Much separates two of UMNO's potential stars
Asiaweek 2nd May 1997
By Roger Mitton / Kuala Lumpur
CONTROVERSY IS ONE OF the distinguishing characteristics of the Youth wing of Malaysia's dominant political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Its leaders are known for speaking out where others fear to whisper. That's how many Youth chiefs, including deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim and education minister Najib Razak, established their reputations. Current leader Zahid Hamidi is running true to form -- galvanizing the movement with his outspokenness and making a name for himself in the process. As Johan Jaafar, the editor of the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia, wrote: "To many Malaysians, the lion of UMNO Youth is now roaring again."
Not that UMNO Youth is a band of unruly teenagers. It includes party members up to age 40, and the leader can be any age -- Zahid is 43. He made recent headlines with a fierce rebuttal to Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said Malaysia's southern state of Johor was "notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings." Zahid's response -- including calling Lee an "old fool" -- won him immense, but not universal, party support. As Johan wrote: "There are internal problems at Youth. Zahid is not without his troubles."
They center on the Youth chief's relations with his equally popular deputy Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, 36, known to all as Hisham. The duo present a fascinating contrast. Zahid's upbringing is that of an ordinary Malay; Hisham is the son of the late PM Tun Hussein Onn and grandson of UMNO founder Onn Jaafar. Zahid, who was educated in Malay-language schools and still struggles in English, got his degree at a local university. Hisham's English is flawless -- he qualified in law from Lincoln's Inn in London. Zahid is married to a Malay commoner; Hisham to a princess, Tengku Marsilla of the Pahang state royal family. Both went into business before politics: Zahid took over plantation-based Kretam Holdings and became chairman of the National Savings Bank; Hisham set up his own law firm.
Last year, they were elected No. 1 and 2 in the Youth wing. And their differences were thrown into the spotlight. Zahid concedes: "We have some problems, I must admit, but not that much." They appear to have begun just before the party election. There was talk they would run as a team. But with Zahid closely linked to the deputy prime minister, Hisham figured any tie-up would be seen as pro-Anwar -- and thus perhaps less than totally aligned with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. So Hisham declined and then found himself and his privileged background subject to attacks. His main rival for the No. 2 slot, Fatah Iskandar, began to spook some of Hisham's supporters. In the end, Hisham won comfortably, but Fatah got 40% of the vote.
Soon after, when organizers of a conference on East Timor in Kuala Lumpur ignored government warnings to cancel it, Zahid ordered his members to stop the meeting. They did so, violently, and several were detained. Hisham's subsequent comments indicated he was unhappy with the tactics. Zahid was unrepentant. The rumor mill saw evidence of an impending rift -- and confirmation appeared to arrive soon. Zahid put Hisham in charge of international affairs, but also appointed Fatah as the influential information bureau chief. Then Zahid dropped Hisham as head of the Youth wing in the deputy's home state of Johor. Hisham, told in advance by Zahid, had to accept the decision. Meantime, Hisham, through his ties to former deputy prime minister Musa Hitam, was also appointed alternate head of Malaysia's delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Recently while Hisham was in Geneva, Zahid set up a Malay Youth International Secretariat. This upset the Hishamites since the new body seemed to usurp the powers of their man's international bureau. Worse, Zahid appointed Fatah to head the new secretariat.
So, how are the odd couple getting on? Laughs Zahid: "We have differences, I must admit. But so far, so good." What about all the talk? "You are in politics, people would like to see a rift. How to stop them talking?" How does Hisham find Zahid? "Of course, politics being politics, it's not easy," says the deputy. "I have no problems on a personal level. But there are bound to be conflicting views."
Still, Zahid has said Hisham will succeed him. He says: "I told Hisham if you want it easier you just take over from me after two terms. He said okay, no problem." But if Hisham doesn't want to wait? "He can go ahead. I have to take the challenge." And if Hisham ran in 1999 against Zahid? Says one Exco man: "On paper, Hisham looks quite strong. But if it is a straight fight, it's going to be close."
Both men would prefer to get on with business. Says Zahid: "When 1999 arrives, let's fight -- if there is to be a fight. But before that, we should work together." Echoes Hisham: "The trouble is people pick on little differences to try and show there's a bigger gap than there is." He adds, "Me and Zahid go back a long way. We've managed thus far, lah."