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Najib loyalist on fast track to the top

Mr Rahman (seated, left) and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan (seated, far left) signing the High-Speed Rail agreement last week. With them are (standing, from far left) DPM Teo Chee Hean, PM Lee Hsien Loong, Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Malaysian DP
Mr Rahman (seated, left) and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan (seated, far left) signing the High-Speed Rail agreement last week. With them are (standing, from far left) DPM Teo Chee Hean, PM Lee Hsien Loong, Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Malaysian DPM Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Sabah politician Abdul Rahman Dahlan is widely expected to contest Umno's V-P post

Many in Singapore might not have recognised the minister who signed off for Malaysia in last Tuesday's High-Speed Rail (HSR) agreement.

Because of the project's significance in Malaysia, the project is helmed by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) in the Prime Minister's Department and not by the Transport Ministry.

And it was Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan, Minister in the PM's Department in charge of the EPU, who signed off the HSR for Malaysia. The 51-year old is a relative newcomer to national politics, being only in his second term as a Member of Parliament.

The EPU, which is responsible for Malaysia's development plans, is a portfolio usually led by the most technocratic leader within the Barisan Nasional (BN) fold and who has the keen ear of the Prime Minister of the day.

While the father of three holds a degree in economics and management from Sonoma State University in California, Mr Rahman has not previously been thought of as a technocratic politician.

His star has risen stratospherically after the 2013 General Election. Mr Rahman took on the mantle of the ruling BN coalition's post of "strategic communications director" last year, stoutly defending Prime Minister Najib Razak in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) affair, while launching attacks against the opposition.

Mr Rahman, who was previously Minister for Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government, is now being widely talked about as the man to contest the vacant Umno vice-president's post, just two steps below the Malaysian prime ministership.

"I'm more willing, comfortable and confident if Umno's assets are in the name of the president," Mr Rahman said on national television after revelations in July last year that some US$700 million (S$1 billion) allegedly linked to 1MDB was deposited in Datuk Seri Najib's accounts. The Premier has insisted the money was a donation by the Saudi royal family.

Mr Rahman was constantly putting himself in the line of fire with statements like these, when many other Cabinet ministers were taking cover over the 1MDB scandal.

The Sabah-born politician was also the first government official to acknowledge that Mr Najib was indeed the "Malaysian Official 1" referred to by the United States as allegedly receiving money siphoned from 1MDB. But to Mr Rahman, Mr Najib was not named in the US lawsuits because "he is not part of (the) investigation and not a focus of this investigation".

Mr Rahman, who was previously Minister for Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government, is now being widely talked about as the man to contest the vacant Umno vice-president's post, just two steps below the prime ministership.

Umno has three slots for the vice-presidency but only one person is left, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is now acting deputy Umno president, while Sabah's Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal left over the 1MDB scandal.

Mr Rahman's close ties to Sabah's powerful Chief Minister Musa Aman - regarded as the state's most powerful politician - puts him in good stead to fill the so-called "Sabah quota" in the three-man VP line-up.

"Even though Rahman is fairly new to Umno's grassroots, if Musa endorses him, that will go a long way to ensuring he will take over from Shafie," S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times.

Born in Tuaran in 1965, Mr Rahman quickly involved himself with politics, being one of the founders of the North California Umno Club as an undergraduate in 1984. The avid biker was political secretary to Datuk Seri Musa Aman in 2003 and rose to chief political secretary.

As secretary of BN Youth's election machinery in 2004, he helped deliver a thumping victory for then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Mr Rahman first stood for office in 2008, coasting to victory in his Kota Belud ward, and became vice-chairman of the government's backbenchers club. He became a Cabinet minister at the start of his second term as a lawmaker in 2013.

Since then, his strident defence of Mr Najib against graft allegations has been rewarded.

As Mr Najib said after sacking Mr Shafie and deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin in the 1MDB fallout: "I will evaluate people based on their loyalty. There are a lot of smart people around, but to find those who are loyal is rare."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Najib loyalist on fast track to the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe