By JOCELINE TAN
The anger and frustration among Umno grassroots leaders in Kedah and Penang was an eye-opener for the party's top leaders who are on a fact-gathering tour of the state where the Barisan Nasional lost.
THE venue of the Umno meeting in Alor Star had such a romantic name – Kelab Golf Cinta Sayang.
But the mood inside the club was anything but romantic.
The meeting between Kedah grassroots leaders and the Umno management committee was what a local politician described as panaih, the Kedah slang for panas or hot.
Fiery comments: The Umno management committee headed by Najib, seen here after a session in Penang, had to face a barrage of critical views from the party grassroots.
Kedah was the first stop for the management committee led by Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in its fact-gathering tour of states where the Barisan Nasional lost. The grassroots leadership at the divisional level is the power base of Umno leaders and their views are to be reckoned with.
Najib and his team had begun in Kedah on Thursday morning. And if they thought Kedah was panaih, their next stop in Penang turned out to be even hotter.
The party's top leadership has been aware of the unhappiness on the ground but the depth of anger, the extent of the grievances and the explicit calls for changes at the top, probably stunned the management committee.
The ground was not quite boiling over, but it was certainly simmering with frustration and resentment at what had happened to Umno in the elections.
“It was quite an eye-opener,” one committee member said the day after.
Or as one division chief from Penang put it: “The floodgates have been opened.”
Topping the list of grievances was the way candidates for the general election were picked.
There had, apparently, been a lot of high-handedness. Division chiefs, the people who run the party on the ground, had little say on the candidate list particularly in Kedah, which was largely decided upon by Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid.
As such, members did not like it when, at a forum last week, party president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi identified sabotage as a reason for the party's losses.
They said the leadership should have inquired into the reasons for any sabotage instead of pointing fingers at the grassroots.
Former minister Datuk Kadir Sheikh Fadzil, sporting his trademark bow-tie, said division chiefs like himself were treated like tongkol kayu (block of wood), meaning their views were ignored.
“The choice of candidate is important if the party wants the grassroots to support and campaign for the candidate,” said Kadir.
But basically, Umno members in Kedah and Penang are still seething over the fact that they have been reduced to being the Opposition and so soon after celebrating the 50th year of Merdeka.
Umno supreme council members also came into the firing line.
“We voted for you but you don't speak up for us. Instead you only say what the leadership wants to hear,” one speaker had said.
The perception is that Umno leaders are more concerned about their own political interests than the needs of the grassroots or the future of the party.
The last time such strong words were levelled at top Umno leaders was after the 1999 election when Umno lost the Malay mandate.
The Umno management committee comprises the party's seven most senior leaders and most of them looked solemn, even worried, as they took in the feedback.
Najib, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz could be seen furiously taking down notes.
In Kedah, where the oral culture is more loquacious, the terminology was colourful and the opinions direct.
In urban Penang, the language was a little more refined but even then, the speakers did not beat about the bush. The speakers, as they say in Penang, gasak or hit out at the leadership.
Some of them urged the federal government to cancel mega projects in Penang because they said they were fed-up at the way projects benefited only certain people.
Almost all the speakers in Kedah were critical of those who had launched attacks on Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The former Premier, one of them said, did not cause Umno's losses. Instead, claimed the speaker, the four parliamentary seats won in Kedah were linked to Dr Mahathir in some way – Langkawi where he has invested time and effort; Kubang Pasu, his old constituency; Alor Star where he was born; and Jerlun where his son contested.
“He was our PM for 22 years and contributed a lot. You mean to say that he is no longer our leader? Do not ever attack him because he is still our leader,” one speaker said to loud applause.
People like Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, Datuk Ahmad Shabery Chik and Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi were singled out for attacking Dr Mahathir. Information Minister Shabery got it worst because, as one speaker pointed out, he had once fought Umno on the side of then opposition Semangat 46.
Dr Mahathir may have more than his share of detractors outside of Umno but he is riding high in Kedah.
“They were very critical but it came from the heart. It made me realise how passionate we still are about the party and it gave me hope,” said Sungai Tiang assemblywoman Suraya Yaakob.
For the management committee members, the most awkward part was probably the calls for a leadership change.
Some were circumspect, asking “all leaders” to emulate what former Mentri Besar Tan Sri Sanusi Junid did when the Barisan lost in 12 state seats in 1999. Sanusi resigned although the Barisan still had a two-thirds majority over the state government.
Others were more direct, especially in Penang where they asked Abdullah to take responsibility. They even defined the succession line-up – Najib as the next president and Muhyiddin the deputy president. But the Kepala Batas and Bukit Mertajam divisions urged Abdullah to continue as president.
“Some want Pak Lah to stay, some want him to go. But he has made it very clear that he wants to first reunite and strengthen the party. It may take six months, it may take one or two years but so be it,” said a top party official.
However, when Johor Umno leaders asked Abdullah about his future political plans at a closed-door meeting on Friday, he indicated that he may stay till 2010.
Said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng: “It's not a good precedent if the president is forced down. It would not augur well for Umno the institution and I don't see Umno doing that. Till now, there has been no knock-out blow, just punches here and there.”
At this point in time, few in the party see Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah getting enough nominations to challenge Abdullah in December.
Even Dr Mahathir knows that however much noise he makes, he cannot unseat his successor. Only the supreme council or Najib, via a challenge, can do that and those two options have been dismissed.
Some people think Abdullah has tied up Najib's fate with him by naming him as the successor but the two men do have a genuine relationship even if some of the people around Abdullah do not feel 100% secure about Najib.
In that sense, Abdullah's position is quite assured even if not completely stable. He has been wounded but he has managed to stem the bleeding.
But the ground will continue to rumble and grumble and that may not be good for Umno or the country.
The odds are immense. There is Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim looming in the foreground. Umno leaders are bracing for another round of backlash when the branch meetings start in July and division meetings in September.
The divisional leaders in Perak, Selangor and Federal Territory will also be speaking their mind when they meet the management committee next week.
Then there is Dr Mahathir. He has reportedly flown off to London for a live interview on BBC's Hardtalk and has more speaking engagements on his return.
A great deal will depend on how Abdullah can salvage the situation over the next few months, both at the federal government level as well as on the party front.