19 March 2008

Zakaria’s legacy.....

This is an interesting article by Terence Fernandez in his Down2Earth column from the Sun......

WHEN I was woken up at 4.30am last Tuesday by an SMS from Norafiza Mahfuz, the public relations officer of the Klang Municipal Council (MPK), it was immediately apparent that this newspaper and I personally had an obligation to produce this article.

But it took a few days. Although it was necessary to record our “debt” to a man whose misdeeds had ironically contributed to our claim to fame and solidified our reputation for “telling it as it is”, this column had to be tempered with compassion and good taste.

It was not going to be an easy assignment, because while one cannot escape the truth, you never “diss” the dead.

But my better and brainier half has a knack for putting things into perspective: “all babies are cute and all dead people are good”.

Yes, Datuk Zakaria Md Deros is gone. He of the Istana Idaman fame; he who purchased low-cost land worth RM1.3 million for RM180,000 under his wife’s name; he who proposed that his son and daughter-in-law join him as councillors at MPK; he who operated an illegal satay house and tore down a business rival’s shed; he who owed RM22,000 in assessment for over 12 years; he who served as a senator while a bankrupt; he who ran an alleged illegal sand-mining business; he who faced over 30 charges from the Companies Commission.

The former Port Klang Assemblyman whose proxy in the recent general election was his daughter-in-law Roselinda Abdul Jamil (who lost to the PKR candidate) was defiant till the last.

His last days were filled with misery as he tried to come to terms with the fact that a state considered to be an Umno stronghold and to a larger extent Port Klang, to which, in his opinion, he had given his all, could be wrested by the opposition.

Traumatised by the loss of the state government to the PKR-DAPPAS coalition, he lamented “Negri kita diambil alih oleh orang asing” (our state has been taken over by outsiders). These were to be among his last words before collapsing and succumbing to a heart attack.

What was unfortunately lost on Zakaria was that the loss of Selangor was partly due to him, as he was after all, the poster boy for the excesses and abuses of those in power. Many called it defiance and sheer arrogance, but his sympathisers say he was just oblivious.

“In his mind, he was doing the right thing and he could not understand what all the fuss over his mansion was about,” said Faizal Abdullah, who quit as an MPK councillor after it was revealed that he too built a bungalow without approval.

Zakaria appeared bewildered as he tearfully thanked the press during a news conference at his home following reports of his unrestrained conduct for “educating me on right and wrong”.

But these, say critics were the words of a seasoned politician who knew exactly what he was doing. This second school of thought was probably a more accurate version of the man.

“I prefer to be called Abang Z,” he told reporters after an audience with the Sultan where he received a royal rebuke and risked being stripped of his Datukship.

Zakaria also evoked fear in almost all who he came in contact with. It was difficult to dig up dirt on his abuses, as many were terrified of co-operating.

When we front-paged a report on him defaulting on his assessment rates, Zakaria paid a visit to MPK and screamed at the staff, assuming that they had leaked the information.

Once, standing on top of the desk of a district officer, Zakaria shouted at the trembling man and forced him to approve a land transfer.

At the MPK, the man was king, dominating council meetings with even council heads cowering in apprehension. He controlled Umno councillors and even told them to walk out of committee meetings if the outcome was not to his liking.

“Buat apa lagi duduk dalam? Keluar semua!” (What more are you sitting in there for? Everyone get out!), he bellowed at one session, before all Umno councillors trotted out.

The only person who stood up to him was Datuk Teh Kim Poo, the Pandamaran assemblyman who also lost in the election. The two would go head-on with Teh challenging projects endorsed by Zakaria.

At the height of the Istana Idaman controversy, of which Teh had been a vocal critic, Klang police quickly took down banners carrying words bordering on racial incitement attacking Teh, the MCA and even the journalists who exposed it – Citizen Nades and yours truly.

It is understood that there is no love lost between Zakaria and Teh, but the two last met three weeks ago, photographed shaking hands at a pre-election function, proving that in politics there are no permanent friends or foes.

But one character who remained an adversary is Sungai Pinang assemblyman Teng Chang Khim of the DAP, who Zakaria slapped in 2000 during a break at the State Assembly, following a heated argument when Zakaria took offence to Teng’s use of the word “haram” when referring to illegal factories.

But whatever one says about Zakaria, for the many whom he had helped, Abang Z was Godsend. From getting job and university placements, housing, land grants and even financing his constituents’ children’s schooling, weddings and paying for funerals, Zakaria was the man who could get things done.

Just one phone call and the entire MPK team was at his doorstep to patch a pothole or tear down his rival’s satay stall.

And he is not one to take “no” for an answer.

“He would thrust the pen into the hand of an officer or minister, push the recommendation letter in their face and to the point of intimidation, would force them to sign it,” said Faizal. “Sain! Sain! Tak payah baca, ini orang saya, you sain aje! Sain! Aku cakap sain!” ( S i g n ! Sign! No need to read, this is my man, you just sign it! Sign! I said sign!)

Even Zakaria was aware of his lack of grace and had confided in a friend: “I am not an educated man. This is the only way I know how to do things”.

But in spite of these so-called limitations, the former railway gatekeeper was considered the most powerful man in Selangor – at one time even tipped to be mentri besar himself.

But he was more effective as “king maker” and contributed – in cash, kind and delegates to ensure his “men” sat in the State Exco and municipal council.

Klang was his own little kingdom with him as Umno chief, his wife Zizah Ngah Wanita Umno head, his son Zainuri Umno Youth chief and Roselinda heading the Puteri wing.

When his excesses came to light, even Prime Minster Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo were reluctant to remove Zakaria, with the PM labelling him “a good leader”.

To those who knew him personally, Zakaria was the jovial, simple Abang Z. A joker, who was the life of the party – generous to his friends, family, constituents, and those who did his bidding.

And he was a die-hard Umno loyalist, even threatening bodily harm to those who wanted to leave the party.

However, to the masses, Zakaria represented all that was wrong with Umno and the previous state government where there were different sets of laws for the well-connected and the ordinary man. And this is where Zakaria unwittingly provided the people with the reasons for bringing him and the state government down.

One must remember that Zakaria was not the only rogue politician. There were many more like him or worse, but the revelations of Zakaria’s misdeeds had inadvertently focused the rakyat’s lenses on those in public office and raised the benchmark on how these officials should conduct themselves; and at the same time compelling their leaders to rein them in.

The sad part of Zakaria’s story is that had he played his cards well and done things by the book, his would have been an inspirational rags-to-riches story.

It is unfortunate that his legacy will be that of the man whose unrestrained behaviour, abuse of the government machinery and exploitation of his position contributed to the fall of Umno in Selangor – the party and state he loved so dearly.

(Terence prays that Zakaria has finally found peace and clarity. He is deputy news editor (special reports & investigations) and is reachable at terence@thesundaily.com)


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