Shahrir Samad, the icon?

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Some activists from PH Johor Bharu invited me to visit and speak to voters there this weekend, specifically on local issues. This is a difficult assignment because I am not from JB and know little about the specific concerns of its voters. Declining such an invite, however, will put me further and further away from the election scene. Even old politicians like me yearn to be relevant at a time like this.

I think I will talk about my erstwhile Cabinet colleague, Tan Sri Shahrir Abdul Samad, who is well known and well liked in JB. I doubt if there is a more interesting local issue than Shahrir in this capital city. In fact, he is somewhat of an icon, and has been seen as an UMNO leader with spunk ever since he took on the might of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the Barisan Nasional in a 1988 by-election as an independent — and won.

It’s true that he was then a protégé of Johor strongman Tun Musa Hitam, and the tide in Johor against Tun Dr Mahathir in 1987/1988 — when Tun Musa joined forces with Tengku Razaleigh to oppose Tun Dr Mahathir in party polls — was a tsunami that carried Shahrir to fame and popularity. He later rejoined UMNO/BN and won three subsequent elections with huge, five-figure majorities. These are impressive credentials indeed.

When I was in UMNO, he was part of the second line of leaders that I had hoped would emerge as reformers in a party that has since become anaemic and toxic. When I first became a divisional leader in UMNO, I did not extend the customary invitations to any of the top guns to officiate the division’s first meeting. I invited Sharir Samad instead. I did this because I considered him to be bright and purposeful in his politics, and I believed that he would be an asset for change. His tenure as Chairman of the BN Backbenchers was also colourful; at times, he was willing to defy party lines on matters that would have been detrimental to the Parliamentary system of government.

But I now have serious reservations about him as a political leader. In the last two years, since his relationship with Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak has grown close, many have come to see Shahrir as different from the Malay reformer they once thought he was. I now have doubts if he can continue to be a good Member of Parliament for Johor Bharu, even though he remains a well-known figure. If you want to know why, please come to JB this Friday and I will give my reasons.

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