All eyes will be on Shahrizat

The Wanita Umno ladies have committed to stand by Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who has been badly hit by the cows and condos issue. But will the men be as kind to her at the Umno general assembly next week?

No one may ask Shahrizat to step down as Wanita Umno chief or from her Cabinet post. But as many have pointed out, she is no longer viewed as a winning candidate in the general election and that is something which she has to think about in the months ahead.

Joceline Tan, The Star

THE last few weeks have been awful for Wanita Umno chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

The cows and condos controversy has really rocked her and her family.

She returned from performing the umrah on Thursday night a little calmer, but the pressure is building up again as she prepares to face the Umno general assembly next week.

Were it not for this issue, Shahrizat would be riding high into the Umno assembly. She has done an excellent job as the Wanita leader and her Ministry of Women, Family and Community development has lived up to its name.

The senior ladies in Umno speak glowingly of her. She has brought women’s issues back to the centre stage and fought for a bigger role for women in the party, government and the corporate sector.

She may look like one of those society ladies who attend lunches and little else but she has been like a tigress on issues affecting women and the family. Shahrizat had to battle Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz for the post but she has since shown that she deserves to be there.

She has also worked well with the men in the party.

They like the direction in which she has led the wing and also the way she carries herself. Under her, the 1.3 million-strong wing has remained the party’s most loyal and steadfast group and is poised to play the role of the backbone of Umno in the general election.

“We are with her. She has brought change to Wanita Umno, allowed new faces to come to the forefront,” said Cheras Wanita Umno deputy head Zurainah Musa.

The Wanita Umno wing is standing by her. But outside of Wanita Umno, the mood is less unanimous.

For instance, while Zurainah is committed to supporting Shahrizat, her boss, Cheras Umno chief Datuk Syed Ali Alhabshi is finding it hard to defend the issue.

Cheras is an urban constituency and Syed Ali is dealing with a critical and informed Malay base.

“People have been calling me to ask about this issue and they don’t like it. I don’t want to whack her, I like her as a leader, but we want to win the election. I hope everybody understands that,” said the outspoken Syed Ali.

This Umno assembly is focused on the general election and, as several Umno leaders have pointed out, the scandal has hurt the party and the Barisan Nasional.

Shahrizat’s husband and National Feedlot Corporation executive chairman Datuk Dr Mohamed Salleh Ismail has gone to great lengths to explain the multi-million ringgit cattle project but public reception has not been good. The fact that the project went to her family makes it hard for party members to defend her, and buying those upmarket condominiums took the cake.

Syed Ali spoke for many in Umno when he said that Shahrizat cannot disassociate herself from her family on this project.

He is also unhappy that instead of defending herself, she is relying on the other leaders to defend her.

“What I am saying is that she has to accept responsibility. If she loves the party, she must make the right decision,” Syed Ali said.

Even Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in an interview with The Star, said Shahrizat has to “take the blame”.

The question on everyone’s lips is whether Shahrizat will face the heat at the Umno assembly.

The feedback is that she will sail through her Wanita Umno assembly on Wednesday.

Her ladies will not criticise or attack her. They may not even touch on the issue at all. But will the men at the main assembly let her off?

Many are comparing the controversy to the AP (Approved Permit) issue that almost derailed Rafidah’s career in 2005. On the evening of the Wanita Umno assembly, Rafidah had cried and declared her innocence before the Holy Quran.

The next day, the women showed their loyalty to her and there was not a single mention of the AP issue during the debate.

But on the final day of the main assembly, as Rafidah stood onstage to defend herself, some men in the audience booed and jeered her.

It was not a pretty scene.

Shahrizat may not get the same horrible treatment because she has a good rapport with the men and has not alienated them the way her predecessor had.

Although Shahrizat has not said much publicly, she has personally addressed her Wanita exco members and explained the issue to the wing’s division chiefs and information heads.

She has appealed to them to go home and explain what they have heard to the Wanita grassroots.

Syed Ali will be one of the speakers debating the motion of thanks on the president’s speech but he has decided to not bring up the NFC issue.

“I am reluctant to further damage the party. I have conveyed my views to the leadership and they know where I stand.”

No one may ask Shahrizat to step down as Wanita Umno chief or from her Cabinet post.

But as many have pointed out, she is no longer viewed as a winning candidate in the general election and that is something which she has to think about in the months ahead.

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