IT was raining cats and dogs when guests arrived at Datuk Seri Azmin Ali’s Putrajaya residence for what had initially been described as a “secret dinner”.
But there are few secrets in Malaysian politics and the identities of the 22 MPs – 17 from Umno and five from PKR – at the dinner were being exposed via chat groups and social media even before they were halfway through the meal.
Those from PKR have since been slammed as “pengkhianat” or traitors by their party while Umno is considering disciplinary action against the Umno MPs.
There is nothing wrong with politicians from opposite sides of the political divide socialising except that very few people believe that the guests of the Economic Affairs Minister were there to enjoy each other’s company.
There was indeed a great deal of small talk, polite conversation, laughter and smiles.
“This is Malaysian politics, not British politics. He invited us, so we went. I could see everyone pretending to be nice, saying the right things,” said one of the Umno politicians.
Azmin knew it would be controversial and he had mentioned that he expects people “to spin” the meeting according to their agenda.
But the above Umno MP said the dinner party was apparently held for Azmin to explain why Dr Mahathir should continue as Prime Minister.
The stunning outcome of the Tanjung Piai by-election had resulted in a shift of public opinion against Dr Mahathir and there has been a crescendo of calls for him to make way for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Dr Mahathir has come under a lot of stress and his nose bleed in the midst of a press conference yesterday – some of those present saw little red dots on his white handkerchief – was a hint of the stress he may be going through.
Azmin felt that he needed to reassure them that Dr Mahathir is staying put. He told them that Dr Mahathir is still alert and healthy and has a lot to contribute.
According to those present, Azmin did it in quite a polished manner and did not once run down Anwar or talk openly about blocking Anwar from the dream job although that was the aim.
Azmin also stressed that Dr Mahathir was still needed to hold the coalition together and revive the economy.
He used an argument now popular among Bersatu politicians – the Opposition failed in the 2008 and 2013 general elections when Anwar was the prime minister candidate and only won in 2018 when Dr Mahathir was presented as the next prime minister.
Sources at the dinner party said that more Umno MPs could be expected to openly come forward to declare support for Dr Mahathir in the coming days.
In October, six Umno MPs held a press conference in Parliament calling for Dr Mahathir to see out a full term. This is to create the impression that they are not confident about the takeover although they should realise that it is Pakatan Harapan MPs who have the real say about who should take over from Dr Mahathir.
Azmin has been busy behind the scenes the last few months.
Much of it has to do with ensuring that Dr Mahathir continues on as Prime Minister beyond May 2020 because the elder man’s continuity is closely tied up with Azmin’s own political survival. The PKR deputy president knows his career is over if and when Anwar takes over.
The other hidden pair of hands behind the dinner party is, of course, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein who was among the “early birds” to show support for Dr Mahathir.
Who else but him would have been able to persuade the Umno MPs to convene at Azmin’s house?
Hishammuddin’s game plan is unclear at this point in time but the way the Chinese crowd in Tanjung Piai went gaga over him – the elderly Chinese ladies were clinging to him and holding his hands – is something that not many Umno politicians can boast about.
Basically the dinner party is a clear-cut sign that Azmin and Hishammuddin are working closely on behalf of Dr Mahathir.
Whether the pair will succeed in engineering an extended term for the Prime Minister will be known before the year is out.
Some of those who were at the dinner party insisted that they were there to discuss problems that they faced in their constituency.
Pengerang MP Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said apparently managed to persuade Azmin to visit her constituency to review projects that has come to a standstill.
“My priority is my constituency especially the plan to turn some schools into vocational training institutes and the Rapid oil and gas project that will bring jobs to the locals,” said Azalina.
Azalina said that she is not obsessed about whether the prime minister is Dr Mahathir or Anwar but she admitted that Dr Mahathir is the “Jedi of politics”.
“Dr Mahathir can make the impossible possible,” she said.
Sources said that Umno is unlikely to act against those who attended the dinner party because that would make the party look rather petty.
But Anwar certainly has more than enough grounds to act against Azmin for going against his party’s sentiments to make him the next prime minister.