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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Even Abdullah’s farewell gets upstaged

KUALA LUMPUR, March 28 — It was a vintage end-of-assembly for Umno, as it bid farewell to its sixth president and fifth Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

As in all previous assemblies leaders, including Abdullah, asked for forgiveness and forgave for mistakes and slurs, intended or otherwise.

And as in previous assemblies, especially when divisive party polls are held, they all hugged each other, some cried, most were emotional, and all promised to be one family — kekeluargaan — as stressed by all their leaders in their closing speeches.

Until next year, at least, or when the next party polls are held.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the unannounced entry of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his wife, towards the end of the party assembly, to all-round applause from the delegates.

Dr Mahathir has been Abdullah's most vitriolic critic, perhaps, most unkind, given that he himself chose Abdullah as his successor.

Dr Mahathir quit Umno last year and said he would only rejoin when Abdullah quit as president.

Dr Mahathir, flanked by Abdullah and Najib, raise hands at the end of the Umno General Assembly today. — Reuters pic

Today, the planned grand entrance was a master stroke for new party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Najib managed to get Abdullah and Mahathir to shake hands and hug and promised to bring them together in discussions to chart a path for Umno to regain its lost glory.

The delegates applauded at this possible scenario of the ex-prime ministers becoming "buddies" again.

Yet, there was serious disquiet and unhappiness among some, especially Abdullah's supporters and older delegates.

They felt Dr Mahathir had come to claim victory and marred the traditional farewell in the Malay "beradab dan sopan santun" way.

Abdullah has always been gracious and hardly hit back when Dr Mahathir attacked him.

When Dr Mahathir went on to the stage, disrupting the planned farewell Abdullah would have gotten, the stark difference between the two men was there for all to see.

Abdullah’s supporters wanted him to be feted and sent off in the same way that Dr Mahathir was sent off in October 2003 — with grace and gratitude.

Not having to pay second fiddle to a man who slammed him in a statement as late as 24 hours ago.

Dr Mahathir took his pound of flesh today and stole the show.

But in days to come, as those steeped in the Malay tradition think more deeply about today, will Najib's PR coup continue to be viewed as a good deed in bringing two feuding leaders together?

Or will it be seen as the final humiliation of a decent man who, unfortunately, could not hit the heights he promised?

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