The moment Zahid Hamidi pushed Ismail Sabri's arms away By James Chai
Tuesday, March 15, 2022
Malaysiakini : COMMENT | Not everyone was happy
when BN won a "landslide" at Johor.
When Ismail Sabri Yaakob walked into
the BN's command centre at the Johor Umno Liaison Hall, he was greeted
with a roaring "Bubar Parlimen!" (Dissolve Parliament) – a sentiment he
would strongly resist. He was unwilling to be the shortest-serving prime
minister. Not shorter than Muhyiddin Yassin.
Though he was the
prime minister, Ismail was not invited to give a speech at the victory
celebration. It was party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, still carrying
47 graft charges, who stole the show. After the two soft-spoken leaders,
former Johor menteri besar Hasni Mohammad and Mohamad "Tok Mat" Hasan,
gave their speeches, Zahid took the stage as though it was his inaugural
speech announcing a comeback.
"Don't forget to vote for BN in GE15," he said with his signature smirk.
he said something that turned the mood awkward: "Although officially,
Tok Mat was the election director (of Johor's state election) and Hasni
its chief coordinator, the main campaign manager was Yang Berhormat
Datuk Seri Mohammad Najib Tun Abdul Razak."
Zahid then stepped aside from his podium for Najib to emerge to the centre to wave to the crowd cheering "Bossku".
"This victory is a gift for Bossku," Zahid continued.
The tension among BN members on stage is obvious.
Hasni, who learned that he would not return as MB two days later,
forced a smile at Najib. Tok Mat, at the left of Zahid, held his hands
together, moving occasionally but never clapping. Wee Ka Siong, too,
held his hands together and then just lightly clapped and quickly
Ismail Sabri was willing to play along to keep his prime
minister role, but you could sense he would rather not if he was
stronger within the party. They all would rather not directly cheer on
Najib, but they too celebrated his popularity – they were part of the
Tension within Umno
the songs started to play, and the leaders lined up for a group photo.
Zahid, standing at the centre, realised that his best friend was nowhere
to be found. He turned and pushed Ismail Sabri's left arm away and
pulled out Najib to stand with him. The country's prime minister was
relegated to the back, barely visible in the group photo.
1MDB came crashing down, Zahid was the deputy prime minister, a stone's
throw away from the throne. In the years of Umno's wilderness, Zahid
maintained his grassroots support in clinching the party president spot.
was slated to take over the country's most powerful position after
orchestrating a coup on Muhyiddin's government. 1MDB wasn't him; he felt
like a scapegoat. But for his corruption cases, the prime minister now
would be he, not Ismail Sabri.
But that shove of Ismail is not
just personal resentment for a person he thinks is unworthy; it is also a
symbolic gesture of what is to come. This was the first major election
where Najib's role was directly recognised for his contribution, to the
point that nobody in Umno could deny.
The next step, as widely
speculated, is to use the "gift" of a Johor comeback to Bossku to pave
the way for a GE15 so that everyone in Umno would be free again. No more
1MDB. Start over, just like a video game.
I remember clearly, in
the early months of Malaysia's democratic renewal in May 2018, a lot of
analysts were warning about the fragility of democratic progress. You
need to protect the precious gains. If not, they would slide back to
authoritarianism just as fast. Look at Taiwan and South Korea. Protect
it with your life, they said.
At that time, I didn't believe them.
I was a naive 25 years old, who thought that the 1MDB corruption was so
large in scale that the scarring effect would stay with Malaysians
forever. That is our protection against any potential democratic
backsliding, I thought.
The shocking return of Marcos
then I started hearing about how democratic backsliding was very
common. Countries like Russia and Hungary retreated into
authoritarianism within years. Worse, the recent rise of Bongbong
Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as the next
Philippine president scared me.
Ferdinand Marcos's corruption was
eerily similar. His family was accused of amassing US$5 billion to US$10
billion when he was in power. He and his wife, Imelda, hold the
Guinness World Record for the "Greatest Robbery of a Government".
Hawaiian court, where Marcos was exiled, found Marcos to be liable for
torture, incarceration, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances. It
was the glorious People Power Revolution in 1986 that ousted the
president peacefully, forcing Marcos and his wife to flee the country.
Years later, Imelda was allowed back to the country. Ferdinand Marcos's body was allowed to be buried. Their son, Bongbong, is about to be the next president of the Philippines. Start over, just like a video game.
times like this, you only wish that there is someone who could put up a
good fight against the shadow of the former dictators. In the
Philippines, they are relying on the positive image of their female vice
president and former lawyer Leni Robredo to usher in a cleaner and more
In Malaysia, however, our hopes are wasted.
Old opposition leaders prefer to live in the past. Anwar Ibrahim still
wants to become prime minister. Lim Kit Siang wants another anti-Najib
week. Mohamad Sabu wants the old playbook of combining all the
No one is principled enough to step aside, no
one bold enough to do something new, no one cares enough to protect the
little democratic gains that are slipping away every second we waste.
don't know why, but I keep thinking about Tok Mat's hands during the BN
victory celebration night. If he had a choice, his camp (much smaller
in comparison) would prefer to rejuvenate Umno and dislodge it from the
During the lull where Zahid took garden leave, and
Tok Mat became acting president, there were signs that he could
consolidate power and swipe the slate clean.
But it was not to be.
Although he didn't clap for Najib when others did, his hands were
tempted and constantly moved. And when the claps continued for another
few minutes, he finally succumbed and clapped for brief seconds.
Zahid Hamidi pushed and Tok Mat clapped represented the same thing -
some forces are too hard to resist when you are part of the system.
it strange that we now place hope in Umno rebels instead?