Why is Hishammuddin now special functions minister?

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By Lim Sue Goan

All of a sudden Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the appointment of Hishammuddin Hussein as special functions minister (SFM), sparking a new round of speculations.

The opposition camp has come out with several postulations:

1. It is Najib’s exit preparation for Hishammuddin to take over the baton.

2. Najib no longer trusts his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

3. It is to help Hishammuddin through the coming party elections. In the last VP race, Hishammuddin trailed behind Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

4. Najib has lost faith in the political and propaganda frameworks of Umno and Barisan Nasional, and will need a super minister now to put things in order.

There have been instances of the appointment of special functions ministers in Umno’s history:

In 1970, then prime minster Tun Abdul Razak appointed Ghazali Shafie as SFM. In April 1972, Ghazali was reappointed SFM cum information minister.

In June 1998, then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad appointed former Umno treasurer and former finance minister Daim Zainuddin as SFM.

There were special reasons for both appointments. Ghazali was tasked with the mission of drafting and implementing the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the second Malaysia Plan, while Daim’s appointment was meant to thin down the power of then deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, before the latter was sacked.

There aren’t any significant incidents at this moment, hence the appointment of Hishammuddin is rather unusual. Even Hishammuddin, who is the defence minister, himself has no idea about the job functions of a special functions minister.

Undeniably, as Najib’s cousin, Hishammuddin is a close relative whom the PM can trust best. Zahid was picked as DPM in July 2015, after Muhyiddin Yassin was stripped of his post, because Zahid was the Umno VP with the highest number of votes and therefore, the strongest grassroots support. At the time, Najib needed maximum grassroots support from the party. That said, Najib has never forgotten about his cousin.

Hishammuddin managed to defeat Mahathir’s son Mukhriz in the 2013 Umno VP race by a razor-thin majority thanks to Najib’s blessings. That nevertheless, drew the ire of Mahathir.

Among the opposition’s postulations, I personally feel that it is least likely that Najib wants to bow out now. If he had wanted to step down, he should have done that much earlier, when he indeed had the opportunity to discuss his exit plan with the various factions within Umno.

And there isn’t any conflict between him and Zahid, unlike the situation between Mahathir and Anwar back in 1998.

Given Najib’s cautious style, causing turmoil in the party is the last thing on his mind.

It is therefore believed that he would have had a heart-to-heart talk with Zahid before the appointment, and Hishammuddin is working very hard to deny his involvement in any power struggle while thanking the PM for his trust so that he could have the opportunity to assist the DPM.

I personally feel that Hisham’s appointment could very likely be due to Najib’s desire to let Hishammuddin carry out the tasks related to the general election and politics.

The 1MDB and RM2.6 billion donation issues have dealt a severe blow to the image of Umno. This, coupled with the aggressive onslaught from Mahathir and Muhyiddin, has put Umno at a historic low.

In view of this, Umno has come up with a special project to salvage the waning support in the run-up to its 71st anniversary, which Najib believes Hishammuddin is the best man to run.

Hishammuddin’s relatively good relations with other BN component parties does help a lot.

But, Hishammuddin’s appointment would invariably trigger some delicate changes in the party’s power balance, and could potentially stimulate factional conflicts and tussles.

Najib may need this kind of counteraction strategy to help consolidate his leadership and position.

However, the key to keep Umno’s power intact lies with the outside, not just intra-party unity and stability.

In short, changes have been taking place way too fast outside Umno, and the party’s response has come a little too slow.

Economically speaking, despite the encouraging official statistics, the incomes of people on the street have trailed far behind the skyrocketing goods prices triggering widespread dissatisfaction. Umno leaders must seriously look into inflation, the decline in the value of the ringgit and other issues.

Religious harmony, meanwhile, is worsening by the day. BN will not be able to win the support of non-Muslim organisations if Umno fails to tackle religious radicalism and extremism.

Currently, Umno is only exploiting the amendments to Act 355 issue to engage PAS in a bid to divide the opposition camp without itself having any reform strategies to resolve our problems.

While Hishammuddin’s appointment may have stirred some waves, things will be back to square one very soon if no follow-up actions are instituted, and support for Umno will continue to stay low.

Lim Sue Goan writes for Sin Chew Daily.

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