By LIM SUE GOAN
Sin Chew Daily
All of a sudden prime minster Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced the appointment of Hishammuddin Hussein as special functions minister, sparking a new round of guesses.
The opposition camp has come out with several postulations:
1. It is Najib's exit preparation for Hishammuddin to take over the baton.
2. Najib no longer trusts his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
3. To help Hisham through the coming party elections. In the last VP race, Hishammuddin trailed behind agriculture and agro-based industry minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and sports minister Khairy Jamaluddin.
4. Najib has lost faith in the political and propaganda frameworks of Umno and BN, and will need a super minister now to put things in order.
There have been instances of the appointment of special functions ministers in Umno's history:
In 1970, then prime minster Tun Razak appointed Ghazali Shafie as SFM. In April 1972, Ghazali was reappointed SFM cum information minister.
June 1998, then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad appointed former Umno treasurer Daim Zainuddin as SFM.
There were special reasons for both appointments. Ghazali was tasked with the mission of drafting and implementing the New Economic Plan and the second Malaysia plan, while Daim's appointment was meant to thin down the power of then DPM and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, before the latter was sacked.
There aren't any significant incidents at this moment and the appointment of Hishammuddin is therefore rather unusual. Even Hisham himself has no idea about the job functions of a special functions minister.
Undeniably, as Najib's cousin, Hisham is a close relative the PM can trust best. Ahmad Zahid was picked as DPM after Muhyiddin Yassin was stripped of his post because Ahmad Zahid was Umno VP with the highest number of votes and therefore the strongest grassroots support. Back then Najib needed maximal grassroots support from the party. That said, Najib has never forgotten about his cousin.
Hisham managed to defeat Mahathir's son Mukhriz in the 2013 Umno VP race by a razor-thin majority thanks to Najib's blessings. That nevertheless drew the ire of Mahathir.
Among the opposition's postulations, I personally feel that it is least likely that Najib wants to bow out now. If he has wanted to step down, he should have done that much earlier, when he indeed had the opportunity to discuss his exit plan with the various factions within Umno.
And there isn't any conflict between him and Zahid, unlike the situation between Mahathir and Anwar back in 1998.
Given Najib's cautious style, causing turmoil in the party is the last thing on his mind. It is therefore believed that he would have had a heart-to-heart talk with Zahid before the appointment, and Hisham is working very hard to deny his involvement in power struggle while thanking the PM for his trust so that he could have the opportunity to assist the DPM.
I personally feel that Hisham's appointment could very likely be due to Najib's desire to let Hisham carry out the tasks related to general elections and politics.
1MDB and RM2.6 billion donation issues have dealt a severe blow on the image of Umno. This, coupled with the aggressive onslaught from Mahathir and Muhyiddin, has put Umno at a historic low.
In view of this, Umno has come up with a special project to salvage the waning support in the run-up to its 71st anniversary, which Najib believes Hisham is the best man to run.
Hisham's relatively good relations with other BN component parties do help a lot.
But, Hisham's appointment would invariably trigger some delicate changes in the party's power balance, and could potentially stimulate factional conflicts and tussles.
Najib may need this kind of counteraction strategy to help consolidate his leadership and position.
However, the key to keep Umno's power intact lies with the outside, not just intra-party unity and stability.
In short, changes have been taking place way too fast outside Umno, and the party's response has come a little too slow.
Economically speaking, despite the encouraging official statistics, the incomes of people in the street have trailed far behind the skyrocketing goods prices triggering widespread dissatisfaction. Umno leaders must seriously look into inflation, ringgit devaluation and other issues.
Religious harmony, meanwhile, is declining by the day. BN will not be able to win the support of non-Muslim organizations if Umno fails to tackle religious radicalism and extremism.
Currently Umno is only exploiting the RUU355 issue to engage PAS in a bid to divide the opposition camp without itself having any reform strategies to resolve our problems.
While Hisham's appointment may have stirred some waves, things will be back to square one very soon if no follow-up actions have been instituted, and Umno will continue to stay low.