AHEAD of a hectic week for Umno, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi set aside time to speak to theSun about the party, its direction, aspirations and challenges. The Umno vice-president, who has assumed the responsibilities of the vacant party deputy president’s position, also shared his thoughts about the coming general election and the challenges the party will face from the Opposition and the impact Umno’s splinter – Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – will have on its vote bank. Ahmad Zahid expressed confidence that Barisan Nasional will retain power in the next general election.
Here are excerpts of the interview by Haikal Jalil and G. Surach.
Q: After 70 years, do you think Umno has achieved much for the Malays? Some claim it has not done enough. Is it still relevant?
A: Of course, we cannot please everybody. Some things will take time but the government is a benevolent one. We take care of all sectors of the community. But the more we achieve, the higher the expectation of the Malays. There will surely be claims that it has not done enough. Rome was not built in a day. If one really studied the achievement of Malays, it is something we can be proud of. The government, via various policies and programmes, has and will always elevate the Malays. We will keep doing this until there is not much room left for complaints. And yes, Umno is still relevant, not only to the Malays but to everybody.
Q: Malays seem to be divided now more than ever. Umno was the sole power representing Malays but in recent years, it seems to be losing its appeal with some sections of the community. Do you think this is the correct perception or is it a passing phase the Malay community is going through?
A: It is natural for human beings to turn their heads to things that are new … like cars, houses, clothing, and even younger people. At 71, it is a challenge to maintain our attractiveness. However, I don’t agree with the perception that the Malays are more divided now. The divisions are mainly caused by some discontented quarters, and the birth of new parties are also attributed to this. But we managed to convince them to stay with us. We have done a lot to stay relevant and attractive, but each time we did something, we realised that a lot more needed to be done.
Q: Do you think Umno members are unwavering in their support of the party and its struggles? After 71 years, Umno now faces a formidable ex-leader in the form of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was the party’s voice for a good two decades and now he is singing a different tune. Has these affected members’ thinking? How much of it has had an impact on the Malay community?
A: Umno members are loyal to the party and its struggle. At the earlier stage of Mahathir’s departure, some members were a bit confused as to what was going on and what is going to happen. That is understandable. We carried out endless engagements with members at all levels. We countered Mahathir’s allegations. It worked. And it’s a fact that being at the helm for too long makes you look like a king, and everything seems right to the supporters. Malaysians should realise this. True enough, they are accepting the fact that his era is over.
Exclusive interview session with Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi at his office in Parliament, Kuala Lumpur. Nov 22, 2017. — Sunpix by Norman Hiu
Q: Umno has been accused of neglecting the poor, and is now seen by some as a party of the rich and elite or the party to join to become rich, and that the party only pays lip service to the poor Malays. How do you see this?
A: That is not true. Who are the accusers? Umno has about 3.5 million members and I would like to ask the accusers, are they all rich? Umno membership is open to anyone. If the rich want to join, are we supposed to reject them because we are so worried that by them joining, Umno will be seen as a party for the rich? Are we supposed to accept only those who are poor? People with different socio-economic backgrounds have different needs. We cannot deny this fact. But the majority of Umno members are those who are not rich and are ordinary people. They outnumber those who are blessed with extra money and because of that, Umno is seen as not helping the poor and only provides them with lip service. The accusation is baseless.
Q: The New Economic Policy (NEP), largely seen as the brainchild of Tun Abdul Razak and Umno, does not appear to have been very successful in lifting the Malays in the field of economy. Where do you think it went wrong? We still hear complaints from Malay trade associations and chambers of commerce that not enough is being done for Malay businessmen. Is this justified?
A: As I said, we cannot please everybody. The NEP was meant to nurture entrepreneurship among the Malays and the bumiputras by helping them to improve their standard of living and stand tall with others. What Tun Abdul Razak did was noble, very noble. There was nothing wrong with the NEP, or the policies introduced. But the plan was politicised by many. Some were saying the government only gives emphasis to the target group, which is the Malays, and they began to sabotage it. We also need to bear in mind that despite a helping hand from the government, the Malays themselves must strive to achieve the objectives of the NEP. They were receptive, but were also slow in implemen-ting it.
