Hishammuddin PM material? Think again!

Kee Thuan Chye

Kee Thuan Chye 

Some people are saying that from his helming the MH370 press conferences, Defence and Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein appears to be prime minister material.

I beg to differ.

He did the dumbest thing imaginable just a couple of days ago that showed that he was either not thinking or lacking in EQ (emotional quotient). It shocked many Malaysians that he was so insensitive.

It started with journalist Ismail Amsyar tweeting: “MH370 is a blessing in disguise for all of us. I understand now the beauty of unity, the sweetness of having each other.” That was appalling. How could anyone exploit the misfortunes of 239 lost passengers – and their worried family members – to delight in his own “sweet” discovery?

A person who had brains and heart would have straight away recognised the insensitivity of the tweet. No need even to have the qualities to be prime minister. And yet good old Hishammuddin tweeted back, “Right u are:)” Do note that it came accompanied with the emoticon for “smile”.

What was he thinking? Was he even thinking? If he wasn’t, that would be even more serious! Imagine a non-thinking potential PM!

But, seriously, are we surprised? Now people talk of him as PM material but have they forgotten the howlers he made when he was home minister?

I just have to mention three things that stand out.

One, his wishy-washy handling of the proposed protests by Muslim groups against the ‘Allah’ ruling right after it was made by the High Court in 2009. Instead of being firm as he was against previous protests, including those opposing the Internal Security Act (ISA), he sent out a vague message: The demonstrations could go ahead and action would only be taken if things got out of hand.

Instantly, his detractors cried double standards.

But that was not the end of the story. The next day, three churches in Kuala Lumpur were attacked with fire-bombs. And when critics pointed out that Hishammuddin was among those who should be held indirectly accountable for being ambivalent, he claimed he was misquoted. That seemed like standard operating procedure for ministers who had been caught out. It showed weak leadership.

Two, when protestors defiled a cow’s head to protest against the relocation of a Hindu temple in Shah Alam in 2009, Hishammuddin actually came out to defend them. He even told the media that the protestors could not be blamed as “they had no intention at all” to invoke racial sentiments. He said they felt victimised, and justified their illegal protest by saying the number of protestors was small!

Malaysians were bowled over. The home minister had turned ‘lawyer’ for illegal protestors who had insulted the Hindu religion!

That’s not the end of the story either. The next day, Hishammuddin did a U-turn. He now said the cow-head protestors should be charged for doing something that could not be tolerated. He claimed he never justified their action in the first place. What?! But there was a video of him at the previous day’s press conference showing a couple of the protestors seated cosily beside him as he explained that they were above censure. The video could not have lied.

The next thing we knew, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) summarily instructed Malaysiakini, the online news website that had recorded the press conference, to remove the video. Ostensibly to save Hshammuddin’s face. To Malaysiakini’s credit, it refused. So the record of our potential PM’s big-time faux pas is still available.

Three, Lahad Datu. Malaysians still facetiously call it the two-week teh tarik session Hishammuddin had with the armed Sulu insurgents before bullets started to fly and eight Malaysian policemen were killed. He explained that he was conducting diplomatic negotiations with them, but many of us were perplexed that he cut them so much slack. They had, after all, declared their intention from the start – to claim the area as their ancestral homeland. And they meant business with their weapons.

So instead of nipping the insurgency in the bud, the Government allowed it to escalate into armed conflict that lasted a few weeks and inflicted terror on Sabahans.

Let us also not forget how our potential PM got the nickname Kerismuddin. When he was Umno Youth chief, he unsheathed a keris at the Umno general assembly of 2005 and took a combative stance against those who opposed the New Economic Policy (NEP). It was also interpreted as a reaffirmation of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) and a hostile gesture aimed at non-Malays. Observers still say his antic was one of the factors that caused the massive drop in support for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) at the watershed 2008 general election.

Still think Hishammuddin is PM material?

If some people are impressed by him because of his handling of the MH370 press conferences, it could be because he came on after we had seen how Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) Director-General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman bungled. Compared to the DCA man, Hishammuddin could not but shine.

Besides that, Azharuddin’s English proficiency was pretty hopeless whereas Hishammuddin, with his privileged education in Britain, is comfortable in the language.

Even so, Hishammuddin has made some injudicious remarks throughout the crisis.

In defending Malaysia’s handling of the crisis, he was not shy to say, “I think history will judge us well” and “we have done quite an admirable job”. Was he not aware that self-praise is no praise?

He also crowed about Malaysia’s ability to get 26 countries to work together to search for MH370. “Not many countries can get all the most sophisticated planes from countries from every corner of the world to come and assist,” he said. He should know that in a crisis like this, any number of countries would have responded – not because the country in charge asked but because of humanitarian concern.

A netizen responded with a different take: “Could it be that 26 nations agreed to come together because they have little confidence in Malaysia’s ability to do it on her own?”

Hishammuddin told local newspaper Sinar Harian in an interview, “We are willing to … set aside the country’s interest to find MH370. What more do the people want …?” Sounds like that mischievous article by Utusan Malaysia that came out after the last general election. LOL. Hishammuddin might have felt frustrated, but good EQ would have restrained him from expressing it.

Neither is it judicious for him to threaten to sue media organisations for making false reports on the crisis. He should have stopped at “The Malaysian government has nothing to hide and I believe the truth will prevail.” It makes a big difference.

Nonetheless, our Malaysian media has been kind to him – understandably so. Our editors have been genuflecting for so long, they can’t feel their feet any more. But the foreign media is more forthright. William Pesek of Bloomberg View, for instance, points out, “The lamentable manner in which he has fielded questions about the search underscores how unaccustomed Malaysia’s leaders are to being questioned by anyone.” Pesek has not been the only reporter highlighting that.

As for the handling of the crisis itself, one has to agree with Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, who called it “an unprecedented failure”. Nothing has come out of the search after a month. Perhaps it’s time to sacrifice national pride and let capable and experienced nations take over.

Ismail Amsyar tweeted about unity. What unity? Some people are critical of the handling but refrain from expressing it because they are afraid they might be accused of being unpatriotic.

But the Merdeka Centre’s recent survey is enlightening. It found that out of 513 respondents polled between March 13 and March 20, 50 per cent said they were dissatisfied with the management of the crisis, while 43 per cent said they were satisfied.

Among the young, more were dissatisfied. In the 21-30 age group, only 35 per cent were satisfied, compared to 56 per cent who were not. And in the 31-40 age group, only 36 per cent were satisfied while 58 per cent were not.

That’s something for potential prime minister Hishammuddin Hussein to chew on.