BERSATU cannot practise patronage politics because it isn’t in government, its deputy president Mukhriz Mahathir said.

And if it were in power, it would change the patronage system so that it is fair to all, the former Kedah Menteri Besar said.

As such, Bersatu cannot be Umno 2.0, he told The Malaysian Insight in an interview in which he points out the differences between the newly fledged party headed by his father, former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and Umno.

Dr Mahathir was president of Umno while he led Malaysia for 22 years, and Mukhriz was an Umno Supreme Council member. Dr Mahathir left the party and Mukhriz was sacked for opposing Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was once Dr Mahathir’s protege, over alleged kleptocracy in state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). Najib’s former deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, was also sacked from Umno and from the Cabinet for publicly criticising the prime minister.

Bersatu is now part of the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan, joining PKR, DAP and Amanah.

Though the new kid on the block, Bersatu has gained a huge following, particularly in Kedah, Johor and Malacca. Dr Mahathir and Mukhriz are Kedahans, while Muhyiddin is from Johor.

But there is a lingering fear that the former Umno stalwarts will bring to Bersatu baggage that could turn the party into another Umno, which has stayed strong and in power because of political patronage.

Mukhriz explains why such fears are unfounded, and much more, in the following interview excerpts.

Q: What is your role in Bersatu?

Mukhriz: Mostly groundwork and behind the scenes. I’m director of elections in Bersatu. We try to set up the election machinery in all states and divisions. Coming from Umno, (I know) they have the best machinery. Wanita Umno is the backbone for them, particularly when it comes to elections. PAS is only second to Umno.

And now we see how the opposition has been doing it. Somehow, they have managed to scrape through. (They got) 52% of the popular vote (in GE13) but that was still not enough to win.

So we think the winning formula could be the machinery being a bit more solid. I have been given the task of setting that up in Bersatu and we have begun collaborating with the other three parties in Pakatan Harapan. We hope to be synchronised in the next elections and not leave any stones unturned to making sure that our voters come out to the polls.

We don’t want to leave it to chance and sentiment. We need to be more organised.

Q: Which states is Bersatu strongest in?

Mukhriz: The more obvious ones are Kedah and Johor. But the surprise for us has been Malacca. Every time we are there, the open support has been overwhelming. And not just when Dr Mahathir is there, but even when me or Muhyiddin go there, they come out especially at night.

Q:  A Sinar Harian panel recently pointed out that 55% of Bersatu’s membership are young people, yet the party is led by senior people. What has attracted the youth? 

Mukhriz: Dr Mahathir is the chairman and he has singlehandedly brought up the average age in the party. But seriously, when we talk to the young people who weren’t around during his time, or at the very least just the tail end of his career… they hold him in such high regard. When we talk to them, they say that Dr Mahathir inspires them to be a part of this movement.

They see us not just as a political party but also a movement.

We come from government. And that’s a clear distinction between us and the other parties. We come from a very different perspective. We don’t have a purely opposition mentality.

This combination of both is giving us the strength. The experience in government helps the opposition with credibility, that we, too, can govern and we have a very good track record in governance. It lends confidence to the people that we are not just rhetoric but came out of actual decisions made by our leaders.

Young people say that during Dr Mahathir’s time we did not have these kinds of problems – their parents’ salaries weren’t high but cost of living was low and they could make ends meet. They didn’t find it so hard to have more disposable income. They remember that.

Dr Mahathir has a way when he speaks to young people. He comes from the old school but he appeals to them. They can throw some tough questions at him but Dr Mahathir answers them satisfactorily.

Q: Does Bersatu have patronage in its DNA, like Umno?

Mukhriz: No, because we don’t have the means to be that way. A patronage system in Umno means the leaders will take care of their subordinates in all matters. Whether they need money or help with a child to enter university and that sort of thing.

We don’t have that. We are not in government. Even if we were in government we need to change the system so that it is fair for everyone. This is something that we have taken to the Reformasi agenda that this will come with the new government.

Therefore, it’s incorrect to say that Bersatu also practises patronage politics like Umno.

Q: Is there a conscious effort to ensure that Bersatu doesn’t become like Umno?

Mukhriz: It was in 1996 in the president’s policy speech during the Umno General Assembly, when Dr Mahathir raised some concerns that Umno was changing from a party that (once) had many teachers, into a party that had a lot of businessmen.

And no one understood what he meant at that time. Some were saying “What’s wrong with that? It’s a sign of progress…”. But now we see the problem.

When you have business coming into politics, all hell breaks loose and now the teachers who used to be the core members of Umno are steering clear of Umno. They can’t imagine themselves being an Umno member. They are more inclined towards the opposition and hopefully to us.

He (Dr Mahathir) saw more corporate types going into Umno and predicted the problems. So I don’t see it happening in Bersatu. We understand the clear message that people send by way of elections and won’t repeat the mistakes of Umno.

Q: Can Bersatu stand without Tun?

Mukhriz: It will have to.

He tells us this all the time that it’s not about him or us, but all of us collectively and about the struggle. The struggle is the only similarity with Umno as we too hold strongly to agama (religion), bangsa (race) and tanahair (country). But we see that Umno has basically discarded that. They use that as their war cry, but they don’t mean it.

Q: Which state is Bersatu eyeing?

Mukhriz: There will be (one) but it’s not for us say yet as we need consensus with the others on the big decisions. We are in the midst of achieving that consensus. The spirit of compromise is very strong within the four parties. In the end we will have a very cohesive lineup of candidates for every one of the seats (we contest) in Peninsular Malaysia. I’m not too worried about that.

We are quite advanced in negotiations – going state by state. In the end, the top leadership (in PH) will decide some of the more difficult seats – like if there are two or more parties going for a particular seat.

Q: Is Bersatu eyeing Kedah?

Mukhriz: We are keen on Kedah. But we need the agreement of the other three parties.

Q: Why are you so popular with the youth? Is it because of Kedah football?

Mukhriz: One of the reasons is because when I was Kedah MB, I was always trying to attract FDI (foreign direct investment) into Kedah to create more jobs. Not the type of jobs which will only pay RM400-RM500 but the RM6,000-RM7,000 jobs.

So those efforts were attractive to the youth in Kedah.

Secondly, I am also young, although I don’t look young. I’m 52 now but people still call me boy-boy…haha.

I like to interact with younger people on their terms whether it’s cycling, playing badminton or just hanging out at coffee shops.

And most of all, it’s football. There was a personal agenda to raise the pride of Kedah football which used to be good. When I took over the Kedah FA it had its issues and for Kedah, football is very close to the heart. And because we had some success in football, it caused them to be close to me.

Q: What’s the difference between Umno and Bersatu?

Mukhriz: Mukhriz: One is to save the country and the other is to save a kleptocrat.