KOTA KINABALU: Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was the motivation for 92-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to come out of retirement and run in the May 9 general election.
For the 81-year-old United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, it was Mahathir.
The former finance minister, who, until recently, has been keeping a relatively low profile, is hoping to pull off a surprise victory despite being written off as a spent force in the coming opposition party's polls on Saturday.
Tengku Razaleigh is taking on influential former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and 42-year-old youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin in a five-man race for the party’s top job.
Commonly known as Ku Li, Tengku Razaleigh looked rather relaxed despite the formidable challenge.
He was speaking to Channel NewsAsia Tuesday (Jun 26) while waiting to board a Kuala Lumpur-bound flight at the airport in Kota Kinabalu, where had earlier met Sabah UMNO delegates.
His eyes lit up when speaking about his chances in the party's upcoming elections.
"Age is not a concern now, after all our prime minister is 93. UMNO needs a leader that's credible to chart its future, to restore faith and glory," he said.
Tengku Razaleigh joined UMNO in 1962 and served under three former prime ministers, including during Mahathir's first tenure as premier.
In 1987, he failed to unseat then party president Mahathir and quit UMNO after that to form Semangat 46. He rejoined UMNO in 1998 after his party was wiped out in the general election that year.
Twenty years on, Tengku Razaleigh is re-entering the fray in a bid he said to save the party that he has had ties with for more than half a century.
Analysts said Tengku Razaleigh with his wealth of experience might be able to calm jitters and restore the party in time of crisis.
Amir Fareed, senior research analyst of KRA group, said: “Tengku Razaleigh is an old hand, a lot of members in searching for direction want someone who can match Dr Mahathir. To do that, you need an erstwhile leader from the past."
But others said he’s a yesterday’s man, a spent force within UMNO.
“It’s not going to be easy for Ku Li. Party grassroots may see him as an outsider. Ku Li has not been part of the central leadership for decades. Having said that, he may get lucky as this looks like a close three cornered contest,” said Adip Zalkapli, senior executive of Vriens & Partners.
But his passive involvement in party politics may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
UMNO'S FUTURE LIES WITH YOUTHS
Speaking to about 300 delegates from 25 UMNO divisions across Sabah on Tuesday, Tengku Razaleigh was a picture of calm. He shook hands and took selfies with many who met him for the first time.
"Forty per cent of the population are youths; we need to include more young professionals, intellectuals and rebuild the party’s spirit. UMNO is not a party for the elite," he said.
Morale was low among UMNO members after the general election which saw UMNO booted from power for the first time since independence, said 35-year-old Khairol Faizal from the Batu Sapi UMNO division.
"We were all very sad after the shocking election results and Musa, our leader went away. We want leaders who can guide us through difficult times, we want to be relevant again," he said.
Former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman, of UMNO, is in the United Kingdom - after his party was deserted by other Barisan Nasional component parties in the state.
Echoing his sentiment was Mohd Bahrin of UMNO Kota Kinabalu division.
"Within UMNO, all seems fine but outside UMNO, we are zero, we need to start getting close to the people who have rejected us because of the past mistakes of our leaders," he said.
But finding a credible leader, one that is not tainted by the previous leadership under former prime minister Najib, will not be easy.
No thanks to the so-called statutory declarations that many divisional leaders signed back in 2015 to support Najib after the scandal involving state fund 1MDB started to unfold.
Tengku Razaleigh, who is the member of parliament for Gua Musang in Kelantan, said he did not sign the statutory declarations.
“There is nothing wrong with UMNO, the problem is with its leaders. UMNO can make a comeback and rebuild itself."
UMNO WORTH FIGHTING FOR
While waiting in the lounge for his delayed flight, Tengku Razaleigh explained that there is no other party in Malaysia that has the same extensive network on the ground like UMNO.
"It's the envy of Pakatan Harapan, and Mahathir knew that its an asset that a young coalition like PH would not have."
Apart from the network, he said UMNO has many assets in prime locations that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The assets, including the Putra World Trade Centre and the UMNO building in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, were held in trust by the party president and secretary general, among other office bearers.
"I will need to look at the files to see whether these assets are still good," said Tengku Razaleigh, who is also the former treasurer of UMNO.
Concerns have been raised that UMNO party funds may be drying up.
The party's secretary general Tengku Adnan Mansor already warned that the allocation for each division will have be cut.
Within UMNO, plans are under way to downsize the headquarters, including possibly renting out the entire UMNO building.
Some 165,000 delegates are voting across 191 divisions nationwide on Jun 30. Results are not expected until the following day.