A few months ago, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein met several times to discuss succession planning.
It was subsequently decided and agreed that Zahid would be the successor to Najib with Hishammuddin as the new deputy.
As Umno’s election tradition has it, the person who garners the highest votes as vice-president will be in line to move up to deputy president.
Najib recalled yesterday, “I had been discussing the (special functions minister’s position) with Zahid for months. And then, it was Zahid who suggested that Hishammuddin be awarded the post.
“So please, do not create any friction between them.”
His caution came after speculations that there was a rift between Najib and Zahid.
The sidelining of Zahid, the Najib-Zahid rift and the idea that Hishammuddin may overtake Zahid in the leadership hierarchy was more or less put to rest in Najib’s speech.
The Umno president was clarifying speculative reports on the additional portfolio and appointment of Hishammuddin as a special functions minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.
Najib, seeing the rapid political developments with his former mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad taking him on over the 1MDB scandal, was compelled to put a succession plan in place so that Umno will not crumble.
With a structured succession planning, Umno is assured a pipeline of leadership talent with sufficient depth and experience will take over the party leadership when the incumbent quits.
For many political parties however, when a new leader has to take over, the transition is seldom smooth. In this case, Najib has planned a smooth one with Zahid given the immediate task of mustering more support for Hishammuddin.
Soon after the appointment, in response to the speculations, Zahid commented: “I did not care about the matter (the things said), I carried out my duties and responsibilities. As long as you have not committed wrong in the eyes of Allah and the law…
“My work ethic is to continue (with the tasks entrusted) regardless of what people say.”
Any failure on Najib’s part to effectively execute and manage succession planning may lead to many disastrous consequences in the 60-year-old Barisan Nasional which has been ruling the country since independence in 1957.
Master of succession planning
Failure to have succession planning has had dreadful results in many countries.
Nevertheless, Mahathir himself is the master of succession planning when he set the stage for Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to take over, followed by Najib.
Najib took pains to assure that there was no rift between Hishammuddin and Zahid at a media event, pointing to the pair who were seated on stage laughing at each over his remark.
The special functions appointment will also be a booster for Hishammuddin in Johor, where Umno’s support seems to have waned with the dismissal former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Hishammuddin needs greater support from Johor as opposition leaders – Mahathir and others – try to make new inroads into Umno’s birthplace.
By building greater support through his new appointment, will Hishammuddin bring back the glorious days of Umno in his home state?
It will now be the task of both Zahid and Hishammuddin to recover any lost ground and support from the grassroots.
Proper succession planning curtails and obviates disputes, misunderstanding and bloodletting.
With this, Najib has set the succession plan in motion and for a smooth transition of leadership within Umno.
M KRISHNAMOORTHY is associate professor at a foreign university in Malaysia. He is also a freelance journalist and trainer in media relations and crisis communications.