The View From Asia

Men to watch, political moves to monitor as polls near

Asia News Network commentators muse about leaders and political ties in upcoming polls. Here are excerpts:

Hishammuddin in running for PM?

Joceline Tan
The Star, Malaysia

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein's office was buzzing with activity.

The Australian Air Force chief was there to make a courtesy call and there were uniformed personnel going up and down the narrow corridors of his fifth-floor office in the Defence Ministry.

The Defence Minister had been swamped by interview requests ahead of the Umno general assembly. It was one of those weeks where there were simply too few hours in a day.

On Nov 24, he flew off to attend the Islamic Military Alliance meeting in Riyadh where he is seen as Malaysia's point man in his capacity as Special Functions Minister.

It has been a busy year and, as consulting firm KRA's strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim noted, it has also been a good year for the Umno vice-president.

His appointment to a second portfolio earlier this year caused ripples because it was, rightly or wrongly, seen as a foot in the door to bigger things in Umno.

"The perception out there is that the appointment has reinforced his seniority not just in the Cabinet, but also in the party," said Mr Amir.

It places him squarely in the third most senior spot in the party.

Close ties with Saudi Arabia are a big deal for Malaysia not only because of the oil money, but also because that is where Islam's most holy city is located.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein's (centre) defence duties have given him access to the international stage, and he has made his work relevant to contemporary issues like militancy and terrorism. PHOTO: NEW STRAITS TIMES

The Defence Ministry is not the most coveted portfolio for ambitious Umno leaders but somehow, Mr Hishammuddin has made his work relevant to contemporary issues like militancy and terrorism.

His defence duties take him out of the everyday life of the average Malaysians but have given him access to the international stage.

"To be a complete leader, you need to be tested at different levels," said former Umno MP Tawfik Ismail. Age and experience have also made him more tolerant and accessible, and ordinary people can sense that.


Politics is about experience. He has gone through a journey of experiences and he's a better man today.


It is interesting how his image in the eyes of the party has shifted.

"Politics is about experience. He has gone through a journey of experiences and he's a better man today," said Second Finance MinisterJohari Abdul Ghani.

Mr Hishammuddin is increasingly seen as prime minister material for the way he has committed to his two portfolios and the way he interacts with people from high to low.

"At the moment, he is quite a good alternative, he's definitely in the running," said Mr Tawfik.

Mr Hishammuddin is quite uncomfortable about this topic and he refuses to go anywhere near it. He said posts and positions have to take a secondary place to the priority of winning a strong election mandate, or else "we have to succumb to all kinds (of) blackmail and unreasonable demands".

The Umno general assembly next week will be very much about locking in the Malay support because there are now more Malay parties out there fishing for the Malay vote.

The Malays-and-Islam rhetoric will dominate but, said Mr Hishammuddin, it is a complex world out there and the Umno narrative also has to appeal to the larger population.

"If we win without the support of non-Malays, we will pay a cost as a nation. Whether we like it or not, we are all stakeholders in Malaysia and that has to be translated into support. My biggest fear is not about losing the general election, but winning it without the support of the non-Malays," he said.

Cambodia's one-eyed strongman

Ramon Farolan
Philippine Daily Inquirer,
The Philippines

In the star-studded cast of visiting dignitaries for the 31st Asean Summit, very few people noticed and little was said about Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen. But after president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe resigned from office last month, Mr Hun Sen became the world's longest-serving head of government, in a monarchy led by King Norodom Sihamoni.

At a young age, Mr Hun Sen left school to join the Khmer Rouge, rising through the ranks to become a battalion commander. In 1975, during the battle for Phnom Penh, he lost his left eye. He eventually left the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot's genocidal regime that claimed some 1.7 million victims, and fled to Vietnam. In 1985, he returned with Vietnamese forces and at the age of 35, became prime minister. Except for a brief period, he has held on to power up to this date.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Cambodia dissolved the country's opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, and arrested its leader, Kem Sokha, for an alleged plot to overthrow the government with the help of the United States.

As many as 118 party members were prohibited from engaging in political activity for a period of five years.

What a way to silence and crush the opposition!

In response to these actions by the Cambodian government, the US announced that it was ending funding support for local and general elections scheduled next year. A government spokesman replied that "Hun Sen welcomes and encourages the US to cut off aid".

Chinese support allows Cambodia much flexibility in ignoring Western criticisms. In fact, China spends more than the US does in highly visible infrastructure projects in Cambodia, without any demand for government reform.

Today, Mr Hun Sen is in complete control over the Khmer nation and will most likely remain in power after the next elections.

Thinking the unthinkable

Suthichai Yoon
The Nation,

If you want to stir a huge debate among friends at this point, when no one is sure when the next election will take place, there is one sure way to ignite a really heated exchange.

Just say that you're almost certain the two major parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, will form a grand coalition government after the next election.

With that, you provoke people on at least three major controversies:

  • How do you know there will be an election?
  • How do you know Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party, and whoever is really running Pheu Thai will agree to that formula?
  • How do you know the military will not do everything in its power to block that?

Speculation about the possibility of a "grand coalition" has always been part of the Thai political landscape. Nothing has come of it, so far.

You would think that, by now, veteran politicians must have learnt the lesson of their delayed efforts to reach political compromise, only for the military to come up with their own solution: another coup, another promise of an election. The vicious circle continues. The same old scenario is looming yet again. The outgoing military junta has somehow managed to ram through a new charter that will give them a good portion of the seats in Parliament after the election.

Under even the best-case scenario, none of the existing political parties can win a simple majority. That opens up the way for the military to remain in power one way or the other, claiming constitutional legitimacy. And with the provision allowing an "outsider" (a non-MP) to become the prime minister, there is every reason to suspect that things have been arranged in such a way that General Prayut Chan-o-cha, if he so wishes, can continue to head the government post-election.

Dissenting voices have proposed that a way must be found to ensure that the genuine representatives of the public - MPs elected by the people - should be running the government after the polls. Hence the not-so-subtle suggestion from a deputy leader of the Democrat Party and a senior member of Pheu Thai during a panel discussion that perhaps the two major rivals should consider undertaking the "impossible mission" of forming the next government - or else they would be accused of playing the role of military lackeys.

The immediate reactions were predictable. Being polite, both sides said it was premature to discuss a possible alliance.There are more immediate concerns for the parties, with concern growing that they might not be able to meet the deadline of Jan 5 to review their membership databases.

Under the new rules, political parties face being disbanded if they cannot produce the required membership on time. •The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news media entities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2017, with the headline 'Men to watch, political moves to monitor as polls near'. Print Edition | Subscribe