Hishammuddin's career gets a big rebound with new post

Special Functions role could see Najib's cousin in pole position to become next premier, having survived previous missteps

Amid murmurs of tensions between Mr Hishammuddin Hussein (above) and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi - which Prime Minister Najib Razak has been quick to deny - Mr Hishammuddin is now seen as a challenger for Malaysia's top job after Mr Naji
Amid murmurs of tensions between Mr Hishammuddin Hussein (above) and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi - which Prime Minister Najib Razak has been quick to deny - Mr Hishammuddin is now seen as a challenger for Malaysia's top job after Mr Najib appointed him Special Functions Minister. PHOTO: FOTOBERNAMA

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has all the boxes ticked on his path towards Malaysia's top job.

The well-spoken son of a former premier, and grandson of the founder of the long-ruling Umno, he has taken up roles in key ministries such as defence, home and education, and was a popular youth wing chief - all considered stepping stones towards becoming prime minister.

But Malaysia's tumultuous politics in the last decade has shuffled packs across the board. Mr Hishammuddin's serene climb hit turbulence, becoming collateral damage in the power struggles of past and present Umno presidents.

Now, the star of the 55-year-old politician is shining again after his cousin, Prime Minister Najib Razak (their mothers are sisters), appointed him Special Functions Minister.

Datuk Seri Najib's use of the portfolio revived images of 1998, when then Premier Mahathir Mohamad handed the same title to Tun Daim Zainuddin at the height of the Asian financial crisis, conferring the latter wide-ranging powers to revive the economy.

Mr Daim's appointment was made less than three months before then Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim was sacked by Tun Dr Mahathir in a fierce power struggle that resulted in Mr Daim taking over Anwar's role.

Despite the narrative from the Najib administration that Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was supportive - indeed, some say he suggested the appointment - of Mr Hishammuddin's new role, the move has set tongues wagging over how Mr Najib is seeking to cement his position ahead of national polls speculated to be held later this year. An internal Umno election is due by the middle of next year.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute visiting senior fellow Wan Saiful Wan Jan said: "Within hours of the announcement, some are already suggesting that Najib is indicating to Zahid that the succession is not guaranteed to go his way because Hishammuddin could be a challenger too. What functions can be so special, such that nobody else can be trusted other than Hishammuddin?"

At the 2009 Umno party polls, Mr Hishammuddin strolled to one of three vice-presidencies having bided his time in the youth wing, which he led for 11 years. At the time, Tun Abdullah Badawi had just been replaced by Mr Najib as prime minister.

Mr Hishammuddin, aged 48 when he became vice-president, was seen as the natural successor to his cousin, as those above him in the pecking order were older than the premier.

However, 2013 became a year to forget for Mr Hishammuddin.

As Home Minister, he failed to fend off what was considered a ragtag bunch of Filipino gunmen trying to claim sovereignty over Sabah. It was Datuk Seri Zahid who stepped in as defence minister to quell the invasion.

Another poor general election saw Dr Mahathir flexing his muscles to promote his son Mukhriz to vice-president that year. Mr Hishammuddin, despite his seniority in the party, lost to Datuk Seri Mukhriz in terms of popular vote.

But Mr Hishammuddin, who is married to a Pahang princess, swung the support of delegates from that state - where Mr Najib is also a member of the royal court - to win the electoral college-based contest.

As Mr Zahid was by far the most popular vice-president, he took over the powerful Home Ministry from Mr Hishammuddin, and when Mr Najib sacked Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for criticising the government in 2015, it was Mr Zahid who stepped up as deputy premier.

Having weathered two years of repeated calls to step down over graft allegations and claims of economic mismanagement, Mr Najib now seems secure and likely to win a general election against a squabbling opposition.

Critics say the Special Functions role implies backing for Mr Hishammuddin to rise up the party hierarchy, given the iron grip on power that his cousin has re-established.

Mr Najib has been quick to say that there is no Zahid-Hishammuddin tension, in a response to murmurs that there were.

"Look at them. There are no arguments; they are good to each other and can sit next to each other," Mr Najib said last week at a public function. "The only thing they haven't done is kiss each other," he joked to laughter from some 5,000 people attending the event.

With the Premier busy putting pieces in place ahead of the national ballot, Mr Hishammuddin is expected to wield wide-ranging influence, especially in foreign policy.

It is a far cry from the days of being blamed for the loss of non-Malay support, after brandishing the kris - a Malay dagger synonymous with Malay supremacy - at Umno annual assemblies thrice before its shock 2008 setback.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline Hishammuddin's career gets a big rebound with new post. Subscribe