Will he go like a gentleman?


Speculation is rife that Terengganu will have a new Mentri Besar by May amid claims that Datuk Seri Ahmad Said had promised to stay on for only a year after the general election.

Joceline Tan

DATUK Seri Ahmad Said is quite a talkative man but the Terengganu Mentri Besar’s lips seem to be sealed with super glue in recent weeks.

The air is thick with speculation that he is on the way out. He knows that everyone is talking about it and a few brave souls have even asked him about it. But he would just flash his gap-toothed smile and try to move off.

On Wednesday, he told reporters: “If I say yes, you will say no. If I say no, you will say yes.”

No one could quite make out what he meant by that except that it was not a yes or a no and not even a maybe.

But Terengganu reporters are quite resigned to the Mentri Besar’s style. Ahmad, or Mat Said as he is known in Umno, is an approachable and simple man but they also know that he has a stubborn side and a hot temper. They know better than to push too hard.

The latest round of speculation has to do with an agreement made after the general election that he would stay on for only a year as Mentri Besar.

The agreement came about a week after the Barisan Nasional almost lost Terengganu, winning only 17 seats against 15 seats by Pakatan Rakyat. It was a political disaster especially given that Ahmad had assured his bosses in Putrajaya that he would deliver 29 out of the 32 state seats.

The clock is ticking and the renewed round of speculation over Ahmad’s fate has to do with the fact that it is only another two weeks to the one-year deadline.

Some claimed that Ahmad signed a letter agreeing to go after one year but a senior Umno politician from Terengganu who was privy to the letter said there was no mention of when Ahmad would let go of his post.

The senior politician suggested that the one-year tenure was more of a verbal agreement between the Prime Minister and Ahmad.

By right, the Mentri Besar ought to have taken responsibility and bowed out after the near calamity. Ahmad not only refused to go, but had apparently threatened to jump with two other assemblymen if he was not reappointed.

At that point in time, the 17 Umno assemblymen were summoned to Umno’s PWTC headquarters where they were quizzed about their intentions. Although not a single person said he would follow Ahmad out, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak could not afford to call Ahmad’s bluff because he was fighting too many fires.

However, all the assemblymen were asked to take the oath of allegiance or bai’ah in the name of the Allah. They also signed letters pledging their loyalty to the party.

Why the big excitement then if there is nothing in black or white about the Mentri Besar’s position?

According to the above senior politician, Najib had summoned two influential Terengganu division chiefs to his office a few days after Ahmad was reappointed.

The Prime Minister knew that Ahmad’s reappointment was not a popular decision. He was aware that it was like rewarding someone who had failed and was trying to hold the party to ransom.

Najib admitted that he and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin were deeply disappointed that Ahmad did not deliver the seats as promised. The Prime Minister had described the promise as “cakap suai” (empty talk).

When the pair told him that he should have let Ahmad jump, Najib said he did not want to risk the state falling. He told them the one-year grace period was to give Ahmad a “soft landing”.

Everyone is waiting to see if the “soft landing” will happen.

Palace ties

Ahmad came to power on the back of a sword. Then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wanted to reappoint the technocratic Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh as Mentri Besar but there was opposition from the Palace. The stand-off almost led to a constitutional crisis and the post eventually went to Ahmad.

Ahmad has struggled for respect and support because the majority of assemblymen after the 2008 election were supporters of Idris. He has a kampung style and has tried to build a reputation as a people’s Mentri Besar. But he has failed to win over the other side which remains critical of everything he does, more so after the last general election.

According to Terengganu research analyst Dr Azmi Omar, the issue of replacing the MB is no longer about Mat Said’s faction versus Idris’ faction. He said Idris is no longer a factor and is not even a division chief.

“The MB had a full term after GE13 to prove himself but he blew it. After he was given a second term, he failed to make improvements. He even went to Antarctica. Now he talks about saving the state after squandering the two-thirds majority we had to a mere two-seat majority,” said Dr Azmi.

