The appointment of Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein to the position of minister with special functions is one of the more curious political moves in recent memory. The buzz is that Prime Minister Najib Razak needs his first cousin as his right hand man. So one must wonder what must be running through the head of current DPM Zahid Hamidi, especially so close to a general election.
Zahid’s ambition has been noted by several quarters, with some critics believing that he veers too far to the right for the comfort of the public. Nonetheless, the DPM is a valuable asset to the Najib administration, but Hishammuddin’s sudden ascent has thrown the succession plan into disarray.
Hishammuddin certainly has a much better reputation with moderates than Zahid, and perhaps can be seen as something of a peace offering to those spooked by the new religious fundamentalist and ethno nationalist approach of Umno.
Unlike his cousin’s other lieutenants, Hishammuddin has kept a low public profile. While he is not looked to for an opinion like Khairy Jamaluddin is whenever a crisis erupts, he is seen as a quiet problem solver, brokering important defence deals in the Middle East and working with China on defence interests.
Overall, he is seen as better spoken and more temperate a candidate for leader than Zahid, but memories may be long when it comes to perceptions of a politician’s character. People still remember his belligerance as Umno Youth chief. He brandished a keris during his speech at the Umno general assembly of 2005. He might have to do a little work to shake off that memory if he is truly positioned to take over as Deputy Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, Hishammuddin’s presence may yet prove to be appealing to the more cosmopolitan of the right wing and an acceptable compromise for the moderates and the left. Such an appeal is something that BN probably feels it needs in facing GE14.
However, the appointment does not signal a complete shift to the middle ground. GE14 is shaping up to be defined as a Malay vs Malay fight. If one thing is certain, it is that all parties will fight over the hallowed motherland vote and the insults will fly thick.
Hishammuddin may yet walk out of this the biggest winner, but only if he is the contrarian of his party and maintains the professional image he has groomed for himself over the past decade or so.
There are some who theorise that Hishammuddin’s appointment signals the beginning of a transition, that our Prime Minister is preparing to step down. If that is true, then all eyes will be watching how he behaves during the coming election campaign period.
At this point, Malaysians simply want a win, and if that win comes in the form of an heir apparent with all his clothes on, it will be a positive start.
Scott Ng is an FMT columnist.