‘I’m not a seasonal politician’

RESPONSIBLE REJUVENATION: ‘You must have been here during Hishammuddin’s time,’ Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told Rashid Yusof, Farrah Naz Karim and A. Azim Idris at the end of a fast-paced interview at his Home Ministry office in Putrajaya on Monday. Inviting the New Straits Times journalists to take in the sight of the 12th-floor office, he produced the punchline: ‘Have I renovated the place in any way?’ The interview, which darted from security to foreign workers — ‘we are working for zero illegal immigrants’ — before settling on politics, made a number of references to Zahid’s predecessor at the ministry, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein. Essentially, Zahid was keen to crush thoughts and hints of comparison between Hishammuddin’s tenure and his somewhat swashbuckling debut as home minister. Comparisons are inevitable ahead of Umno’s expanded elections next month, when both ministers will defend their seats as vice-presidents. Here are excerpts of the interview, where Zahid addressed questions on Umno

New Straits Times

Question:  How does Umno filter frivolous candidacies for top posts and the supreme council leadership,  since the elections will be very open?

Answer: There are certain criteria set, which I don’t have to repeat, like the requirement to have served in  the supreme council. Apart from that, you cannot filter a contest. If someone is qualified to register as a  candidate, the system is there.

In the case of the three incumbent vice-presidents, we are working together closely. But, we welcome Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam or Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad to join the race.

The three of us (Zahid, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal) have been assisting the prime minister in specific roles and we have what is needed to strengthen the party and provide continuity in the Umno leadership.

We have to cooperate because we are the product of (Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak).

We were from Umno Youth. We have worked together over the last three general assemblies. Shafie took charge of the Umno clubs, Hishammuddin addressed issues and I handled the media. We were well-coordinated.

Question: There must surely be rivalry for the top-ranked VP post?

Answer: No, because we are not concerned (about) which one of the three positions (that) we get.

Shafie, during a speech in Taping, said anyone else can have the No. 1 and 2 positions and that the third spot is good enough for him.

Yes, we will be happy to be retained as VPs. That is good enough.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the third VP and he became the deputy.

Question: Is it really healthy for the incumbent VPs to make pacts? Don’t you think you are shrinking the space for democracy?

Answer: Anybody is free to make pacts. Others going for the post(s) can do so, too. It is not formalising an alliance; it is merely an understanding among us.

Question: What is the mood in Umno right now? It was clearly the biggest winner in the last general election, contributing 89 of 133 seats that Barisan Nasional won. But, it has not projected the persona of a big winner.

Answer: The mood … I don’t really know. How do you study the mood of 148,500 delegates?

But, I am positive that they would like to have leaders who can strengthen the party and are actively implementing government policies.

Question: How do you go about strengthening the party?

Answer: Number one, the party members, in general, are very complacent, partly because the Federal Government still belongs to BN and we are the backbone of the coalition. Even the candidates who lost are complacent because the Federal Government is still under BN.

They are still fighting among themselves. They keep the allocation for the general election just because they were not fielded as candidates and they want to use the money to contest in the party polls.

How can they do that? We have had enough of these so-called warlords.

Question: But, they (warlords) are still there… some of them contested and won.

Answer:That’s the problem. This issue has to be arrested as it goes against Umno’s ambition of rejuvenating the party.

Question: There is nothing to compel them to call it a day?

Answer: This problem is not just happening in Umno. My friends in Pas and PKR say it is also happening there.

Question: The concept of retirement doesn’t seem to apply to these politicians.

Answer: They will when they lose.

Question: Although age is a big factor, some who are 68 or 69 still think they’re vibrant with vigour and are young and fit. Why can’t they offer themselves?

Answer: I’m already 60. I feel young… at heart.

Question: Regeneration and rejuvenation of Umno seems to be the catchphrase leading up to the party polls.

Answer: I’m very confident of it because at every general assembly election, 40 per cent will be new faces, be it at the divisional or national level.

Question: How did the story about you contemplating the No. 2 post come about, so much so, that you have had to deny it?

Answer: It was a blogger from Sabah who wrote it, when there had not been a single word said on the matter. This was an attempt to put me at loggerheads with Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. He (the blogger) does not know my relationship with Muhyiddin. We have been buddies for a long time.

Don’t they know it is not a nomination system? Under this registration system, if I refuse to contest, who can possibly force me to?

Question: So, under the previous nomination system, one was sort of compelled to contest upon getting the required nominations?

Answer: In past nominations, I was encouraged to go for it (No. 2 post), but Najib, whom I had served as political secretary, advised me against contesting and I didn’t. It is even more crucial now that the top two posts are not contested.

We need to maintain the status quo, as a split in support for the president and deputy president’s posts will weaken the party.

Contesting any posts below that is fine.

Question: What would you say are your strengths that Umno members should consider in voting for the VPs?

Answer: I would say it is my grassroots support because I’m not a seasonal politician. If I have a ministerial programme, I will always meet with the grassroots. I don’t meet them only when the election is looming. You can see for yourself those waiting outside my office now; these are unscheduled sessions that I will oblige.

On paper, my appointments would be with about five groups, but those who come through my door every day when I am in the office are more than that.

I have at least 15 appointments with different groups. I never turn them away. It is just a matter of them having the patience to wait for their turn.

Question: You must surely be aware that you have somewhat been the ‘flavour of the month’ since you came to the ministry.

Answer: That is not my intention or objective. To me, whatever responsibility given to me, I have to translate into very serious action.

When I was in the Islamic Development Department (Jakim), people said whoever was minister in charge of the department would be out after a month. But, when I was there, what did I do? You know my track record when I was there.

I came in as someone without a degree in Islamic studies. I was a banker and I started my career in banking. I injected new elements of modern management into a religious organisation. I did it successfully. I revamped so many departments under Jakim.

However, the mileage is not for me to claim, as I believe it should go to the prime minister because he is the head of government.