek

The Leader in Waiting
Tengku Razaleigh could well be Mahathir Mohamad's heir apparent - if he can win his home state

He is a prince of royal blood with a populist touch. He has business expertise and cabinet experience in key finance and economic portfolios. He is a veteran political operator with a strong regional base and a national support network. He is a charismatic risk-taker who challenged and almost reached the top, tumbled off the mountain, and is now climbing upward again. Most importantly, he thinks, talks and acts like a leader capable of filling just about the biggest pair of shoes in Southeast Asia. He is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, and he looks set to become Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's heir apparent.

Myanmar: A Tale of Two Countries
Our correspondent goes on assignment to ASEAN's No. 1 pariah - and discovers that nothing is quite as it seems

Malaysia: The Leader in Waiting
Tengku Razaleigh could well be Mahathir Mohamad's heir apparent - if he can win his home state
• Claims, Counter-Claims: The new routine in Malaysian politics
• Meanwhile, at the Front: On the campaign trail in Kelantan
• ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Full Interview
'What Will Be Will Be' - That's Razaleigh's fatalistic take on becoming a future leader. Sure

Forum: Diplomatic License
An Asiaweek-PECC roundtable considers the regional impact of the East Timor situation

Indonesia: The Rise - and Rise - of Amien Rais
Is the MPR chief merely kingmaker, or the power behind the throne?

Thailand: The Politics of a Debacle
More fallout from the Krung Thai Bank affair

Malaysia: Now, the Sinatra Principle 'We all did it our own way,' croons Mahathir
The Maps to Power Voting districts lay a confusing quilt
Trial by Dirt Anwar's claims fill the court and the media

Malaysia Speculation continues over the election date (10/22/99)

Not to hear him tell it. "Many other people are suitable for that job," says Razaleigh, 62. "I have no plans at the moment". What he is doing at the moment is fighting as a loyal soldier of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, to win his home state, Kelantan, from the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) in upcoming general elections. "If I can pin Pas down here in Kelantan, then I can indirectly help other [Barisan-held] states which are under attack by Pas," Razaleigh says. But there is more to this battle than that. After the elections comes the UMNO leadership vote, and delivering Kelantan to UMNO would make Razaleigh the front-runner in the race to become UMNO deputy president - and eventually to succeed party president Mahathir. That may seem to be a huge step forward for a man who once led a revolt against the PM and spent years in the opposition, and currently holds no key government or party posts. But if Tengku Razaleigh can win Kelantan, says a senior UMNO member, "he's unstoppable."

Tengku who? While Razaleigh (Tengku is a royal title meaning prince or princess) has been keeping a low profile, he was a mover and shaker in Malaysia for years, first as head of Bank Bumiputra, the national investment organ Pernas and the state oil company Petronas, and later as finance and then trade & industry minister. But in 1987, Razaleigh challenged Mahathir for the presidency of UMNO. The fight was close - Mahathir won by just 43 out of 1,479 votes cast - and split the party. Razaleigh formed a group called Semangat '46 (Spirit of 1946, the year UMNO was founded), and joined hands with Pas. Together, they won every federal and state seat in Kelantan in the 1990 polls. But UMNO's grip on national power proved unshakable. Razaleigh fell out with Pas and drifted in the political wilderness until, in 1996, he quietly rejoined UMNO with many of his followers. Now, his time may have come again as Mahathir faces his first big electoral test in the wake of the dismissal of his former heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim.

Mahathir himself brought Razaleigh back into the limelight in June by making him UMNO liaison chief for Kelantan, a job the PM had held himself since 1987. The state will be ground zero in the upcoming general election. Galvanized by Anwar's fall and the disarray it caused in the Malay community, four major opposition parties have formed a united front. The largest of them is the Islamic Pas. Its base in Kelantan, the only state Barisan does not control, gives it a strong position from which to contest neighboring states in the "Malay Belt" in the nation's north, whose rural, conservative and Malay-majority constituencies form the heart of UMNO's support. But if anyone can stop Pas, it is Razaleigh. In fact he did it before in 1978, when he broke the party's 18-year grip on Kelantan to snatch the state for UMNO. "If Tengku Razaleigh can win Kelantan and create the perception that he attracted the Pas generals away from [other Malay Belt states], that would give him the moral mandate to go for deputy president of UMNO, or even president," says an Asian diplomat in Kuala Lumpur.

