Election-talk hung in the air. It was 1999 and fresh from sacking Anwar Ibrahim – he was in prison without bail – Dr Mahathir’s term was nearing its end.
We’d just returned from Kelantan and Terengganu where the mood seemed anti-government. My colleague, Simon, and I were now heading to meet Deputy Mnister Ibrahim Ali in the Pan Pacific Hotel.
The place was packed, and Simon spotted Ibrahim having lunch with his officers. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. But he could always be relied on for the suitably inflammatory comment, the racist dig that Umno believed would always unite the Malays behind it.
In short, he had Dr M’s complete confidence.
But the interview was disappointing. The politician didn’t admit there were problems in the party and predicted a thumping win for the government. He was particularly disagreeable about Anwar, gloating about his imprisonment and waxing lyrical over Dr M’s leadership.
Ibrahim, an MP from Kelantan, then asked me what I thought: we told him of our trip north.
“You won’t like this,” I began and told him a story about how he, personally, would lose his seat. Indeed, I said we thought Umno would fare dismally, especially in Terengganu.
The deputy minister turned red and looked furious. Glaring, he slammed his hand on the table and bellowed a profanity.
If my Hokkien’s right, he was referring to a man’s unmentionable, but I digress. His roar must have been loud because it silenced the room, and every eye followed the politician as he stalked out in high dudgeon.
I was merely lashing out at his boorishness. But it was ironic because Ibrahim not only lost badly but the Islamic Party of Malaysia swept both Kelantan and Terengganu.
Political mistakes can have consequence. No, we aren’t talking about Ibrahim, but one made by Dr M’s successor, Abdullah Badawi.
Let me explain. The in-your-face racism of an Umno assembly can be jarring. I remember a rookie from the Star – a young, Malay girl – being comforted by colleagues from other papers after she was so traumatised, she broke down.
That’s why, apart from some speeches, the gatherings are never carried live.
Only Abdullah Badawi thought otherwise. It may have been the error that the National Front continues to rue.
When thousands of, especially, Chinese -Malaysians witnessed Hishamuddin Hussein brandish a kris (ceremonial dagger) and uttering veiled threats – de rigueur for any Umno Youth leader – they were appalled.
But they remembered.
It occurred in 2005 and an assembly has never been televised since.
In 2004, Abdullah took the Front to its biggest win ever. No one thought anything might be different in 2008.
But I remember Opposition MP, Teresa Kok asking me if anything had changed. When I looked puzzled, she replied: “The crowds at our rallies are 2 or 3 times bigger.”
Michael Devaraj was a socialist who’d unsuccessfully challenged Works Minister S Samy Vellu in two previous elections. Like Teresa, he too felt something had changed.
Not Samy though. In fact, he was brimming with confidence when Nadeswaran and me approached him in his centre in Sungei Siput.
After assuring us that he would, indeed, thrash the hapless Michael, he asked if we knew him.
“He is a very nice fellow,” said the late, great Samy sadly. “I’d hate to see him lose again.”
He needn’t have worried.