SOME of Datuk Seri Azmin Ali’s supporters joked that he has put on his boxing gloves after weeks of being hit left, right and centre by Rafizi Ramli.
They are also relieved to see that he is finally kicking off his campaign to defend his deputy president post against a highly organised challenge by Rafizi.
Azmin did this a day after Sunday’s Bumiputera Economic Congress.
The congress was one of his three key “assignments” in his first months as Economic Affairs Minister.
The first was, of course, having to set up an entirely new ministry that is seen as one of the most powerful and complex portfolios in the Mahathir administration.
But the most challenging task was having to thrash out an agreement with Singapore over the High Speed Rail (HSR) project.
It took almost a month of negotiations and he pulled it off with flying colours – both countries have agreed to put off the project for two years, without Malaysia having to pay compensation that could have cost the country about RM1bil.
It was quite a coup – not only because of the agreement but that it took place amicably and without unnecessary fanfare.
Azmin had led Pakatan Harapan to a landslide victory in Selangor in GE14, winning 51 out of 56 state seats, and he is arguably the top performing Cabinet minister to date.
With all that behind him, he is now ready for party politics, and he came out punching when he officiated at a PKR division meeting in Selangor.
He did not name names but everyone knew who he meant when he referred to the “toddler” who is preaching about the party’s reformasi ideals or to the attacks of an “unemployed” politician.
Azmin has a habit of retreating into a shell but this time, he has come out fighting. He is ready to take on Rafizi.
He found it ridiculous that Rafizi’s team should question his loyalty to the party and to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
“Where was Rafizi when we had to face the FRU, the water cannons and tear gas? He is talking about the history of Reformasi while we were the ones who were part of the history,” he told The Star during an interview.
Azmin pointed out that some of the senior faces aligned to Rafizi had run off to Jakarta, Australia and London during the 1998 crackdown.
Azmin, who stayed put, was the first to be arrested on Sept 16 of that year, four days before they arrested Anwar.
He recalled that he was stripped naked, handcuffed, put on a small stool and slapped and kicked until he fell to the floor. He was threatened with the Internal Security Act (ISA).
“They wanted me to say that I was sodomised by Anwar,” he said.
After eight days of interrogation, they produced him in court where he told the magistrate what had happened. He was released and the next day, the magistrate was transferred to Melaka.
“I went through all that. Yet, they question my loyalty,” he said.
He said the matter of Anwar becoming Prime Minister is no longer in question because the Pakatan leadership is committed to Anwar succeeding Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“Who am I to block Anwar? I have no power to decide who becomes PM. It is utter rubbish that I am plotting with Mahathir to stop Anwar.
“It is a consensus decision by our coalition that Anwar will become PM. I support the decision. It is as simple as that. If you look at the arrangement, the person who enjoys the majority support becomes the PM,” said Azmin.
He said that was why he had invited Dr Mahathir to open the Bumiputera Economic Congress and Anwar to speak at the closing.
“They are the two leaders who will take us into the future.”
He also dismissed allegations by the Rafizi team that he is too close to the two Tuns – Dr Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin.
“I am not Mahathir’s lackey. He is my Prime Minister. We have to work closely, especially in the setting up of the Economic Affairs Ministry. We have to discuss a lot of government matters. We have a good working relationship.”
He admitted that his relationship with Dr Mahathir, whom he calls “uncle” in private, goes back a long way.
Dr Mahathir attended Azmin’s wedding, and it was the elder man who introduced him to Anwar.
“I do not work with the CEP. I have never met with the CEP. They did not even call me for discussions,” he said of the Council of Eminent Persons which is headed by Daim.
He said he cut off all ties with Dr Mahathir after Anwar’s sacking. They only met again in February 2015 when Dr Mahathir asked to see him in London.
Azmin went for the meeting after getting Anwar’s permission.
He said he was arrested at the airport when he returned from the London meeting.
The police took him to a safe house in Sunway Lagoon where he was interrogated about the meeting.
At 11.30pm that night, he received a phone call from Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor. Azmin recalled that they had a heated conversation during which he was scolded for meeting Dr Mahathir.
Minutes after that, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak called him for more of the same.
But the Mahathir-Azmin meeting had started the ball rolling for Pakatan’s change in fortune.
Next came the Citizens Declaration that saw Dr Mahathir ganging up with Pakatan leaders, then his appointment as their chairman and the rest is history.
Azmin said he is bringing this up so that everyone can see what his relationship with Dr Mahathir is about.
“It is about changing the government and taking the country forward. It’s not about blocking Anwar,” he said.
As far as Azmin is concerned, he does not need to stand on top of a hill to declare his loyalty to the party and Anwar. He said it is there in his track record, in the work he put in first as Selangor Mentri Besar and now, as a Cabinet minister.
That is the message he intends to send to the PKR rank-and-file in his bid to stay on as the party’s deputy president.