Crime-buster, with a no-nonsense approach

Malaysia's new Deputy PM Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is popular within Umno.
Malaysia's new Deputy PM Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is popular within Umno.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as deputy prime minister nearly 17 years ago on Sept 2, 1998, only two top Umno leaders bravely trekked to his house that same night, knowing they would be labelled "Anwar loyalists" amid the poisoned political atmosphere then.

One of them was Umno Youth chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. The other was Youth and Sports Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Datuk Seri Zahid was soon arrested under the Internal Security Act, accused of supporting the Reformasi street protests. He got out after a few weeks but spent the next six years in the political wilderness until 2004, when he was appointed a deputy minister by new Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin kept a low profile and chose to remain with the Mahathir administration.

Today, after many turns in political fortunes, all eyes are on Mr Zahid, 62, after he was handed the post of Deputy Prime Minister last week, replacing Mr Muhyiddin.

Just as importantly for Mr Zahid, who is from Perak, he retains the powerful post of Home Minister with the police, intelligence services, immigration and civil defence under his purview.

Mr Zahid's first job, after graduating from Universiti Malaya with a degree in literature, was as an officer with OCBC Bank in Malaysia. He then moved deeper and deeper into politics. Along the way he was political secretary to Datuk Seri Najib Razak when the latter was youth and sports minister, and later defence minister.

Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, asked about Mr Zahid's appointment last Friday, said: "He had the highest vote for the post of (Umno) vice-president. He is not only suited as the Deputy Prime Minister but also as the Home Minister."

In the 2013 Umno internal polls, Mr Zahid gained the most votes among the three vice-presidents. He has also sharply reduced street shootings among gangsters, sent immigration officials to nab illegal workers - and brushed away criticisms of heavy-handedness. He won praise in Umno for being tough with protests organised by the opposition and activists.

Just months after he was made Home Minister by Mr Najib in 2013, Mr Zahid suspended the screening of a local production, The New Village, saying it showed the Malayan Communist Party in a too-positive light. Meanwhile, another controversial movie, Tanda Putera, or Mark of Prince, was allowed to be shown despite complaints that it inaccurately and negatively portrayed Chinese Malaysians in the 1969 racial riots.

How Mr Zahid balances his no-nonsense approach with the sober deputy premiership once provided by Mr Muhyiddin will be closely watched. It won't be an easy task, as his boss PM Najib is facing a scandal that has deeply scarred not just Umno but also the country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Crime-buster, with a no-nonsense approach'. Print Edition | Subscribe