Ismail Sabri’s meteoric rise, and his controversies

He scored major political points over the last three years.

Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob has officially been appointed as the country’s ninth prime minister.

It has been a meteoric rise for Ismail Sabri – whose political career made major gains over the last three years.

Ismail Sabri first faced a general election 17 years ago in 2004, and up until 2018 was largely considered a mid-tier leader.

Prior to this year, he had not faced any major political obstacles or challenges compared to his rivals who vied for the prime minister post.

Everything changed when BN was defeated in the 14th general election.

That year, he secured only 43.89 percent of the vote in Bera, Pahang but held on to his seat thanks to the opposition splitting their ballots.

The election results that year shook Umno to the core.

The party had already lost two top leaders – Muhyiddin Yassin and Shafie Apdal, who were Umno deputy president and vice-president respectively – in 2016.

Then after GE14, Najib Abdul Razak resigned as party president while Hishammuddin Hussein declined to defend his vice-president post.

That left just Ahmad Zahid Hamidi among the top five leaders in the party hierarchy.

In that power vacuum, Ismail Sabri flourished and went on to get the most votes in the 2018 race for Umno’s three vice-president posts

This made him the second most senior Umno MP behind Zahid, as the party deputy president Mohamad Hasan was not a federal lawmaker.

When Zahid was forced into garden leave at the end of 2018, the Bera MP was then made the opposition leader. (This makes him the only opposition leader who has gone on to become prime minister.)

This number two Umno MP status also landed him a senior minister position in the Perikatan Nasional government, and later the deputy prime minister’s post – as Zahid was dragged down by his ongoing corruption trial.

Today, he is the prime minister – the third premier from Pahang after Abdul Razak Hussein and Najib Abdul Razak.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob

While Ismail Sabri’s career progression has been largely without obstacles, there were controversies along the way.

The most recent one is his role as part of the National Security Council, to not quarantine those returning from the Sabah state election last September.

The move is attributed to a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the peninsula, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

Ismail Sabri has also courted controversy over some of his pro-Malay stances.

In 2015, as the agriculture minister, he had urged Malays to shun Chinese businesses to compel them to lower their prices.

“The majority of consumers are Malays. The Chinese are the minority. If the Malays boycott their businesses, they will have no choice but to reduce prices.

“As long as Malays don’t change, the Chinese will take advantage and oppress the Malays,” he had written.

He defended his remarks saying it would benefit Chinese consumers as well, before clarifying that his boycott call was only meant to target “stubborn Chinese traders”.

His comments raised the ire of political foes and allies alike, including current Bersatu information chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan – who at the time said “the reaction of any right-minded Malay or Chinese who believes in Malaysian unity would be of disgust”.

Low Yat 2

Later that year, when he took over the rural and regional development portfolio, Ismail Sabri moved to create a ‘Low Yat 2’ only for Malay traders.

This is after a phone theft at the Low Yat Plaza digital mall in Kuala Lumpur turned into a racially-charged riot.

Ismail Sabri denied that his proposed mall – later named Mara Digital – was racist, saying that he was only looking out for the Malays.

While the concept did take off for a while, two Mara Digital in Kuantan and Johor Bahru had closed in 2018 and 2019 respectively due to low sales.

The main Mara Digital mall in Kuala Lumpur had also been struggling with low sales even before the pandemic hit last year – but remains open to this day.

Meanwhile, as an opposition MP, Ismail Sabri was those among who actively campaigned against the then Pakatan Harapan government’s plans to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All (Icerd).

In a speech he gave before the anti-Icerd rally in December 2018, Ismail Sabri had lamented how Harapan was trying to get more Indian students into the Mara Junior Science College’s (MRSM) – which he said was meant for the Malays.

“In the past, MRSM was for Malays. Now because the deputy (rural development) minister (Sivarasa Rasiah) is not a Malay, he is doing campaigns at Tamil schools and such to get more Indian children into MRSM,” he said.

Mara has had a 10 percent quota for non-bumiputera students since 2002.

A video of the speech, in which Ismail Sabri also lamented the alleged erosion of Malay privileges had resurfaced and went viral when news emerged that he was going to become prime minister.

In 2015, Ismail Sabri also came under fire from conservationists after a photograph of him at a dinner in Sabah where turtle eggs were served went viral.

The Umno leader denied eating the eggs, citing his high cholesterol level, and later filed a lawsuit against Sabah-based newspaper Daily Express over the matter.


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