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MAY 12, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 18 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Umno's Men-In-Waiting
Behind five candidates for the three vice-presidential slots

Nail-biting is not a description that springs to mind. When elections for starring roles in Malaysia's dominant United Malays National Organization roll around, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad prefers his troops to reach a consensus behind the scenes. Forget the kicking and scratching that characterize the power plays of many robust democracies. Still, the race to secure UMNO's three vice-presidential slots has been vigorous, not least because the stakes are high. One of the trio could move on to be party deputy president and even president, which automatically conveys the mantle of PMship. The smart money is on incumbent Najib Tun Razak, Abdul Ghani Othman, chief minister of Johor state, and Osu Sukam, his counterpart in Sabah - although all five profiled here have serious claims.

Chan Looi Tat for Asiaweek
Najib Tun Razak: Caution and patience are likely to enable him to retain his advantage as the No. 3

The Sure Bet
A Chameleon is a superior political animal. And it doesn't complain, it merely adjusts. Najib Tun Razak has not only reinvented himself a few times, he calmly swallowed a sideways shift after the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim. But now - as defense minister and UMNO's clear current No. 3 behind Mahathir and his deputy Abdullah Ahmad Badawi - Najib can expect a complication-free run during the UMNO polls. He is the hot favorite to retain the vice presidency he gained in 1993. "Najib is head and shoulders above the rest," says Mohamad Abu Bakar, head of the strategic and international studies unit at the University of Malaya.

In fact, Najib is marked as the man to succeed Abdullah if Abdullah succeeds Mahathir, though he was similarly feted in the days of Anwar. "I cannot be too cocksure," Najib says now. But the 46-year-old son of Malaysia's second PM, Tun Abdul Razak, has all the right credentials and has made all the right moves. Elected to Parliament from Pahang state at the age of 22, Najib joined the UMNO Supreme Council at 25, was appointed Pahang chief minister at 28 and has been a full minister in Mahathir's cabinet for 14 years. "He has the advantage of incumbency, a fairly good track record, broad experience and he epitomizes the wishes of younger UMNO members," says Michael Yeoh of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute. "He is from a totally different generation from the current leadership."

Black marks against Najib are few. The biggest is his slender 241-vote winning margin in last November's general elections. It showed "a dramatic loss of influence, that he was tremendously out of touch," says a Western diplomat. "It would have knocked anyone else out." But Najib bounced back - just as he did after returning from school in Britain with comparatively poor Bahasa Malaysia and a taste for cigars. Just as he did after being adjudged a firebrand when head of UMNO Youth. Just as he did when passed over for the deputy PMship and moved from the influential education portfolio to the lesser one of defense.

Najib bagged the most nominations for vice president - 150 from UMNO's 165 divisions, nearly double those for his nearest rival, Abdul Ghani Othman. And he refuses to fret over the surprise leapfrog by Abdullah last year: "Members appreciated that I handled it in a very mature way. That has turned out to be a positive factor." How positive is the question.

The Rare Academic
If Abdul Ghani Othman were a superstitious man, the portents could be seductive. Not only was he born in Johor state, the birthplace of UMNO, he came into being the same year as the party: 1946. But Ghani is unlikely to need supernatural help. In his debut as a vice-presidential candidate, he scored the second-highest number of nominations after Najib Tun Razak. He also has a solid UMNO pedigree - having worked under two important UMNO Youth chiefs, Anwar Ibrahim and his successor Najib - and since has moved swiftly up the ranks to become a Supreme Council member. A private man with a squeaky clean reputation, Ghani has plenty of grassroots support and political instincts.

Some say a weakness is his intense focus. He is seen as all work, no play - though supporters report that Ghani indulges in a spot of zapin (traditional Malay dancing), sings karaoke and is proficient in jujitsu. As a thinker, he stands out. An economics graduate with a master's in political economy, he resigned as a faculty dean at the University of Malaya to enter politics. "He is one of the few academics to reach the top echelon," says Michael Yeoh. "He has a refreshing approach to problem-solving." Ghani frequently consults former colleagues, other politicians and the private sector for ideas and advice. Says University of Malaya Prof. Zainal Kling: "Ghani is willing to listen."

Politically, Ghani delivered all the federal and state Johor seats to the ruling coalition in last year's polls. His mobilization of the Johor Muslim community is said to be a primary reason for the failure of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia to make inroads. Since his appointment as chief minister in 1995, Ghani also has kept the faction-ridden state largely united. In lacking a federal power base, however, the 53-year-old Johorean may have to be content with a behind-the-scenes role. Says an Asian diplomat: "If he is rational about it, he should become a powerbroker." Ghani faces two other contenders from Johor, but the signs - an inopportune attack of shingles last month notwithstanding - augur well for victory.

The Politic Option
Treading Carefully is not Osu Sukam's style. As Sabah chief minister, he has little time for diplomacy in his quest to shake awake the sleepy East Malaysian state. "Stop whining and get on with the job," he reportedly tells politicians and civil servants alike. Osu is one of the "new breed who can't wait to get things done," says Sabah UMNO official Masidi Manjun. "He's trying to get rid of the burden of the past: money politics, timber politics, cowboy politics . . ."

