By Mohd Farhan Darwis
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 14 — Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has denied that he has any problems in Umno, saying the issues he raises that appear to conflict with the party’s line are purely coincidental as they were based on current affairs.
“The statements I issue are just coincidental, or maybe the situation at that time requires such an opinion.
“However, so far, I have no internal problem with Umno, I have also never been called up by the party disciplinary board,” he said in an interview with The Malaysian Insider recently.
The supreme Council member of Umno, the country’s biggest Malay party and the mainstay of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, had come under fire from a party colleague for neglecting his constituents in Temerloh recently.
Temerloh Umno committee member Zainuddin Izarul had accused Saifuddin of being an attention-seeker to boost his public standing to the extent of making remarks that contradicted the party’s official views at the cost of “abandoning his duties to voters”.
“Saifuddin’s comments are just aimed at seeking attention and is very populist. He seems unable to differentiate the meaning between issuing a pro-government statement and funding organisations which are strongly against the government,” Zainuddin told English daily New Straits Times yesterday.
Zainuddin was referring to Saifuddin’s warning to Umno leaders and supporters last week against playing up claims that American currency trader George Soros was funding certain civil society organisations to cause the downfall of the BN government. Saifuddin had advised that those allegations could backfire on the coalition.
Saifuddin, who is also Temerloh MP, said Umno’s openness and pragmatic attitude meant that his statements would not be a problem to the party.
“I have no problem, in Umno...that is the openness of Umno.
He said Umno’s openness had not only started after the 2008 elections, but the party has been open since it started ruling the country.
“Umno has always changed according to the times since then.
“During Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s time as prime minister, he had himself proposed the idea of setting up an Islamic university and Islamic banking system, which at that time is not the usual thing to be done by Umno,” he said, referring to the country’s fourth prime minister who was in office for 22 years, from 1981 to 2003.
Commenting on Dr Mahathir who is still seen to have influence in Umno, Saifuddin said it is the culture of Malaysian society to respect individuals that are older.
“Dr Mahathir has relevant opinions, however not all his recommendations and suggestions are absolute.”
“We have never seen Dr Mahathir as still wanting to be in power, that issue doesn’t arise,” he said, adding that Umno itself has never seen that matter as the cause of anxiety.
“He is qualified to reprimand and give recommendations, and if fitting, we will take note.
“We have never viewed lightly Dr Mahathir’s statements, but at the same time we don’t consider it as an absolute matter that we have to follow,” he said.
However, disquiet over Saifuddin’s comments do not appear to be limited to his division as some among Umno’s higher levels feel his views do not gel with those of the party.
The 51-year-old first-term MP has also been attacked by pro-Umno bloggers on their websites and through social media for his remarks advocating moderation and progressive politics in response the two public rallies organised by electoral reform group Bersih in the last two years.
“There were elements of defiance and anger from the crowd and police who acted strangely towards journalists. BN must be very careful in addressing this,” he had said ahead of an Umno supreme council meeting on April 29, a day after violent and chaotic clashes between Bersih demonstrators and the police in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
BN-linked media and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin have swiftly blamed Bersih and opposition leaders for the violence that followed after some demonstrators defied orders from police and organisers not to breach the barriers surrounding Dataran Merdeka, the planned site for their sit-in protest.
Saifuddin had been forced to defend his remarks in the days after, saying his disagreement with the actions and Islamic authorities’ move to declare a “fatwa” against the civil society movement did not equal support of Bersih.