Dr M drums up support for Umno

Top driver and VIP passengers: Dr Mahathir is committed to helping Najib and Umno win the general election. They are seen here with their spouses in a golf buggy during the last Hari Raya open house at Seri Perdana.

Top driver and VIP passengers: Dr Mahathir is committed to helping Najib and Umno win the general election. They are seen here with their spouses in a golf buggy during the last Hari Raya open house at Seri Perdana.

Umno’s grand old man is doing whatever he can to help Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak lead Umno and the Barisan Nasional to a convincing electoral victory.

Joceline Tan, The Star

EVERYONE seems to want a piece of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The Umno general assembly is just days away and the media has been after him for interviews. They want to know what Umno’s grand old man has to say about the party.

Just a year ago, the former Premier was still unsure and fretting about how Umno and the Barisan Nasional would fare in the polls. At that time, he could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.

But it was quite a different story last week. Dr Mahathir was sanguine and in a mellow mood despite juggling a hectic week. His replies to questions were brief, sharp and, well, rather cheeky at times.

The prognosis of the “Doctor In The House” – to borrow from the title of his best-selling memoirs – is that the party is in a much better state than it was last year.

Umno has made it out of the tunnel under the stewardship of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

This is a busy month for Dr Mahathir. Outside the suite at the PWTC where the interview was taking place, there was a hive of activity connected to his Perdana Foundation for World Peace.

There was an exhibition on War Crimes and inside one of the halls, the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission was hearing testimonies on war crimes against Palestine. Last year, the commission held a mock trial that convicted George W. Bush and Tony Blair of “crimes against peace” in the Iraq war.

Dr Mahathir’s commitment to the Palestinian cause is not just about commiserating with the Muslim brethren. It also has to do with his life-long conviction against imperialism and colonialism.

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But all that may not quite rival his commitment to Umno. Dr Mahathir has been working quietly behind the scenes, doing his part to assist Najib in drumming home the message that if Umno wants to win well in the general election, it has to stop the old culture of political sabotage.

He has met one state Umno delegation after another at his Perdana Foundation premises in Putrajaya.

“The key message was: do not sabotage the party. He told us, whoever contests, please support him or her. One of the reasons we did badly in 2008 was because our own people sabotaged the party. There is a Malay shift back to Umno so if we still lose it will be because of internal sabotage,” said Cheras Umno chief Datuk Syed Ali Alhabshi, who was part of the Federal Territories Umno delegation that met Dr Mahathir last month.

Umno plays a largely supporting role in Kuala Lumpur where it contests only three out of 11 seats but the session was packed because members were keen to hear what he had to say.

“It was a bit emotional for us, the fact that at his age he is still out there rooting for us especially when he said that even if his son is not nominated as a candidate, he would still go all out for the party,” said Syed Ali.

The hall was just as packed when it came to Selangor Umno’s turn.

“He said this is going to be the mother of all battles. He appealed to us to come together as one. We are at the crossroads – either we make it or we are finished. He was pleading with us, I thought he came close to tears at one stage,” said the Kapar Umno deputy chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.

Umno needs to go the extra mile to convince people that the party is open to change and reform.

Najib is preparing to embark on a bold slate of candidates that will include experienced as well as new and fresh faces. If he is going to convince voters, especially the undecided ones, that Barisan candidates are the team of the future, he cannot have people who have overstayed or those with baggage clinging on.

Najib’s problem is how to ease them off as smoothly as possible. Some of the people who are dropped may be Umno warlords and no one likes to be told they are no longer needed. Umno’s election history has had its share of the local party machinery closing shop or “tutup bilik gerakan” when their man is not selected.

Dr Mahathir has seen it happen many times in his 22 years as Prime Minister. He was almost disqualified in the 1999 general election because of an error in his nomination forms. Fortunately, he was able to submit a new set of forms before the deadline but his political secretary who prepared the forms had to quit after the election.

And that is why the party leadership is working hard to psyche members against internal sabotage so that they will be mentally ready to accept the candidate line-up when the election is called.

