Gentleman politician adapts to life as rebel leader

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin at a recent PPBM rally.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin at a recent PPBM rally.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

He spoke in mostly conversational tones, raised his voice to emphasise key points and cracked a few jokes to retain the crowd's attention.

Just two years ago, no one would have expected Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, widely seen as Malaysia's gentleman politician, to turn into a rabble rouser.

Yet there he was at Kampung Tebrau village in Johor Baru two weeks ago, speaking about the overthrow of Umno, a party he was associated with for 45 years.

Several dozen people were at the ceramah (political rally), many of them in the red shirts of his year-old Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).

Looking totally relaxed, Mr Muhyiddin also mingled with the crowd and took selfies, a far cry from his former image as a guarded and stilted politician.

Mr Muhyiddin was sacked as deputy prime minister in 2015 and then from Umno in June the next year for questioning his boss, Prime Minister Najib Razak, about the scandal surrounding state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

He then teamed up with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad - the long-serving former premier who also left Umno after a falling out with Datuk Seri Najib over 1MDB - to form PPBM.

"I never would have imagined that one day I would be again with Tun Mahathir at his late age of 92, and my late age of 70," he told The Straits Times. He threw in his lot with Dr Mahathir because the latter was "seemingly fighting a lone battle against Najib in his corrupt practices".

The duo have since been going around the country to drum up support for PPBM.

Questions have been raised about the party angling in on Malays rather than being multiracial. Pribumi is another word for Bumiputera (sons of the soil) that includes Malays and other indigenous races.

"There is a reason why we formed a Malay-based party… The opposition, they have not been able to draw the support of the Malay majority," Mr Muhyiddin said. "You can have a big majority of Chinese support and Indian support but if you don't have enough support of the Malays, you cannot have enough votes to form the government."

The four-member opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan (PH), includes PPBM. Its other members are Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, and Muslim-based Parti Amanah Negara, formed by a group of disgruntled politicians from Parti Islam seMalaysia. PPBM hopes to get support from Malay voters who are not keen to back any of the other PH parties.

Mr Muhyiddin's ability in pulling in Malay voters will be tested at the coming polls should he defend his home constituency of Pagoh in Johor.

Pagoh ward's of 46,800 voters in the 2013 elections comprised 64 per cent Malays, 31 per cent Chinese, 4 per cent Indians and the rest from other ethnicities. He won resoundingly as a ruling Barisan Nasional candidate, securing 64.8 per cent of the votes.

Reme Ahmad

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Gentleman politician adapts to life as rebel leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe