DATUK Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob probably never imagined how much his life would change in one month.
He was appointed the Deputy Prime Minister on July 7, but more than a month later, he became the shortest-serving DPM in the country’s history when the Muhyiddin administration collapsed.
With Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin handing his resignation letter as prime minister to the King on Aug 16, it had appeared the mild-mannered Pahang politician would be a footnote in history.
But he is now the ninth Prime Minister of Malaysia. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, after a meeting with fellow Rulers, has picked the 61-year-old lawyer to helm the country.
This came after 114 Members of Parliament endorsed him as the PM. The MP for Bera from Pahang has set a record – being promoted twice to the country’s highest political posts in over a month.
It looks like a feat that will be hard to match. Say what you want; Ismail Sabri takes the credit for putting together a deal that many thought would have been impossible.
Last Sunday, at around 9.45pm, an Umno MP texted to say that the negotiation between Umno and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia had reached a deadlock, saying His Majesty would have to decide.
But 48 hours later, the mood changed with the Umno leadership deciding to endorse their vice-president, Ismail Sabri, finally.
As the saying goes, the rest is history when 114 MPs from Perikatan Nasional, Barisan Nasional, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Parti Bersatu Sabah, and four independents gave their backing to Ismail Sabri.
The only exception was veteran Umno MP from Gua Musang, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who decided otherwise.
The Bera MP is taking over a task as the PM in the most difficult time of our nation’s history. Fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and rebuilding the economy is tough; he will continue to walk on thin ice.
He cannot afford a repeat of MPs pulling out as it happened when Umno withdrew support for Muhyiddin as PM.
The irony is after going through all this; the government is back with the same figure of 114 MPs. The difference is the PM is now from Umno – and not from Bersatu.
Ismail Sabri faces a strong and formidable Opposition headed by PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who has failed to be the PM again.
But don’t be quick to write Anwar off as he still has another chance in the general election. He could well have the public on his side by riding on the anti-establishment sentiments of the people.
As Ismail Sabri celebrates his appointment, his problems could well be starting. Even though he is PM, he has to answer to his Umno bosses and meet the demands of Bersatu and other partners, including GPS in Sarawak.
For the incoming Prime Minister, his immediate task is to ensure that he completes the last lap of a full vaccination for the country and puts the economy on track. If he can do this, then he will begin his administration on the right footing.
He may inherit the bloated Cabinet due to the compromises and deals and could have the same ministers, which have found themselves being heavily criticised.
But if he is prepared to cut down the number of ministers and advisers, he would earn plenty of goodwill to start.
To his supporters, Ismail Sabri is affable and humble which has endeared him to the rural folks while his critics say he is not urbane enough.
Obviously, he is well-aware of the many controversial statements that he has made in the past, which have painted him as an ultra-Malay leader, but he must understand that he is now the PM of all Malaysians.
A list of issues has gone viral to remind him of what he has said previously.
The days of politicians, who use race and religion, will no longer be looked upon favourably. Thanks to social media, the images of their ill-fated remarks will continue to haunt them in cyberspace.
It didn’t help Ismail Sabri when he defended his stand as it made him sound defensive, stubborn and worse; his justifications and denial deepen the optics of him.
But those who know Ismail Sabri can tell you that he is not the racist he has been made out to be. Perception, unfortunately, is everything.
When a Nanyang reporter, Eric Foo, was hospitalised, Ismail Sabri discreetly visited the newsman immediately after he was informed of the case.
Ismail Sabri also makes it a point to visit a Malaysian restaurant, run by businessman Tam Yun Tong, each time he visits Tokyo. He would spend extra time chatting with the mostly Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity at the café.
In his constituency, a district in southwestern Pahang, bordering Negri Sembilan, he is easily accessible.
But he would need more than just these anecdotes to show if he wishes to win trust.
Ismail Sabri now has to show that he is the leader who every Malaysian can depend upon to take them through these choppy waters regardless of their race and religion.
The nation is at war, and he has been chosen as the general to take on the pandemic. Now is the time to bring Malaysians together, including even political opponents, and not fight each other.
As an Umno veteran, he would know how Tunku Abdul Rahman – despite fighting for Malay rights – continues to be regarded as the greatest Malaysian leader by all races until today.
Ismail Sabri is fighting against the clock as he has to prove his worth fast to win a mandate at the elections.
Keep the Spirit of 57 alive and meaningful as we celebrate the 64th National Day. Over to you, Datuk Seri, and congratulations on your appointment as PM9. We want you to succeed so that Malaysia and Malaysians will succeed together, too.
Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 35 years in various capacities and roles. He is now group editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the group, after having served as group managing director/chief executive officer.