Saifuddin surprisingly lost his Temerloh parliamentary seat to PAS’ Nasharudin Hasan. On Saturday, Saifuddin lost his Umno supreme council seat, another sign of rejection from Umno towards his progressive ideas and actions. But to top it all off, he even lost the battle to retain his post as the deputy chief of Umno’s Temerloh division.
COMMENT I first met Saifuddin Abdullah slightly over a year ago, when I was asked to go to Temerloh to cover what was called a “consultative council”. You can be pardoned for not knowing exactly how such a council works, because Saifuddin was the only politician doing it at the time.
Then Temerloh MP and a deputy higher education minister, Saifuddin sported nothing more elaborate than slippers and a loose shirt when he greeted me at a regular “kampung” restaurant.The man was a strong advocate of ikan patin, the trademark Temerloh dish, so much so that at that night, he was actually throwing a treat to all village heads and community leaders in Temerloh.
Somewhere in the midst of it all was I, an alien who sauntered into an unfamiliar environment not knowing how comfortable I am allowed to get with this deputy minister.But it doesn’t take long for this man to grow on you- he made me sit next to him along with two professors from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) who were there to study his methods of trying to solve community woes in his constituency. And what came next was a two-hour conversation filled with honesty.
I asked him everything I would expect to ask a BN or Umno politician, only so because he allowed me to. Every question was greeted with honesty, a smile, or mild laughter. I honestly thought, and still do think, whatever personal bias I might have, that he is truly the only one politician of his kind in Malaysia.
He ran a consultative council every few months to gather all village heads and community leaders along with related agencies to get them to communicate with each other in a single meeting room.
Saifuddin comes, officiates, and then spends the next few hours dedicatedly taking notes before making suggestions. Not at one moment did he “order” anyone to solve anything.
That’s just him – he doesn’t believe in solving just one problem for someone – he always thinks about a system that could solve all problems for everyone. To date, no one has successfully followed his footsteps in setting up such a council.
This was also the man who, despite being the deputy higher education minister at that time, stayed in Parliament till 4am to ensure that the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) was amended to give more freedom to students to be involved in politics.
Mind you, the UUCA amendments, which came with restrictions initially, were done by his own minister at the time, Khaled Nordin. But Saifuddin was pretty honest about the proposed amendments at that time and as to why more leeway needs to be given – he told me, back then, that “you can’t allow a person to get into the water and ask him not to swim”.
But all that feels like a memory now- in May, Saifuddin surprisingly lost his Temerloh parliamentary seat to PAS’ Nasharudin Hasan, a result many believe stemmed from internal sabotage.
It was understandable, he probably had more detractors in his own party than he had outside of it – his progressive views earned him brickbats, and his bravery in voicing against some policies did not appeal to the Umno grassroots.
On Saturday, Saifuddin lost his Umno supreme council seat, another sign of rejection from Umno towards his progressive ideas and actions. But to top it all off, he even lost the battle to retain his post as the deputy chief of Umno’s Temerloh division.
The Umno grassroots have rendered him positionless within the party. Yes, this man was often seen rubbing shoulders with opposition politicians, and was also well loved by student leaders who are seen to be pro-opposition.
But even all these opposition sympathisers who knew him well enough can tell you, Saifuddin Abdullah will not jump ship. That’s just not him. This is a man devoid of much political ambition, but has plenty of political integrity.
The tragedy here is that the Umno grassroots rejected a man who was probably more loyal to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s “transformation” clarion call than the party hardliners and top leaders themselves.
Even in the hours after his defeat, he told Malaysiakini that he will seek a meeting with the Umno disciplinary committee to work out solutions to eradicate money politics from Umno.
“I accept (the results). I didn’t play money politics,” was all he had to say.
However, he will not meet the disciplinary body to complain about his defeat.
“I’m not interested in changing the results, because it involved not only me but also higher positions too, and I’m aware people are not prepared to come forward as witnesses,” he said.
“Money politics is not a legal matter. It’s an integrity matter.”
Saifuddin has made it clear that he has not decided on his political future, though he will continue advocating New Politics, something he has talked about since 2006.
Chances are he will continue being an academic and a CEO of the Global Moderates Movement (GMM), while deciding on whether to have another stab at politics a couple of years from now.
Of course, there would be arguments that people like Khairy Jamaluddin represent the progressives in Umno – but that can’t be further from the truth.
For Khairy, who comfortably evaded the media when faced with responding to Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s apparent high handed statements, progressive is just a brand and an ideal he wraps around his political image.
But when it comes to challenging the norms, Khairy, just like other so-called BN progressives P Kamalanathan and Nur Jazlan Mohamed, spends half of his time defending his government’s actions rather than challenging them when people expect him to do.
But Saifuddin, as I have said before, is progressive both in thought and in action. There were moments where he backed down from commenting on certain issues, but he never shied away from the media – there was always a pat on the back, even an apology at times, and an explanation as to why he would like to stay out of certain issues.
Saifuddin’s defeat is not so much his loss or his problem, but it rather represents Umno’s and Najib’s own failure.
His deputy ministership was Najib’s handpicked appointment to the cabinet, a sign of the kind of progressives Najib wanted to include in his team – but when the political pressure cooker mounted on him after the elections, Najib did nothing but play to the political status quo and maintain the existing dynasty while pandering to right-wing sentiments.
And for Umno, the least said the better. Khairy’s claim that progressives will hold water in the party rings hollow.
At least Saifuddin Abdullah tried and will try, unlike many of us who feel comfortable making armchair criticisms. But the question is – will his failure deter those like him from attempting politics?