I am not surprised that former Umno Supreme Council member Mustapa Mohamed has joined Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s PPBM, just as I was not surprised when he quit Umno more than a month earlier on Sept 18.
This is because his mentor in politics, Daim Zainuddin, is Dr Mahathir’s dependable right hand man.
I think Mustapa’s friendship and respect for Daim and Dr Mahathir, plus his character, triumphed over loyalty to a party of which he had been a member for 40 years.
Mustapa said Umno had made no effort to rejuvenate itself after the May 9 general election defeat. More important, I think, was his remark that Umno should be a moderate and inclusive party which takes the middle ground, adding: “I believe this is the best direction to take in a multiracial country.”
I know the man and I believe him when he talks about moderation and the middle path. I used to see him almost every other week when he was Daim’s political secretary back in the 1980s. Daim was then finance minister and Kuala Muda Member of Parliament.
I was based in Kedah then, and had to cover the finance minister whenever he came to visit his constituency. As Daim’s political secretary, Mustapa was frequently in Sungai Petani, attending to matters for the MP.
I have not had any contact with him for many years but he is one of the few politicians that I respect. He was, and still is, I believe, a silent worker. He was never flamboyant or boastful, always trying to remain in the shadows. The economist never struck me as a politician because he refrained from courting the limelight. I see him more as a technocrat.
Umno’s loss is, therefore, PPBM’s gain and I believe he will be playing a major role in PPBM in the years to come. I will not be surprised if, in any reshuffle, the MP for Jeli is appointed a minister. I think that will be good for Malaysia because he is the right kind of politician for a multiracial Malaysia: I have always seen him as someone who wants to help his fellow Malays improve their lives while ensuring non-Malays get their fair share as equal citizens.
And I know Daim, who also likes to work quietly, to be an adroit strategist. I believe he is playing an important role in writing the script for the disintegration of Umno.
In June, he had said that Umno members were welcome to join PPBM, adding that PPBM was established to attract disillusioned Umno members. Noting that PPBM then only had 12 MPs, he said it needed “soldiers and mid-level managers” and that the party could not function well if it did not have enough members.
Dr Mahathir himself has said several times that the end is near for Umno. On Sept 27, for instance, he said: “Umno is fragmented now, it is going to collapse. There is no future for Umno anymore because the people detest Umno.”
Certainly many in Umno are asking how there could be a future in Umno when, under his administration, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the police are investigating its former president Najib Razak, its current president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and who knows how many more, while also freezing Umno funds. Talk that Umno may be deregistered is also playing on their minds.
The Mahathir administration has already thrown a bunch of charges at Najib and Zahid, including money laundering and criminal breach of trust. Zahid may be asked to quit as president when the Umno Supreme Council meets on Nov 9; or he may decide to quit. With 45 charges against him, he will be burdening Umno if he does not go.
His deputy Mohamad Hasan may not be able to hold the party together. And there is no guarantee that he won’t be hauled up for questioning, as Dr Mahathir has said more people from the previous administration will be probed and charged. That may explain why many previously vocal Umno leaders are silent these days. Why open your mouth and attract attention?
The prime minister has denied that this is an act of revenge. He says he simply wants to bring to book those who abused their powers or cheated or were corrupt in the previous administration. Dr Mahathir wants a clean administration.
Some Umno leaders and their wives will certainly be losing sleep, wondering whether they will be called in by the MACC or whether Commercial Crime Investigation Department chief Amar Singh will drop by for a chat and to view their jewellery and cash.
Under the circumstances, most Umno grassroots members can be expected to be anxious, not knowing where the party is heading and wondering if Dr Mahathir is right when he says Umno is dying, especially when they see that the number of Umno MPs has dwindled from 54 to 47, with more to go.
On Oct 27, PPBM Supreme Council Member A Kadir Jasin said 40 Umno MPs might quit their party to join his party. He said these MPs had met both Dr Mahathir and PPBM president Muhyiddin Yassin to discuss this.
Both Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin have confirmed the meetings.
In fact, Zahid revealed that Dr Mahathir had invited him and other Umno MPs to join PPBM. “The message was very loud and clear that we must jump ship and join PPBM. We must dissolve Umno.”
One could interpret all this as part of a strategic move by Dr Mahathir to kill Umno, the party that he helped take to great heights but which, under Najib, vilified him and tried to downplay, if not erase, his achievements; a party whose leadership caused the police and other authorities to question him and his wife about several issues and even brought him before a Royal Commission of Inquiry.
Also, Dr Mahathir knows that Umno is his direct challenger for the Malay vote. He knows, too, that it will be easier to destroy Umno than PAS, which also depends on Malay votes, as the Islamist party has a party structure where loyalty is to rewards in the afterlife, not rewards here and now.
PPBM can, of course, work harder in the next general election to win more seats. But anything can happen in five years, even in two years time. Wouldn’t it be easier to take the short-cut and entice standing MPs from other parties into their party now?
Dr Mahathir himself has said PPBM is modelled after Umno. However, he wants it to be the original version of Umno, not the version under Najib.
Using ally Parti Warisan Sabah, he has already cut off one limb of Umno: Sabah Umno has told the national Umno it wants autonomy and has teamed up with a group of Sabah-based opposition parties to form the Gabungan Bersatu Sabah.
By destroying or severely weakening Umno, Dr Mahathir could prevent any Umno-PAS team-up from posing a major threat to PH in the next general election. He would be mindful that the rural Malay vote largely went to Umno and PAS in the last general election. PH will want to break this monopoly, and, again, Umno is the weaker link.
Also, without destroying or crippling Umno, PPBM will find it difficult to get more Malay votes. Without strong Malay support, it cannot win many seats and if it does not win many seats, the party will have to play second fiddle to PKR and the DAP in Pakatan Harapan – especially if, as agreed, PKR’s Anwar Ibrahim takes over as prime minister.
Right now, PPBM has six ministers, PKR seven and the DAP six, with the fourth PH coalition partner, Amanah, having five, although PKR has 51 MPs, the DAP 42 and Amanah 11. PPBM has 14 MPs, including Mustapa.
As long as Dr Mahathir remains prime minister, PPBM can call the shots but once Anwar or someone else from PKR takes over, PPBM will lose its power. If PPBM is to remain a powerful, if not the most powerful, force in PH, it has to be strengthened.
When Anwar takes over in two years, he will surely reshuffle the cabinet. Anwar can be expected to give PKR more seats on the cabinet to better reflect the party’s membership in Parliament. He may even be tempted to give a disproportionate number of ministerial posts to PKR MPs, just as Dr Mahathir has done for PPBM.
But if PPBM has more MPs, say 30 or 40, Muhyiddin, or even Mukhriz Mahathir, can stake a claim to be the next deputy prime minister, ensuring PPBM remains relevant.
For that to happen, Umno must die or be severely crippled.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not reflect those of FMT.