Not that he will be a shoo-in. Ahead of Razaleigh in the queue are Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Education Minister Najib Tun Razak. Both are UMNO vice presidents, and the post of deputy president traditionally is filled by one of the party's three vice presidents. (The third slot is currently empty.) Furthermore, Abdullah is carrying out the responsibilities of party deputy president at present. Within UMNO's national hierarchy, Razaleigh is merely one of 46 Supreme Councillors, and is not one of the 24 elected members (as Abdullah and Najib are) but was appointed in his capacity as Kelantan liaison chief. Moreover, bitter feelings remain over the split in UMNO he caused in 1987 and the opposition campaigns he waged. Having been out of government since then, he has not had the opportunity to perform the services and do the favors that translate into support at election time. And while Mahathir appears to have opened the door to Razaleigh, some doubt whether the PM has completely shrugged off the old fight. "I'm surprised people think the prime minister would forgive and forget," says a Najib supporter.

But both Abdullah and Najib have weaknesses. Najib is a former prime minister's son, and he has built up strong support networks as defense minister and now education minister. But he has a bit of a reputation as a fence-sitter, and has never had to fight for a position. "Always, there's been a vacancy and I moved up," he told Asiaweek last year. And at 46, many UMNO insiders think Najib should wait for the next round. Abdullah, 59, is a third-generation UMNO leader with a good Muslim background and a clean reputation, and he was picked by Mahathir for the deputy premiership to soothe domestic and international nerves following Anwar's ouster. "He [Abdullah] will be the successor. This is our tradition," Mahathir told a Japanese newspaper at one point. But as a foreign minister for many years, Abdullah has not had the chance to build up an extensive domestic network, and as UMNO's "Mr. Nice Guy," he may not have the killer instinct necessary to win a battle for the top. He had better get ready. "The final fight will be between Abdullah and Razaleigh," says an Abdullah aide.

The 'People's Prince'
- Name: Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah

- Born: Apr. 13, 1937, in Kota Baru, Kelantan.

- Background: Born into a prominent royal family. (His late father was once Kelantan's chief minister, and his nephew is the present state sultan.) Attended the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (also Anwar Ibrahim's alma mater). Later graduated with a bachelor's in economics from Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and qualified as a lawyer at Lincoln's Inn in London. Former finance and trade & industry minister, and onetime head of state-owned Bank Bumiputra, state investment body Pernas and state oil corporation Petronas. Independently wealthy. Just four years ago married his longtime friend, former Malaysia Airlines executive Yvonne Law (who is ethnic Chinese), now Cik Puan Noor Abdullah after her conversion to Islam.

- Personality and interests: Energetic, humorous, chatty. Both allies and opponents say he is generous and doesn't hold grudges. Plays piano and keyboards and likes to cook. Devours English toffee and local peanut brittle, but also takes flaxseed oil and costly noni juice (from the fruit of a shrub touted as a cure-all) to stay healthy. Nicknames include "People's Prince," Ku Kita (Our Tengku) and Ku Li (abbreviation of his title and name).

- Political strengths: Royal lineage and the favor of the Kelantan royal household. Loyal following in Kelantan state. Strong economics and finance background.

- Political weaknesses: Tendency to be over-confident. Tries too hard perhaps to please everyone. Has enemies in UMNO (even in Kelantan) who still remember how he helped split the party in 1987 and then played oppositionist.

Into that fight, Razaleigh will bring the experience of having come within a hair's breadth of toppling Mahathir himself, as well as two earlier attempts for the deputy presidency. He is wealthy, always a help in politics. Despite lingering resentment against him within UMNO, his former Semangat followers in the party make up a network of supporters. Though out of government, he still has an extensive circle of friends. When he was in government, he held key economic portfolios that let him build close ties with business, on top of relationships dating from his own days as an executive. (Neither Abdullah nor Najib have as much economic experience.) And Razaleigh has that gravitas that the successor of Mahathir - who has dominated Malaysia for 18 years, presided over its economic takeoff and punches way above his nation's weight as an international spokesman for developing nations - would be expected to have. Ibrahim Ali, deputy minister in the prime minister's department, compares Razaleigh to Mahathir: "They are both statesmen, both intelligent, hardworking and from the old guard."

