People change, can Umno?

(The Malaysian Insider) – “Thank God for Mahathir,” DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng said as he celebrated the huge wins in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau last night.

His four words captured everything that was wrong with Umno and Barisan Nasional’s strategy to recapture the two hills lost in Election 2008. They spoke about race not respect, development not democracy, faith not friendship and treason not trust.

No on said it better than Umno's latest prize, Member 0000001 Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who rejoined the party he founded and endorsed Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak as a better prime minister than Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who was his hand-picked successor.

Mahathir, complete with his signature smirk and olive bush jacket, campaigned like in the past by telling the people all the goodness of Barisan Nasional and why the various races have to compromise for the better future of the country.

Nothing wrong with his message, which the opposition thought could swing votes back to Barisan Nasional.

Except the people have heard the same for the 22 years he was in power. And the five-odd years that Abdullah barely managed after that.

The good folks in Batang Ai bought the message although Mahathir did not turn up there. Was the message wrong or was the messenger wrong? Or maybe voters in the peninsula have changed and want some change too.

But the change in Umno or Barisan Nasional did not seem to have happened. The lessons of Election 2008 went unheeded as Umno-BN campaigned the time-honoured way with Umno leading and its allies in tandem.

Only MIC’s president for a record 11th term Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu went about his own way in Bukit Selambau and in hindsight, his critics are calling it a mistake. He had no sense of irony, announcing term limits for top MIC office bearers being on top for 30 years to reflect reforms.

He wasn’t alone in thinking that way.

Newly-elected Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said the voters’ decision was similar and the ruling coalition “must see what needs to be changed”

“You must understand, this is not our seat and not our state, we did not lose our own seat. So to look at it in such a defeated manner… I am not prepared to do that,” said Hishammuddin, who headed the Bukit Selambau campaign.

Barisan Nasional by-election director Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has called for an independent study to look into the reasons for the two defeats but denied it was a referendum on new prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

“Maybe the people have a feel-good factor relating to Najib’s premiership, but they have yet to absorb the good feelings,” the new Umno deputy president said.

Maybe he is right. But maybe the people have changed and want something better than just race, development, faith or treason.

Maybe they just want respect, democracy and friendship and trust.

The people have changed. Once during Election 2008. Four times since then with bigger wins to the opposition.

Can Umno now change to win them back?