Q: Are members ready for the general election? This assembly should rally the party members for the polls. But will it be enough to boost morale and get them fired up for the election or must the Umno supreme council do more to get them on a war footing?
A: They are eagerly waiting for Parliament to be dissolved. They are all fired up. I don’t think we have any problem with their morale. All of us are waiting for the word “go”. The supreme council members have gone throughout the country to deliver the party president’s message, that is for each and every member to put any differences aside and work with other component parties.
Q: How much impact will Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) have on Umno? Will Tun Dr Mahathir be able to sway the Malays away from Umno? PPBM leaders talk of a big exodus from Umno when the polls are announced, stating many assemblymen and MPs are waiting to jump ship. Will this happen or is it just empty political talk? How do you see this?
A: Not significant enough to rock Umno. People are hardly attracted and interested to attend and listen to Mahathir’s “ceramah”. We don’t take him as a major threat in GE14. With all the bickering in the opposition camp, it is unlikely that they will unseat us. And the rakyat have had enough of their prophecies. Remember the September revolution? (Anwar had said that the Opposition will form the government on Sept 16, 2008, soon after the 12th general election). It never happened.
Q: Why do you think some young Malays are shying away from Umno? After all, many of their parents had in some way or other benefited from the party’s struggle. Should they not be attracted to the party’s struggle and ideals?
A: Youngsters are fond of doing things their way. They are attracted to new things, and have the desire to try it. While they are aware that Umno is the obvious party of choice, some of them just don’t want to show it openly. The smarter ones especially, don’t want to be seen as following the majority. They are not confident with other parties but because of ego, they talk and behave as if they dislike Umno.
Q: Do you think the relations between PAS and Umno has driven away non-Malay voters?
A: PAS basically likes to be a standalone party. It has disassociated itself from Pakatan Harapan. It claims it is mature politics and I think we have to respect its decision. Amanah, for instance, claims that it is stronger than PAS. It not only has the intention but is also working very hard and smart to take over the seats held by PAS such as Terengganu and Kelantan, for instance, and Kedah too for that matter. I don’t think PAS is going to collaborate again with Pakatan, or even work together with us based on the tahaluf siyasi (political cooperation) principle. Its strategy is to stand alone as an alternative political party.
Q: Can there be a Malaysia without Umno in the federal government? Do you think after 71 years there is this possibility that Umno and its allies will lose federal power?
A: How can that be when Umno is the backbone of Barisan Nasional, right from the days when the coalition was known as Perikatan. There is no BN if there is no Umno. God willing, BN will form the federal government after the 14th general election, and beyond.
Q: Felda is the bedrock of Umno’s struggle. It is a symbol and testimony of Umno’s help to uplift the Malay community. The plantations and settlements are a result of its vision to help Malays. But recent events, i.e. the Felda Global Ventures (FGV) purchase of London hotels, appear to have dented its image and created some anxiety with Felda settlers. Do you think these events will impact support for the party at the next polls?
A: We have engaged the settlers. There have been various non-stop programmes and events involving the settlers. We are going to create a “smart city” in Felda schemes starting with Felda Lurah Bilut in Bentong. This pilot project will start next year and we have allocated RM10 million. Basically, the smart city concept will offer newer business models to the settlers so they can generate income through internet-based businesses. Let me assure you that investigations on FGV is ongoing. The settlers know about it. And we in Umno will not interfere in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and police investigations. Those found guilty will face the axe. We will leave no stone unturned.
Q: Where do you see Umno headed over the next five years?
A: Umno will remain the key political player in Malaysia. It will forever cooperate with the rest of BN components for the well being of the people. BN has proven it, you can see the track record. So, why must they change that?
Q: If GE14 is called now, do you think the component parties in BN are prepared to lead the coalition into victory?
A: That is why we are assisting them. I think in terms of leadership, they are strong … stronger than in the previous GE. However, the problem is that they have been judged by the court of public opinion. The judgment sometimes is very unfair. It managed to portray a perception towards them. What we are doing is basically to manage the adverse perception towards them. – The Sun