THERE has been an uneasy silence among the main political players in Kelantan over the dramatic revocation of titles by the Sultan of Kelantan.
It was a mini earthquake because of the personalities affected and also because Kelantan is one state where the palace bond with the people is still very strong.
Two of those affected, Amanah vice-president Husam Musa and state chairman Wan Abdul Rahim Wan Abdullah, are household names in Kelantan and the palace move to revoke their Datukship stunned many people.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was stripped of his DK (Darjah Kerabat Al-Yunus) title, has not said a word, unlike when he took to his blog to air his views after returning his awards to the Selangor palace. But Dr Mahathir is a man of many surprises and it is best to never say never when it comes to him.
Both PAS and Umno have been tiptoeing around the issue. Umno, in particular, does not want to be dragged in and according to its Kelantan information chief Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad, instructions have gone out to members not to comment on it.
“This is not our issue. We have nothing to do with it, no need to comment,” he said.
Alwi claimed that the issue was not discussed by the party, even behind closed doors.
“We had a political bureau meeting and a state BN meeting last week – it was not mentioned, let alone discussed,” he said.
Well, Umno is hardly in a position to gloat or take the moral high ground. Dr Mahathir had used the Kelantan Umno leaders to punish the state after it fell to PAS in 1990. The former premier had pulled every trick out of the hat to embarrass the then Kelantan Sultan Ismail Petra, and there was even a plot in 1993 to replace the Sultan with his cousin.
Time has not healed the wounds and several Umno personalities from that era are still persona non grata with the Kelantan palace.
Ties between the palace and Umno only began to improve after Dr Mahathir stepped down in 2003. There has been an immense comfort level between Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Muhammad V and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
It is not an overnight thing, as the two families know each other well. At official functions they refer to each other as “Tuanku” and “Datuk Seri”, but Kelantan insiders say that at private social events, the King still calls Najib “uncle” and Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor “aunty”.
The palace had been closely watching Amanah ever since Tengku Muhammad Petra, an uncle of the King, signed up as a member more than a year ago.
It was quite a coup to have this royal figure onboard and Amanah leaders had introduced Tengku Muhammad Petra as “papa saudara (uncle) Yang di-Pertuan Agong” at their ceramah events. This had angered the palace because Amanah was perceived as exploiting the royal connection.
But the alarm bells only went off after Dr Mahathir was confirmed as Pakatan Harapan’s prime minister candidate early this year. Rightly or wrongly, the palace side began to see danger ahead.
The first danger sign was the fact that Tengku Muhammad Petra was closely associated with the 1993 plot to topple Sultan Ismail Petra, the father of the King. Tengku Muhammad Petra has not been forgiven for his role in the plot and is seen as a traitor to the throne.
The second danger sign centred around Dr Mahathir’s comeback bid. He was widely seen as the mastermind behind the earlier plot and the concern is that he may attempt the same trick if Pakatan wins and he becomes prime minister again.
The third had to do with Pakatan’s mentri besar candidate Husam, who is in the bad books of the palace. He is labouring under a trust deficit with the palace and was dropped from the state exco after the 2013 general election because of that.
In the minds of the palace advisers, the coming together of all these old enemies seemed like another potential plot brewing against the throne. As a result, the axe came down in a pre-emptive strike to stop them from advancing any further.
The axe on poor Wan Abdul Rahim was a stern message that Amanah should not be used as a vehicle in any plot, real or imagined.
Amanah leaders have held several ceramah since the incident, but have steered clear of the issue.
On the Parti Pribumi end, Youth chief Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman released a video questioning the Sultan on why he had acted against Dr Mahathir, who is not a kleptocrat. It was an impassioned defence of his party boss, but it showed him to be quite ignorant of Kelantan’s political history.
According to an aide of a Kelantan Umno leader, social media reaction has largely followed party lines.
“I could see that the PAS supporters were very happy, although revoking Mahathir’s title had little additional effect because most Kelantanese have never liked Mahathir,” said the aide, who is a Kelantanese himself.
Husam, in particular, alienated the PAS base, especially after he repeated the story cooked up by the notorious Sarawak Report that PAS received RM90mil from Umno. There was also an ugly incident surrounding Amanah’s refusal to move out of a building that reportedly belonged to PAS.
Husam has a strong youth following outside of Kelantan. For instance, his programmes may attract only 100 people on the ground, but thousands view them live on Facebook.
However, without the palace blessing, Husam has zero chance of becoming mentri besar and it is doubtful that his party can win any seat in Kelantan.
Sultan Muhammad V ascended to the throne under controversial circumstances and there is no doubt that he is grateful to PAS leaders, especially the late Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who stood by him through the storm.
But he has since endeared himself to the people with his down-to-earth image. He is what the above aide calls the “new millennial Sultan”. He is known to turn up at some formal functions in his cotton short-sleeved jubah and kopiah.
During a function held in conjunction with Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, all the dignitaries came wearing baju melayu. Everyone was in their stockinged feet because the event was in a mosque, but the King stood out in his trademark jubah and bare feet.
Of course, there are people out there who think that the palace is wading into politics.
But, said Alwi, the sovereign is very even-handed when it comes to Kelantan politics.
“Let me tell you, if the palace hears that an imam is leaning to one side or another, out he goes. The palace does not want to see the mosque divided by politics,” he said.
During a pilgrimage to Mecca several years ago, Tuanku brought along both Nik Aziz and Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed. Whichever way one looks at it, said political analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Amanah has been dealt a terrible blow.
“It means the Sultan does not approve of these two leaders,” said Wan Saiful who is currently a visiting fellow at Iseas, Singapore.
It also means that the battle in Kelantan is once again squarely between PAS and Umno. All that hand-holding between their top leaders and the whispering into each others’ ears will be a thing of the past once Parliament is dissolved.
But, said Wan Saiful, the prognosis is not good for PAS.
“Going by the sentiment on the ground, Umno has the upper hand this time. Despite two decades of PAS rule, Kelantan has not enjoyed economic development and opportunities. You’ve got to remember, Kelantanese are not afraid of change,” he added.
He said Parti Pribumi has almost no traction in the state and would not be able to dent Umno’s support. However, Amanah could chip away at the traditional PAS base and become the classic spoiler in the event of a three-corner fight.
Kelantan Deputy Mentri Besar Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah begs to differ. He said Pakatan and Barisan Nasional are too tainted, referring to them as “kuali dan belanga hitam” or blackened pots and pans.
PAS, on the other hand, is offering itself as “stainless steel” utensils. The trouble is Kelantan’s “stainless steel” party is missing one important element – Nik Aziz.
The late mentri besar was the X-factor that glued the Malays to his party in Kelantan. Nik Aziz could not do much in terms of developing the state, but he represented the religious and moral canon that Malays were looking for in their leadership. Supporters overlooked his government’s shortcomings because of his honesty and piety.
This will be the first general election without Nik Aziz, and Wan Saiful suggested that Kelantanese may be ready for a change.
Moreover, the X-factor advantage has shifted to Umno. Surveys suggest that the unassuming state Umno chief Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed has emerged as the top rated leader among Kelantanese.
Fame and power has not changed this farmer’s son one bit and he is genuinely humble and hardworking.
Umno’s chance to take back Kelantan has not been this bright since 2004, when PAS came within two seats of losing the state.