A rebranded Umno emerging

After being dominant for more than five decades, Umno suddenly realised that t it could lose it all if it does not take the corrective measures to win back the trust of not just the voters but also that of its coalition partners.

Shah A Dadameah, Malaysian Mirror

Umno has set the pace for change and transformation.

The four-day general assembly that ends on Sunday incorporates a special gathering to pass amendments to the party’s constitution.

From here, a rebranded Umno is expected to emerge, with a greater sense of purpose to serve the interests of all Malaysians and not just the Malays.

The party will also introduce a new voting system to prevent the scourge of money politics; which could entail the abolition of the current quota system.

Way back in 2004, Umno veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah had suggested a ‘ one member, one vote ” method to select leaders for the supreme council right to the presidency.

Revised version

He reckoned that with such system vote buying would be reduced as “who could buy the vote of Umno’s 3.2 million members as compared to only 3,000 delegates during its party election?”

His suggestion was ignored and many Umno members, on hindsight, feel it is a rather good idea.

While that idea may not be accepted in total, a revised version is expected to be adopted by the supreme council at the current assembly which would produce more than 140,000 eligible voters rather than just about 2,500.

Indeed, what most Malaysians want to see now is whether a resurgent Umno can help to wipe out money politics and graft, not just within its ranks but also within the government.

bagan-pinang-umno.pngWas it not too long ago that Umno cracked down on vote-buying among its ranks, resulting in a dozen people – including vice-president Mohamed Ali Rustam – being banned from contesting in party polls?

The recent choice of former Negri Sembilan mentri besar Isa Abdul Samad as the Barisan’s candidate in the Bagan Pinang by-election had again raised the question of ‘clean politicians’ and not many Malaysians are convinced the ruling party is serious about combating graft.

This is because Isa was once also a disgraced Umno vice-president who was suspended for three years due to money politics.

Money politics aside, a much -awaited change, however, is the policy switch that will transform Umno into a Malaysian-friendly party.

Umno has longed billed itself as the “protector and champion of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy), to serve as a reminder to other communities that the Malays are the rulers and ‘masters’ of the land.

However, it is often seen as just an empty boast as the party is widely perceived to be corrupt and inefficient by all races, including the Malays who form its main power base.

Its leaders are considered out of touch with the people, and especially with the minorities who see them as racists responsible for fueling a religious and ethnic divide.

Looking at all races

After the devastating showing by the Barisan Nasional in the March 2008 general election, Umno suffered the ignominy of being harshly bashed by its coalition partners for thinking only of its ‘Malay supremacy’ and neglecting the shared responsibility of running the country together with them.

After being dominant for more than five decades, Umno suddenly realised that t it could lose it all if it does not take the corrective measures to win back the trust of not just the voters but also that of its coalition partners.

najib-umno.pngIt could not ignore the ripples of dissent that were beginning to show and which were further aggravated by impatient members of component parties like the MCA, the Gerakan and the PPP pushing their leaders to quit the coalition.

Thus, when the party elected Najib Abdul Razak to succeed Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Umno president and prime minister, he immediately announced that he would work with every ethnic group under what he called his ‘1Malaysia’ concept – which purportedly places ‘the people first, performance now.’

In one media interview, Najib reportedly said: “In our fight for the poor, we must look at all the races. And when we help the Malays, let it be the worthy ones. Don’t play favourites.”

Subsequently he announced a series of economic and social reforms, which initially confused even his own Umno members, but gradually accepted after unwavering explanations through party and public forums, the media and his personal blog.

Along the way, he pre-empted similar ideas espoused by the opposing Pakatan Rakyat coalition, such as doing away with the 30% bumiputra equity in business and providing prestigious scholarships to students based on merit per se.

While Abdullah had been derided by party members and also by the public, Najib too is faced with the tough job of cleaning up the party’s reputation as well as his own.

After all, there had also been allegations of corruption against him. Furthermore, Najib had been repeatedly linked to the gory death of Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shariibuu although he too had repeatedly denied this.

Najib is also linked to an Umno Youth gathering in 1987 shortly after the infamous Ops Lalang, where he allegedly threatened to bathe the keris with blood.

Brandishing a keris is a common gesture by Malay warriors to state their authority on matters pertaining to the Malay culture and it had been a regular feature in Umno Youth assemblies over the decades.

However, with the advent of better telecommunication and media technology, it became an issue in 2005 when Youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein brandished a keris at the Umno assembly of that year while decrying critics of Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution and the social contract among the races of the country.

Both Article 153 and the social contract preserve special privileges for the Malays.

Choosing a new path

In the 2006 Umno general assembly, which was noted for controversial statements made by several delegates, Hishammuddin had again brandished a keris.

The assembly was the first to have its proceedings televised in full. Several delegates raised the issue of the Malay Agenda and called for greater enforcement of the NEP.

The dramatics and corruption aside, Najib has to also grapple with a weak economy, which could entail a review of the 39-year-old New Economic Policy, the affirmative action program for Malays that his father, the country’s second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein, had started in the early 70s.

Thus, the Umno assembly this time around is essentially to accept that Umno is now at a crossroad and it has to chose a path that allows it to tackle graft and unconditionally serve the people.

Umno members will have to accept that in shoring up Umno’s declining popularity it shall have to review its ‘Malay supremacy’ stance and ensure a more equitable arrangement with the Chinese, Indians and all other mimnority groups.

The people have given the signals at the last elections and their dissenting voice is too loud for Umno to ignore. It is a question of change or be chained.

Umno has to be brave enough to make changes or it will be shackled for life to the old ways that would neither win them friends nor lose foes.

SHAH A DADAMEAH is Senior Editor with the Malaysian Mirror.