IT was quite bizarre seeing Tan Sri Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, or Mr Bow Tie as he is known, on the dimly-lit stage surrounded by PAS leaders in a tiny village near Baling.
The usually debonair politician had dressed down for the occasion, wearing a white baju Melayu teamed with a brown and yellow sampin. Kadir, or “Kadiak” as he is known in the Kedah Malay dialect, had quit UMNO in a huff last month and this was his maiden appearance on the PAS platform alongside PAS President Datuk Seri Hadi Awang and Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak.
Politics in the new political landscape has often resembled TV reality shows – dramatic, quite absurd but oh so entertaining – and the Kadir episode is Kedah’s latest reality show.
PAS ceramah draw the biggest crowds when something new happens, and that evening the “new thing” was Kadir talking about why he abandoned UMNO. Kadir’s exit could not have happened at a better time for PAS in Kedah and it is planning to ride on him,
This, despite the fact that PAS leaders have, for years, portrayed Kadir’s “istana” or palace in Baling as an example of UMNO’s excess. His house does resemble a palace. It is an elaborate pink, white and gold monument built on an elevated piece of land and has a regal driveway, gazebos and ponds in the massive grounds.
The most unsettling thing about the “istana” is that it is standing on what was once the poorest district in Kedah. But it looks like PAS leaders are prepared to forget all the things they said about Kadir now that he is on their side.
Kedah is the shakiest of the Pakatan Rakyat states and PAS politicians are praying that Kadir will help them in Baling, if not the whole State. At 73, the flamboyant ex-UMNO minister is past his prime but is a famous name in these parts.
“My worry is that what he says will cast doubts in people’s minds,” said his younger brother, UMNO politician Datuk Aziz.
Aziz, who had cried, holding on to his brother’s knees begging him not to desert UMNO, is deeply disappointed about what has happened. But blood is thicker than water and Aziz is reluctant to say anything bad about Kadir. However, if PAS fields Kadir as a candidate, brother may have to fight brother in the name of politics.
From afar, Kedah looks like it is about to fall but, on the ground, the battle lines are quite blurred. People here talk about politics but not in the obsessed way of Klang Valley folks and definitely minus all the vitriol and hate found on the Internet.
Kedah politics is not as ugly or confrontational as that in Penang or Perak namely because the racial element is not as stark.DAP has a limited presence here and its sole assemblyman does not have a good working relationship with the Government.
PKR is hobbled by poor quality assemblymen, some of whom cannot speak Bahasa Malaysia. One of them is reportedly a medium who goes into trances. He was appointed a State exco member before the pressure to perform caused him to quit.
Kedah still has that small-town culture where everybody seems to know everybody. As a result, they are quite reluctant to say bad things about each other. It certainly makes for a more civil level of politics.
On the defensive
Quite a bit of it also has to do with the Mentri Besar’s personality. Azizan is an Alpha male with an ego but he is not a petty politician. He is highly educated unlike many of the other ulama in PAS and, as a true-blue Kedah man, he has an intimate feel of the ground.
Unlike his counterpart in Penang, he does not spend his days and nights attacking UMNO and blaming it for everything; likewise, UMNO does not attack him unnecessarily.But make no mistake, both sides are adamant about forming the next State Government.
The last few years have found the Pakatan Government on the defensive as they struggled with the demands of governing a State whose populace is still dependent on the Government’s largesse. Its inexperience was all too evident during the 2010 floods, and infighting in PAS over the last one year has affected the administration’s image and may jeopardise its party machinery.
State UMNO chief Dato’ Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah catapulted into the public eye during the big floods when he swung into action, setting up evacuation centres and organising aid to those affected.
Bashah is the assemblyman for Bakar Bata, a state seat in the urban Alor Setar parliamentary constituency. The old UMNO building located at the busiest intersection in Alor Setar has huge, billboard-sized pictures of him in action during the floods. His supporters wanted to put up billboards of such pictures in other parts of the capital but could not get a permit from the local authority.
Most accounts place Bashah as the Mentri Besar-in-waiting, an idea that he tries to downplay but you could tell that he liked the sound of it because his face immediately broke out into the sweetest of smiles.
But he said: “My job is to win back Kedah. The MB’s post, that we leave to the Prime Minister and God.”
Bashah looks like a fierce bulldog in photographs but in person he smiles easily and is the sort of Malay politician who calls everybody a friend even though he may have met you only half an hour earlier.
Malays make up 75% of the population in Kedah, and UMNO is confident that the 5% Malay vote swing back to UMNO will play out in Kedah more clearly than in other west coast States.
