The struggle for the soul of UMNO

THE ENTIRE MALAY community is trying to find new paradigms on all fronts, especially in its politics. There is currently a battle being waged over which concept of Malay identity and leadership should prevail. The two competing models are familiar enough–one is more narrow-minded and exclusivist, the other more open and plural. Guess which one guarantees not only national stability but political survival?

By Karim Raslan (Sin Chew Daily)

This struggle, interestingly enough is being played out at varying levels in both of the country's Malay-centric parties, PAS and UMNO. The party that will come up tops will be the one that broadens its base beyond its already very narrow ethnic heartland.

In PAS, the contention is a rather straightforward one going into its upcoming party polls. The protagonists here at the Malay nationalists and ultras who seek to head-off the ambitious centrists. While the former have been beating the drums of 'Malay unity' strong, the latter ride on the strength of the fact that the Islamist party's recent successes can be put down to the "PAS for all" tagline it put.

Indeed, this so-called "Erdogan" faction is determined to move the party into the mainstream, and their success outside its traditional Malay milieu has caught UMNO off-guard. Its recent success amongst the non-Malays in the Bukit Gantang bye-election bear the soundness of this approach out, and it's "Terengganu" faction of hardliners is definitely on the defensive.

The fact that certain PAS leaders who were in favour of seeking a rapprochement with UMNO have been forced to qualify or backtrack on this is in itself no small victory for the modernizers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that PAS' future direction will have a direct bearing on the political fortunes of the Pakatan Rakyat alliance.

We see a similar ideological soul-searching in UMNO, albeit one that is infinitely more tangled and less promising. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, as we know has made a bold bid to win back the Malaysian centre-ground for his party with his "One Malaysia" mantra. Indeed, his two recent initiatives: firstly, the decision to liberalize the equity requirements for certain service sectors and secondly the ruling to prevent the unilateral religious conversion of children are steps in the right direction.

For Malaysians disgusted by UMNO's racial demagoguery as of late, these moves are a welcome hint of the UMNO they once knew and supported. They also remind us of the moderation and good sense that was once a hallmark of the party that led the country to Merdeka.

Nevertheless, there are many within the ruling UMNO elite who dislike the idea of an UMNO that seeks to 'win' the support of non-Malays rather than consolidating the Malay ground. For them the idea of 'Malay unity' and indeed dominance stands above all else, thereby minimizing the relevance and importance of other communities.

This attitude, which has unfortunately prevailed at the worst possible moments for UMNO ignores the demographic realities of Malaysia. Of the 222 Dewan Rakyat seats, only 70 in Peninsula Malaysia are actually "Malay-majority" seats. Compare this to the 95 "mixed" and "non-Malay" constituencies–not to mention the 55 East Malaysian seats and it becomes obvious that UMNO cannot hope to govern without multiracial support.

Najib is of course pushing hard for this but it will take more than a spate of well-orchestrated "walkabouts" and some sensible government decision-making to overcome the deep distrust that Malaysians have for UMNO. Drastic changes must be set in place if the party hopes to govern beyond 2013.

Firstly, corruption in the party has to be battled tooth-and-nail. The stranglehold that it's all-powerful division chiefs over patronage and money has to be broken. It must furthermore "connect" with ordinary Malaysians that have been turned off by the party cadre's self-enrichment thinly disguised by the so-called Malay rights agenda. That means that the racist rhetoric must stop. The party must reacquaint itself with the more nuanced, multi-racial approach of the Merdeka-era.

These traditions were articulated by UMNO's earliest leaders. Malaya's first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman for instance warned that too much emphasis (even back then) was being placed on bumiputeras and not enough on Malaysians. Tun Dr. Ismail, another party icon also spoke of his belief that the NEP ought to have only been a passing stage in national development.

UMNO has a noble tradition. The party still possesses the capacity to return to the moderation, tolerance and good governance of its founding fathers. Moreover, winning back the centre represents a return to UMNO's past electoral glories. The party must be more broad-based in order to win in 2013.

So it is obvious therefore that both PAS and UMNO has had its share of political squalls. While these battles may seem like your run-of-the-mill political backbiting, what's really at stake is the political soul of the Malay community.