In fact, if anybody can stop Razaleigh, it is Razaleigh. Ibrahim Ali reckons that Razaleigh can get "overconfident" at times. He misjudged the political situation in his failed 1981 and 1984 attempts for the UMNO deputy presidency, his 1987 challenge to Mahathir, and his subsequent leap to the opposition. Abdullah Ahmad, Malaysia's special envoy to the United Nations, thinks that Razaleigh's biggest mistake dates back to 1974, when he refused a cabinet post because then-premier Tun Abdul Razak (Najib's father) could not give him the portfolio he wanted. After Razak died in office in 1976 and his successor Tun Hussein Onn needed to choose a new deputy, Abdullah Ahmad recalls Hussein telling him, Razaleigh was the best candidate, except his lack of a cabinet position made him ineligible. Who eventually got the post? Mahathir Mohamad. And of course there is the matter of Kelantan, where Razaleigh must deliver the goods if he is to get a shot. "If UMNO doesn't improve on the 1995 results, his credibility will be diminished," says an Asian diplomat.

Pas currently holds 25 of the state assembly's 43 seats and seven of Kelantan's 14 parliamentary seats. The Islamic party has a strong grip on the deeply religious and economically backward state, while UMNO's organization is split between those who followed Razaleigh into Semangat and those who stayed with Mahathir. And returning to UMNO after swearing he never would may have cost him some votes. But Razaleigh has a hold on the affections of the Kelantanese. His blue blood plays well in a state which still holds royalty in reverence. He also campaigns tirelessly, talking to ordinary folks, cracking jokes, and listening. More than that, he is their man at the top table. "The ordinary voter is talking about giving Kelantan to Barisan today so that Razaleigh might be propelled into the premiership," the late Nik Abdul Rahman Nik Mohamad, former deputy chief minister of the state, said recently. Adds an UMNO member and potential candidate: "Tengku Razaleigh is the only Kelantan leader with nationwide support. There won't be another for 20 years. We won't miss this opportunity to give him leverage."

Nor will there be another opportunity for Razaleigh if he blows this one. At his age, he cannot wait for another UMNO leadership race. Younger party members hardly remember his glory days as finance minister, and younger leaders are coming up the ranks as well. And the timing will never be better. While no human force has ever humbled Mahathir, age will slow down the 73-year-old leader someday. Anwar's ouster removed the second-strongest man in UMNO. Party members tired of the Anwar saga may want a man who played no role in that fight (and has old anti-Mahathir credentials to boot). Razaleigh himself has kept carefully neutral. He does not rule out Anwar's return to UMNO - saying it is up to the courts and the party membership - which may gain him the sympathy of remaining Anwar supporters. But as a reformed rebel, he seems in many ways closer to Mahathir than ever. The PM broke his fast after Ramadan at Razaleigh's house this year, and the Tengku is seen as the man most amenable - even more than Abdullah or Najib - to ensuring that there will be no repercussions for Mahathir or his children after he steps down. And Mahathir may see backing Razaleigh as the best way to unite UMNO and to ensure an experienced hand on the economy's helm.

If UMNO wins Kelantan, then Tengku Razaleigh is on his way to becoming Mahathir's crown prince. If, at the same time, UMNO and Barisan do poorly in the rest of Malaysia, his time as leader-in-waiting may even be shortened. But if UMNO does worse than expected in Kelantan but does well nationwide, then the prince may never wear the crown. It's all up to the vote, which must be held by next August. And so Razaleigh is girding for battle. "If we are united and can mount an effective campaign," says Razaleigh in the state capital of Kota Baru in between campaign stops, "we can get 25 to 27 state seats and eight to 10 parliamentary seats." If he pulls that off, Razaleigh will have killed two birds with one stone - the Kelantan state assembly and its parliamentary delegation. And probably one more: the all-important UMNO deputy presidency.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


Malaysia: The Leader in Waiting
Tengku Razaleigh could well be Mahathir Mohamad's heir apparent - if he can win his home state
• Claims, Counter-Claims: The new routine in Malaysian politics
• Meanwhile, at the Front: On the campaign trail in Kelantan
• ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Full Interview
'What Will Be Will Be' - That's Razaleigh's fatalistic take on becoming a future leader. Sure

Quick Scroll: More stories and related stories
Asiaweek Newsmap: Get the week's leading news stories, by region, from Newsmap


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.