One of the reasons why the State fell was because Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was then waging war against Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Kedah’s most famous citizen has since thrown his support behind Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. His renewed presence in Kedah has also sparked talk that his son, Jerlun MP Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, is also in the running for the Mentri Besar post.
Another famous Kedahan, Tun Daim Zainuddin, has also warmed up to UMNO following some soured years during the Abdullah Badawi regime. The somewhat reclusive Daim has given strategic interviews to the Chinese vernacular papers in the last few months; many think he is trying to help soften the Chinese vote.
The views of these powerful men will not necessarily make people rush to embrace the Barisan but their endorsement, as they say in the advertising world, will help sell the Barisan brand. But Barisan’s biggest brand name is still Najib. He recently marked his third year as Prime Minister and has shown admirers and critics that he has what it takes for the job.
The Hokkien-speaking Chinese in Kedah often say “Najib eh yong,” meaning that Najib is capable.The Chinese sentiment in Kedah does not seem as hell-bent on punishing UMNO as their counterparts elsewhere.
According to Kedah Chinese Assembly Hall secretary Dato’ Tan Son Lee, the Chinese living in the southern end like Kulim and Sungai Petani tend to identify with what is going on in Penang. They tend to spend their weekends and holidays in Penang and a sizeable number do business or work there. They identify so much with Penang that when they go to Alor Setar, they actually say, “ki Ketah” which means “go to Kedah” in Hokkien.
Although the Chinese are generally not into the politics of PAS, they do not have major issues with Azizan.
“He is quite easy to deal with. But the people around him do not have the same thinking,” said Tan. Many Chinese businessmen, especially developers in the Alor Setar area, think the PAS-led government is not business friendly. The State Government has been reluctant to convert agricultural land for development and talk is that PAS is playing geo-politics; it is worried that the loss of agricultural activity will change the voter profile.
“Alor Setar does not have industries and housing development is a major activity. The projects going on are those approved before 2008 and the slowdown has affected downline activities,” said Bakar Arang assemblyman Dr Cheah Soon Hai.
Doing business under the Barisan was tough but they were finding out how much tougher it was under Pakatan.
In contrast, Sungai Petani is bustling with development. One knows that one is near Sungai Petani when billboards of housing and commercial schemes start to appear.
What the Chinese business community is most uncomfortable about is PAS’ tendency to attach religious foundations to policies. For example, its latest ruling forbidding any challenge to the state’s fatwa pronouncements.
Ironically, Azizan, despite his faltering health and having to fend off enemies from within, is his party’s chief asset. His moral high ground stems from the perception that he has not used his position to enrich himself.
He has two wives and his first wife’s house is a nondescript brick and wooden structure with peeling paint. He has eight children from the first family, all graduates and none, he emphasised, is involved in any of the State GLCs.
His second wife’s house is a sort of annex to his service centre in his Sungai Limau constituency. She is a teacher, and on the day of this interview, their daughter, the youngest of their six children, returned from school riding pillion on a relative’s motorcycle.
Azizan is also unapologetic about his regard for Dr Mahathir or even Daim.“People say I am close to Tun Mahathir, they are not happy. But he is a statesman, I want to learn from him. If not for Tun Mahathir, there would be no Universiti Utara Malaysia or Langkawi. He is the father of Langkawi’s development and I am co-chairman of Lada,” said Azizan.
His pet project, the Insaniah Kolej Universiti, is coming up beautifully in Kuala Ketil even though the issue over the suspension of several of the students earlier this year was damaging.
He insisted that he had no hard feelings against the two exco members, Datuk Phahrolrazi Zawawi and Dr Ismail Salleh, who tried to topple him, describing it as a “family misunderstanding”. But when the State Assembly sat on Monday, Phahrolrazi, who used to be seated next to the Mentri Besar, had been moved one seat down while the next senior figure, Datuk Taulan Mat Rasul, was moved up.
His rival who used to be second-in-line is now third-in-line. Azizan might seem feeble and laidback to the casual observer but he is quite the political animal and should not be underestimated. He intends to defend his seat in the election and, if his health permits and the party agrees, to continue as Mentri Besar.
Kedah is still awash with celebratory signs of their sovereign’s ascension as the King. Everywhere one turns, there are signboards and banners proclaiming “Daulat Tuanku” and “Daulat Tahniah” to the Royal couple. He is a popular sovereign and Kedahans are proud about their Sultan’s second turn on the throne.
PAS, on the other hand, is asking for a second term. They have been telling Kedahans that Barisan has enjoyed 50 years in power and that they should be given another five years.
“The 2008 election was a lesson for all of us. The next election is not about five years or 50 years but people can now compare who is better at serving them,” said Bashah. The battle for the hearts and minds of Kedah people has started.