Dr Mahathir has also used the sessions to ask those present to give their full support to Najib so that he can lead the coalition to a convincing victory. He is aware of pro-Pakatan news portals carrying reports that he is trying to topple Najib and that he prefers Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

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Common agenda

The reports do not make sense because Dr Mahathir has no reason to want to topple Najib. Both of them have a common agenda – they want Umno and Barisan to win well, they aim to finish off Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s career, and they have no love for PAS and even less for DAP.

What many are not aware of is that Najib and Dr Mahathir have a warm relationship. Quite a lot of it is due to Najib’s personality because he has been able to maintain cordial ties between the two warring former premiers.

Besides, Najib’s office has many Mahathir admirers who understand that Dr Mahathir is not the sort of man who indulges in flattery or praise. He is an exacting man who gives credit and makes criticism in equal measure. When the elder man criticises government policy they understand that it does not mean he is against the government or their boss.

“We are very confident that Tun Mahathir is with us,” said a staff member.

Dr Mahathir has dropped by for tea with the PM on a number of occasions and the staff always behave as though a movie star has arrived. They rush to kiss his hand and have their photos taken with him. He is ushered up via the private lift and when he leaves, Najib personally sends him down to the car. Both men are also known to invite each other to their homes for dinner.

During the last Hari Raya open house at Seri Perdana, Najib left his lunch when he was told that Dr Mahathir and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali were at the entrance so he could escort them to the VVIP table.

At functions attended by Dr Mahathir, Najib often whispers to his staff to make sure than Dr Mahathir’s car drives out first when the event finishes. Protocol dictates that the Prime Minister’s car should leave first but Najib will insist that Dr Mahathir be shown the top respect. The Prime Minister’s aides are very aware of these gestures of respect.

Dr Mahathir has amused reporters with his tongue-in-cheek remarks about who is most suited to be Pakatan’s candidate for Prime Minister. On Wednesday, he said that DAP chairman Karpal Singh is the most qualified because of his legal background and the fact that he has been around so long.

“If he puts on his turban, he can compete with Nik Aziz (Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat) but he is not a Malay although that can be easily corrected,” he said with a broad grin. Actually, he added an even more cheeky remark that is best not repeated.

On Thursday, he told reporters that PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang is more qualified than Anwar to be prime minister because the former has no baggage. But he said that Hadi, who had referred to Umno as an “evil party” or “parti syaitan”, should know he is working with the devil himself.

“He is in a coalition with the devil. I know this devil. Hadi is in cahoots with this devil,” he said with a devilish grin.

It was vintage Mahathir. He was basically saying that Karpal is a good lawyer but has overstayed in politics, Nik Aziz has the religious but not the professional credentials, Hadi accuses Umno of being an evil party but is working with the devil and Anwar has too much political baggage.

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That is the advantage of knowing when to let go after 22 years in power – it gives him the licence to say what others cannot. Nik Aziz would be in the same privileged position had he kept his promise to step down after Dr Mahathir goes.

Nik Aziz marked his 22nd year as Kelantan Mentri Besar last month and Dr Mahathir is not about to let him forget the past.

“These people never keep their word. They are supposed to be religious people but people who don’t keep their word are not very religious. They called me firaun (pharoah), syaitan. It doesn’t affect me; it’s like water over a leaf. I trust the public; I think they can see through it,” he said.

Many people are simply amazed at the way that Dr Mahathir, 87, is going all out for Umno. So is Dr Siti Hasmah.

“I know Tun Siti was so sad when Kedah fell. They were outside Umno in 2008 but they are back and that’s going to make a difference especially in Kedah,” said Sungai Tiang assemblywoman Datuk Suraya Yaakob.

The former First Lady’s eyesight is failing but she is there at all the Umno functions. At the session with the Kedah Umno delegation, Suraya noticed that Dr Siti Hasmah’s eyebrows looked lop-sided – one eyebrow was only half pencilled in. They had a good giggle especially after Dr Siti Hasmah confessed that she had been at another function the whole morning looking like that.

Dr Siti Hasmah also confessed that she would sometimes ask Dr Mahathir to help draw her eyebrows. He would oblige but he would also tease that this sort of thing was not part of their marriage contract.

“They are such a cute couple, so devoted to each other,” said Suraya.

The former First Couple are equally committed to seeing that Umno succeeds in the general election.

“Umno enabled me to become Prime Minister. Now is my time to pay back what it did for me,” said Dr Mahathir.