Ahmad put many of his own men as candidates in the 2013 election and it was obvious that the dismal 17-seat outcome was partly caused by political sabotage on the ground.

He also has himself to blame. His critics accuse him of playing divide-and-rule politics and of undermining division chiefs who are not his men. He would appoint those opposed to the division chief as his special officers, give them allocations and they would move around the division as though they are the boss.

Appointments to the village committees are a big deal to the Umno grassroots leaders and Ahmad is said to have blocked the appointments of those aligned to his opponents.

When pressured by Putrajaya to remove a senior state government officer who was nicknamed “MB ketua”, or the second MB, he gave the man an even cushier job as CEO of Terengganu Incorporated.

Ahmad will always be in the shadow of his predecessor Idris, who is still the benchmark of excellence for many Terengganu folk.

Idris was Mentri Besar for only one term but he gave the state a new airport, a beautiful seafront esplanade, the Crystal Mosque, a Civilisation Park and a modern stadium although the roof collapsed twice. He impressed the people so much that they gave Barisan a thumping majority in 2008. More important, he gave Terengganu folk a sense of pride.

“During Idris’ time, when we come to KL, people ask about what was happening in Terengganu. Now when we arrive in KLIA, we want to hide our face,” said Dr Azmi.

Locals were quite prepared to give Ahmad the benefit of the doubt in his first few years. They liked his people-oriented style but somehow the disenchantment set in and the outcome of the 2013 election was proof that their love affair with him is over.

For a number of years, Ahmad’s clout had stemmed from the fact that he is the preferred choice of the Palace. Terengganu is overwhelmingly a Malay state and no politician in his right mind would want to be seen as challenging the Palace.

His palace ties lent him prestige and protection. Ahmad had even told close friends that he fears no one but the Sultan. Six years down the road, those ties are no longer what they used to be. The Palace is not against him but neither is it opposed to proposals for a replacement. The Palace is not an impervious entity, it is aware of what people on the ground are saying about Ahmad.

Possible replacements

There are claims that Najib has met the Sultan about the political transition and a few have gone so far as to suggest that they met before the Sultan left for Europe. But Najib keeps everything close to his chest.

Many in Umno are resigned to the fact that Terengganu will fall in the next general election if things continue this way. The 2013 outcome was a wake-up call and according to Dr Azmi, if there are no changes, it will be goodbye to Terengganu for Umno in the next general election.

“What upsets me is that the state nearly fell. But his supporters are now using the narrow majority as reason for him to stay on. If he had done well, people would have left him alone but he almost lost the state,” said Dr Azmi.

Apart from whether Najib will exercise the political will to act, the other question is who can take over.

Two names have been circulated. One of them is state exco member and Seberang Takir assemblyman Datuk Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman. He was the first to take Ahmad’s side back in 2008 and for that, Ahmad rewarded him with a senior exco post which is equivalent to being the deputy mentri besar.

But there has been some cooling off between them and Ahmad Razif has since been relegated to an ordinary exco member. Ahmad Razif, 49, has a master’s degree and is the most highly educated member of the state executive council, which includes an assemblyman with only a Form Three education.

Another potential candidate is Wan Hakim Wan Ahmad, a second-term Air Putih assemblyman whose father was former Mentri Besar Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Wan Ahmad.

Wan Hakim, 45, who graduated from the American Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, also has a master’s degree. He has done well as the Barisan whip in the State Legislative Assembly, he is humble and hardworking and, unlike many Terengganu politicians, he speaks good English.

Ahmad is a sort of family friend to Wan Hakim’s father who had taken the young Ahmad under his wing as some sort of “anak didik” or political pupil. He is known to Wan Hakim as “Abang Mat”.

Most of the hurdles to a change at the top in Terengganu have been cleared except for one last big hurdle – Ahmad himself.

No one can predict whether he will go like a gentleman or fight to stay on. Or worse, jump to the enemy camp.