But the 51-year-old lawyer and statistician has a lot more going for him than that. He is the first East Malaysian to contest UMNO's vice presidency - and that's a very important role. PM Mahathir is acutely aware of the need to have a high-level tie between distant Borneo and the national leadership. He's also aware that without any UMNO presence in neighboring Sarawak state, Osu's influence was critical in producing 17 of the 20 Sabah federal seats for the ruling coalition last year. Says a Western diplomat: "It seems that UMNO will be after Sarawak in the next couple of years and a vice president from [Malaysian] Borneo couldn't hurt in that regard."

A Bajau (one of Sabah's indigenous groups), Osu began his political career in the United Sabah National Organization and joined UMNO in 1991. After a stint as minister for land and cooperative development, he was appointed Sabah UMNO liaison chief in 1998 and became chief minister last year. Describing his boss as "proactive, slightly aggressive and very determined," Sabah's Masidi explains: "He's trying to introduce a new form of politics which involves problem-solving rather than making promises." Masidi says Osu has a national perspective, yet is also a consensus-builder. Political adroitness, then, is another string to the bow.

Even Osu's distance from the corridors of power could work in his favor: Rivals may feel he is little threat. It is whispered, as well, that Mahathir encouraged his candidacy. Should any further incentive be needed, the Western diplomat adds: "If the delegates are looking for candidates who really came through for UMNO in the general elections, Osu will be in good shape." Sounds like he is fighting fit.

The Prodigal Returnee

Wild Cards rarely come up trumps in the UMNO pack. Nor do those seen to be too outspoken. If that is not enough to quash Rais Yatim's challenge, then his eight years in the Semangat '46 opposition party of former UMNO rebel Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah could be the sealer. But the urbane Rais, 57, has the score on the board in terms of political experience, and is both cerebral and articulate. With a master's degree in philosophy and a doctorate in public law, Rais has practiced law and served in the government of three Malaysian PMs. He has been the chief minister of Negri Sembilan and a minister of land and regional development, information, foreign affairs and now law. "Rais is the prodigal son who has recently returned to the fold," says an Asian diplomat.

Consultative and pro-reform, Rais rejoined UMNO in 1996 with Razaleigh and won his federal seat in last year's election. Since PM Mahathir appointed him to the law portfolio, strained relations with the Malaysian Bar have improved. "Rais brings a refreshing change to the cabinet after his days in the opposition and his relations with NGOs," says Michael Yeoh.

Mindful that purists are unlikely to forgive his "defection" so soon, Rais is pitching at UMNO's more youthful brigade. "I can provide the younger candidates with my experience, looking at UMNO from the inside and from the outside," he says. "I am forthright and clear-minded about the issues to be tackled." He says these include the need for new ideas and approaches to strengthen the party's appeal to the younger generation. "Certainly UMNO needs some semblance of change," Rais says. "It has not been very successful in higher institutions of learning, for example."

Pundits believe Rais is one to watch. Notes an Asian diplomat: "The impression is that if he keeps a clean slate and does not upset the leaders, there are things in store for him." But maybe just not this time around.

Chan Looi Tat for Asiaweek
Abu Hassan Omar: "He may not appear dynamic, but he is a go-getter" says one admirer

The Safe Choice
Steady As he goes is the catchphrase for career civil servant Abu Hassan Omar. As a self-sacrificer extraordinaire for the good of the party, he appears to have won the confidence of PM Mahathir. The Selangor chief minister, 59, makes his debut as a vice-presidential candidate, having deferred three times to the state's former UMNO chief and current party vice president, Muhammad Muhammad Taib. Muhammad is also standing this time, but a colorful history and recent court acquittals on charges of not declaring cash and assets bode ill for his chances. In any case, Abu Hassan says his candidacy was a "collective decision" of the state's UMNO liaison committee. He doesn't expect to be sharing any of the Selangor delegates' vote.

A quietly determined character, Abu Hassan also thinks his time is ripe: "I have been a civil servant from 1963 till 1978, in the government since then, a member of the UMNO Supreme Council since 1984 and I decided it's about time to try to be vice president." Certainly Abu Hassan has delivered for Mahathir, who diverted him from cabinet in 1997 to fill the Selangor void left by the embattled Muhammad. "He [Mahathir] said he knew me," says Abu Hassan. "I had experience and I was clean." The PM also was delighted when the new chief minister, in his organizational debut, handed to the ruling coalition all the federal seats and 42 of the 48 state seats in last year's elections. "People thought Selangor would be the focal point of attack by the opposition," Abu Hassan recalls. "They tried their level best."

With a master's degree in regional development planning, Abu Hassan has successfully micro-managed growth in Selangor and advocates "integrated education." He says his bureaucratic experience and past ministries (welfare, federal territory, foreign affairs, domestic trade and consumer affairs) can "help to improve the party, help it to regain confidence and balance the young and the old." Says Abdullah Ahmad, a former UMNO Supreme Council member: "He may not appear dynamic, but he is a go-getter." That could be why Abu Hassan exchanged his favorite pastime (planting fruit trees) for the PM's (golf). A little dull, perhaps, but a solid man to have aboard.

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