Hishammuddin keeps an eye on the big picture: The Star

Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein speaking at a news conference at the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov 3, 2015.
Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein speaking at a news conference at the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov 3, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

There is something different about Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

At first glance, it seemed to be his new super-fit look - he is lean, toned and only about 75kg.

Topped with his close-cropped hair, it is just the right sort of look for a Defence Minister.

From the neck down, he could have passed off as a thirty something-year-old.

But from the neck up he is, well, starting to resemble his famous father.

The weight loss has hollowed out his cheeks and deepened his laugh lines but his big nose or what face-reading experts would call the "lucky onion nose" is still as prominent as ever.

He has kept a healthier lifestyle after his health scare on the eve of the Umno general assembly two years ago landed him in hospital while the assembly went on in the Putra World Trade Centre.

It was not a heart attack as most people thought.

One of his arteries was completely blocked and the doctors had put in a stent. It is all cleared up now.

"I was so lucky, I could have died. It was around this time when it happened. God wanted me to stop smoking. By next month, it would have been two years since I stopped," he said.

He used to smoke up to three packs a day and on the day of his chest pains, he had tried to smoke a last cigarette before they put him in a car and took him to the hospital.

All that is behind him and it will be a fighting fit Mr Hishammuddin up there on stage at the Umno general assembly in a week's time.

But the new-look Mr Hishammuddin is not the only thing going on.

The Johor-born Umno vice-president has mellowed, he seems calmer, more patient and not all coiled-up like before.

He thinks it has to do with the fact that he is now a grandfather of two. The grandsons call him "tok dad" and his wife "tok mum".

His habit of bringing rhetorics into normal conversation has lessened and he is so much more relaxing to talk to.

Those around him think the "new Hishammuddin" is also a result of the wake-up call in the Umno elections two years ago.

He almost lost to another famous son, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, in the contest for the Umno vice-presidency.

It was possibly the lowest point in his political career.

On top of that, his then Home Ministry portfolio was like a pressure cooker and there was his health scare.

He was forced to do a reality check about where he was going.

Sometimes a YB's job is like that of an air stewardess - the job looks posh and glamorous but the reality is that it is about serving people and dealing with their demands.

He has realised the importance of balancing politics with his ministerial duties and now makes time for people and politics.

He has taken note of all the feedback especially complaints that he is too focused on his ministry work, was not accessible to Umno members and did not pick up or return calls.

Nowadays, if he cannot attend a wedding he tries to drop by a day earlier or he sends a video greeting to the couple.

"Umno is like that. It's a 24/7 job, you have to answer their calls, reply to their SMS texts, chit-chat with them. I told Hisham that, nowadays, we politicians have to be virtual as well as actual," said Pahang state executive councillor Datuk Sharkar Shamsuddin.

Many Umno politicians have been closely watching Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and the way he was able to control the party through his ups and downs.

They saw how his homestate Pahang was his bedrock.

If your homeground abandons you, then you cannot expect other states to come along with you.

Najib has also maintained the old ties and friendships with those who were with him when he was the national Umno Youth leader.

They are now holding key positions at the division level and they form his power base today.

Mr Hishammuddin has absorbed all that and he has been working on his Johor network.

A few nights ago, former Umno Youth politicians from Johor from the days when he was Umno Youth chief were at his house for a get-together.

Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin was also there and the former Johor Mufti Datuk Nooh Gadot presided over the doa selamat.

He obviously has some kind of political understanding with Khaled and they often post pictures of the two of them together on social media.

When Mr Khaled officiated at Mr Hishammuddin's Sembrong division AGM a few months ago, his speech pretty much signalled their political alliance and he had described Mr Hishammuddin as the "hope of Umno Johor".

Any Johor Umno politician worth his salt would have immediately read that as Johor's dream for the top post.

Mr Hishammuddin, on his part, conferred a Territorial Army award that carries the title of Brig-Gen on Khaled.

Politics is often a journey of ups and downs.

The survivors are those who know how to take stock when they are down and pick themselves up.

Mr Hishammuddin's public ratings have slowly recovered.

He was the acting Transport Minister during the MH370 tragedy and became the face of Malaysia when he took charge of the daily briefings for the international media.

The Defence Ministry is not what politicians regard as the people-type of portfolio. It is important for the nation's security but it does not bring the minister into the everyday life of ordinary people.

The plus side is that it is not as controversial as other ministries and the Armed Forces currently enjoy high ratings among the public.

Mr Hishammuddin has since described Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as the natural choice for Deputy Prime Minister.

He insists he was not disappointed and said that it was not his time.

Besides, having two cousins in the two most powerful jobs in the country would not be acceptable to Malaysians.

"Zahid is more senior, he is 10 years older than me and he was the natural choice. I really believe the party is more important than anyone else including me," said Mr Hishammuddin.

In fact, that was the prevalent theme throughout the interview -he said it many times that the party is bigger and more important than the individual.

It is something that many Umno leaders forget as they move up in the party, only to realise it when they are out. If the party is not with them, their voice does not carry, their image cannot shine and they become less relevant.

Umno is no stranger to political crises but the deputy president and a vice-president have been sacked from the Cabinet and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the most formidable Prime Minister Malaysia has ever had, is still hammering away at Najib.

Like many Umno leaders, Mr Hishammuddin is unsure and quite worried about how next week's Umno general assembly will turn out.

It is not going to be a normal assembly as most people know it.

For one, deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who had been holidaying in Japan, returned in an angry mood after learning that he would not be making his usual policy speech at the joint-opening of the three Umno wings.

Dr Mahathir is likely to snub the invitation to the assembly and will probably air his opinions in his blogs.

"Every assembly has been exciting, I can't remember a dull one. Umno attracts attention, its every move is watched and scrutinised. I hope the delegates remember that when carrying out their responsibilities," he said.

Mr Hishammuddin, 54, was born in the cusp years between the babyboomers and the Gen X.

It sort of explains why he can be rather tradi­tional and old-fashioned and, at the same time, contemporary and current.

Like many of his generation, he is still trying to strike a balance between the old way of doing things and the new expectations out there.

But he is not in denial, he recently told an Umno gathering that Umno is facing a "trust test".

The keris that made his then leadership of the Umno Youth wing so controversial is still around, kept in a glass case and stored in the more private section of his office.

The incident earned him the nickname "Kerismuddin" and lots of brickbats.

But a lot of water has flowed under the bridge and his image has evolved.

His youngest son Faris, who has a keen interest in his father's politics, is headed for Peking University in Beijing.

Like many Malaysians, Mr Hishammuddin has a pragmatic and futuristic view of China.

A framed calligraphy of the word hé (harmony) hangs by the door of his office. It originated from an encounter with a top general from China. He had asked the Chinese general what China's intentions were in the South China Sea.

The general said China wants to see harmony, peace and stability and he had written the word hé for Mr Hishammuddin, who then had it done by a calligrapher to remind him of the regional aspiration.

The framed brushwork has become a sort of conversation piece for his guests.

From keris to harmony - that is progress. The man has moved on.

But some things about him remain the same. He teased me about how, in an interview years ago, I had written about his old-fashion habit of wearing a vest under his shirt.

"I'm going to show you something," he said.

He lifted his dark jacket and there, vaguely visible under his shirt was a white vest. Everyone in the room burst out laughing.

But behind the laughter and the deep laugh lines on his face is a man with his eye on the big picture.

The Star/Asia News Network