Chin Tong: The Strange Case of Muhyiddin Yassin, Part 1

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Personal story on Muhyiddin Yassin.

In the text messages Muhyiddin Yassin sent me in the past four years, he would always preface it with “Bro”. As I am younger than some of his children, I always courteously address him as “Tan Sri”.

My personal story of this mild-mannered man reminds me of the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It was really a strange tale, but perhaps it’s all human nature when one is faced with the temptation of power.

We first met on April 11, 2016, when Anthony Loke and I, both of us representing the DAP, had our long introductory chat with him for slightly more than two hours.

Muhyiddin, who was sacked as deputy prime minister on July 28, 2015, for questioning Najib Razak’s involvement with the 1MDB scandal, has been monitored and followed by Special Branch. Not wanting to attract attention, his aide rented a hotel room in Petaling Jaya. Loke and I went in first, followed by Muhyiddin 10 minutes later. When the meeting ended, he left first. We left 10 minutes later.

On July 25, 2016, Muhyiddin met with Lim Kit Siang, also at a hotel, in Kuala Lumpur. We went through the same process. We went in first, then Muhyiddin came in.

Today, I sincerely hope Muhyiddin would not use the Special Branch to monitor Pakatan Harapan leaders the way they preyed on him when he was out of power.

To put things in context, first, Muhyiddin and Mukhriz Mahathir were expelled from Umno on June 24, 2016. Second, Dr Mahathir Mohamad held two strategy meetings involving all opposition leaders and some civil society leaders on June 28, 2016, and July 14, 2016, to pave the way for the formation of a new party.

In that meeting with Lim, Muhyiddin told us his new party would contest 15 parliamentary seats, whereas, in our communication with Dr Mahathir’s side, we were told Dr Mahathir was looking at contesting 40 seats.

After the meeting, Lim’s view was that Dr Mahathir’s figure was more realistic (eventually Bersatu contested 51 seats) as one wouldn’t form a national party just to contest 15 seats.

Muhyiddin was less ambitious at that time because he thought his party would still have to work with PAS, while Dr Mahathir had discounted the Islamist party, which he saw as nothing but Najib’s collaborator.

In the meeting, Muhyiddin also asked Lim to assist his new party to fight Najib together, and the DAP veteran pledged his full support.

On December 13, 2016, Muhyiddin led the new leadership of Bersatu to PKR’s headquarters in Petaling Jaya to sign a memorandum of understanding with PH.

It was the first official attempt to align Bersatu with PH, although at that point in time Muhyiddin was still thinking of forming a “Barisan Rakyat” as a new platform to work with both PAS and the PH parties.

Mahathir, however, had been clearer much earlier. On November 12, 2016, in his speech at the PH convention, the former prime minister was already talking about Bersatu joining PH. Mahathir was way ahead of time while Muhyiddin and Mukhriz finally gave up on PAS in February 2017.

Who will be PM?

After the signing ceremony, in a private office at the PKR headquarters, an important civil society leader openly said in front of Muhyiddin and then PKR president Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail that she was not suited to be prime minister. Instead the person proposed Muhyiddin as prime minister and PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali as his deputy. The meeting did not end well.

That same civil society leader met me for lunch in April 2015 to persuade me that Azmin should be PH’s prime ministerial candidate. It was just two months after Anwar Ibrahim was sent to jail on February 10, 2015.

On January 9 and 10, 2017, Sin Chew Daily published a two-part exclusive interview with Muhyiddin with an agenda to sow distrust among Chinese voters towards Bersatu leaders. Sin Chew headlined Muhyiddin’s reservation about the Unified Examination Certificate, which resulted in some of his Chinese friends not being happy with him.

Muhyiddin and I got in touch. He invited me for breakfast at his favourite restaurant near his house on January 24, 2017. This was the first of my many one-on-one meetings with him.

We chatted for three hours. He told me he wanted to understand DAP more, “since we now have to work together”. Inevitably, one of the topics was on the position of prime minister.

