Isa Samad poses at a Hari Raya Aidilfitri event in Bagan Pinang
“THIS is part of my programme for the Bagan Pinang by-election: jalan-jalan cari undi,” says Tan Sri Isa Samad, 60, riffing off the popular TV3 food travelogue, Jalan-Jalan Cari Makan. The 3,000-strong crowd here in Taman PD Utama initially looks more interested in the Aidilfitri spread at the Umno-organised function. But when Isa speaks, a few seem to perk up, and giggles can be heard. Before long, Isa gains momentum with his audience.
It’s not that Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who spoke before Isa’s arrival, was a slouch. Muhyiddin spoke with gusto, but he never quite managed to whip the crowd into a frenzied mass. Granted, there are not many Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders known for electrifying their audience at massive ceramah. That is not their style anymore.
But Isa gives it a shot on the night of 4 Oct 2009, the second day of the by-election campaign. Bit by bit he takes on the allegations against him by PAS and its Pakatan Rakyat (PR) partners. First up: the threats by the PR’s Bagan Pinang by-election director and PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub to expose Isa’s mismanagement as Negeri Sembilan menteri besar.
“Salahuddin should go and help the Kelantan menteri besar (Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat) to develop Kelantan instead. Only an unbalanced person would say that Kelantan is more developed than Negeri Sembilan,” Isa retorts.
He is on a roll. “These PAS people should just stick to setting up roadside stalls,” he says, and is greeted with more laughter. PAS-aligned stalls, selling clothes, snacks, perfumes and party t-shirts, have mushroomed all around Port Dickson since the campaign started. “They come here and behave like this is their father’s state!” he thunders, and for the first time during the night, the multiracial crowd roars its approval.
The crowd at the ceramah in Taman PD Utama
And then Isa rounds off his little speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, actually the candidate shouldn’t talk for too long.” Again, the crowd giggles. “I just have so much fun walloping PAS. It’s fun walloping liars when we are in the right.”
It is at functions like these that the BN’s pre-nomination dilemma becomes clear: whether to field Isa the charmer, or to not field Isa, the leader Umno itself found guilty of corruption in 2005.
After the BN’s Rohaizat Othman — a lawyer disbarred by the Bar Council for swindling a client — was trounced in the Permatang Pasir by-election, many thought the BN would have learnt its lesson. Umno veterans Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah expressed their frustration openly regarding Isa. But as Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin says, Isa is very different from Rohaizat.
In some ways, Khairy is right. True, Isa was suspended from Umno in 2005 and could not contest the March 2008 general election due to money politics. Technically, his suspension ended in June 2008, so he is actually free to enter politics as an Umno member again. And Isa is, as Khairy says, a “godfather” in local politics.
To Isa’s credit also, he does not shy away from difficult questions from reporters. He stops and waits when journalists call for impromptu press conferences. He invites questions: about what PAS is saying about him, about whether he abused his position when he was in power. He takes these questions on and even uses them as material during his speeches later.
Isa delivers his campaign speech He jokes and teases reporters; his humour actually feels spontaneous, good-natured and unforced. And he doesn’t just scoot off to his next function. He always asks, “Any more questions?” and waits a beat before bidding a cheerful goodbye. And herein lies Isa’s secret weapon: the guy can’t help being funny, witty and likeable. He’s like a small-sized pak cik you hope will show up at your open house celebration.
And so, according to Isa, critics are mistaken in calling him a “recycled candidate”. “If they think I’m recycled, what about the de facto leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim), who was out in the political wilderness for six years? Even rubbish decomposes when you leave it out that long,” he quips.
And Isa is right. He is not a recycled candidate. He is actually a very charismatic contender, albeit one who has to recycle a very old script. Just look at his campaign rhetoric to date: that he has brought (and will bring more) development to Negeri Sembilan; that he is close to federal and state BN leaders; that he has valuable institutional memory and experience as a former menteri besar.
This is merely a variation of the BN’s campaign rhetoric in the seven by-elections it has contested since March 2008. And look where it’s brought the BN: six out of seven losses thus far. Perhaps asking Isa to make this tired script work is like asking Harrison Ford to make another Indiana Jones movie. It might work, but at what cost?
That’s Isa in a nutshell — an adorable charmer with a tainted past, reading from a tired script. The BN, being the incumbent in this seat, already has an edge over the PR. But if it really wants to clinch a convincing victory, the BN has got to revise its script and address Isa’s corrupt past more convincingly. After all, great performers have been undone by bad scripts before. And a few have been destroyed by pasts that refuse to stop haunting them.
The Nut Graph needs your support