At Muhyiddin’s request, Lim met him on February 7, 2017. He requested DAP’s support for his candidature as prime minister. Lim said to him the matter needed to be discussed with Anwar as DAP’s then default position was to support Anwar as prime minister.

For the next couple of months, the idea of Muhyiddin-Azmin pair was still being promoted until PH formally accepted Bersatu as a component party. It held the first presidential council meeting with the presence of Bersatu leaders on March 27, 2017, at 14th Floor of the Parliament building.

By April 2017, the idea of Mahathir being prime minister was discussed in some private meetings. However, Mahathir being prime minister again didn’t bode well with Anwar’s inner circle. Even Muhyiddin’s camp initially resisted the idea, but gradually Mahathir’s popularity on the ground became obvious.

Not long after, Muhyiddin decided to support Mahathir as Bersatu’s prime ministerial candidate. I respect him for looking at the bigger picture and cast aside his personal ambition. It was honourable of him.

It took months for PH to decide on Mahathir as chairman. The deal almost collapsed, saved only by Nurul Izzah Anwar’s visit to the Mahathir family in London during Hari Raya.

At 12.30pm on July 14, 2017, PH named Mahathir as its chairman, Anwar as coalition leader, and Wan Azizah as president.

Azmin’s faction walked out, furious that the deal was reached as a Mahathir-Anwar pact would effectively postpone Azmin’s route to become prime minister. Muhyiddin was, however, wholeheartedly supportive of the realignment, and refuse to entertain Azmin’s tantrums.

The matter didn’t end there. The insatiable Azmin was still pushing for the Muhyiddin-Azmin as PM-DPM but Muhyiddin was not involved.

There were very heated arguments with Azmin and his associates at the PH retreat on December 1 and 2, 2017 in Putrajaya. Of the four parties (Amanah, Bersatu, DAP and PKR), three-and-a-half agreed to announcing Dr Mahathir as the seventh prime minister and Anwar as the eighth, with the voracious Azmin’s faction objecting vehemently.

Negotiators from all parties raced against time to complete negotiations on January 6, 2018 for the announcement of Mahathir’s and Anwar’s prime ministerial candidatures, as well as Wan Azizah’s candidature as deputy prime minister, at the PH convention on January 7, 2018.

Again, Muhyiddin proved he was a gentleman by supporting the deal while Azmin’s associates continued to protest at the convention.

Besides the top post, the convention also announced the deal for seat negotiation for Parliamentary seats in Peninsula, a first in history.

The Johor gambit

Muhyiddin, Amanah’s Sallahuddin Ayub, PKR’s Nurul Izzah, DAP’s Loke and Johor PH leaders settled the seat negotiation for Johor on January 18, 2018, the first state to do so.

Muhyiddin asked Loke and I to get DAP to agree to stick to contesting 14 seats in the interest of the coalition, to which we complied. Originally DAP wanted to contest in 16 Johor seats, by then still a Barisan Nasional stronghold. From then on, Johor was the frontline state that propelled PH to national victory, winning 18 parliamentary seats (more than triple the five seats in 2013) and 36 state seats (doubling the 18 seats in the past election).

As Johor DAP chairman, I worked very closely with Muhyiddin. He decided to stay put in Pagoh and not to move to a “safer seat”, a great confidence booster for PH supporters. In GE14, the choices of seats by Muhyiddin, Mukhriz and Mahathir sent a strong message to all voters that they were going for broke.

Muhyiddin’s aides and I looked at the numbers and we were confident of Muhyiddin’s victory in Pagoh. The constituency has 64% Malay voters and 36% others. I chose the toughest parliamentary seat Ayer Hitam to make the point that it was a “do-or-die” battle. We were confident Muhyiddin would win with a high non-Malay support and more than 40% Malay votes. In the end, he polled 55.21% of votes, a decent victory for PH in a semi-rural constituency.

On election night, I travelled from Yong Peng in Johor to arrive at Sheraton Hotel in Petaling Jaya past midnight. Muhyiddin comforted me for my loss in Ayer Hitam. On that historic night, I could feel the warmth of his sincerity. – TMI

The views expressed here are strictly those of the writer, DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong.