Malays now have a choice

While the well-choreographed general assembly over the past weekend has restored self-confidence in Umno, the upbeat mood is, however, underscored by uncertainty.


UMNO used to be the fulcrum of power in Malaysia. That’s no longer the case. The once-dominant parti kerajaan is now just one of many players vying for the Malay-Muslim vote.

Contrary to what some senior Umno leaders say, the party’s decline does not mean Malay influence is in decline.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Malay community – its likes and dislikes – dominates Malaysian public life.

As such, Malay concerns remain central to the modus operandi of all three of today’s Malay-majority parties: Umno, PAS and PKR.

If anything, the Malay community – the consumers of politics – has never had so much political power or choice.

Still, last weekend’s general assembly has boosted Umno’s prospects.

This year’s well-choreographed assembly was disciplined and low-key. In short, Umno appears to be regaining its groove: self-confidence is mounting.

Thankfully, party president (and Prime Minister) Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was clear on the need to work with other races and remain internally united.

Umno surrogates are relieved. According to them, the party has completed its internal reforms, which are supposed to prepare Umno for the new political landscape and the upcoming general election.

So far so good. But are these views justified?

It would appear that the present positive sentiment is more a product of Pakatan Rakyat’s woes (especially in the light of PKR’s fractious internal party polls), as well as a sense that Umno and the Barisan Nasional are building up an unstoppable momentum.

How Umno has generated the latter is very interesting.

The emphasis on strategy rather than reform speaks volumes of the party’s ability and willingness for self-renewal.

Briefly then, the party’s momentum narrative is as follows:

It begins with MIC chief Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu’s long-awaited decision to retire in January.

This is followed by the MCA’s own upbeat and seemingly unified general assembly earlier this month.

The Budget comes next.

While many would disagree, Barisan apologists argue that the 2011 Budget has created an economic feel-good factor.

On the one hand, the big-spending package guarantees the loyalty of Umno’s entrepreneur base that requires regular government contracts.

On the other, the Budget’s expansionary approach also promises cash handouts to other traditionally Umno-friendly constituencies such as the civil service.

The icing on the cake are the bold, Mahathir-era type initiatives such as the much criticised Warisan Merdeka.

The project is a calculated gamble because while the public is critical and deeply perplexed by how it will be funded, the Umno faithful are clearly enthralled.

Down the line, we will be presented on Nov 5 with two by-elections, Batu Sapi in Sabah and Galas in Kelantan.

The use of strong local favourite candidates (the widow Datin Linda Tsen and Abdul Aziz Yusoff, respectively) are expected to deliver Barisan victories.

All of this will come together to set the Barisan’s electoral machinery into overdrive.

However, the Sarawak state polls present a potential stumbling block.

While predictions of a Pakatan victory are exaggerated, the Opposi­tion (especially the DAP) will inevitably make inroads.

This would derail Barisan’s push for a quick victory in snap elections.

As such, Sarawak’s election will most probably be timed to coincide with the national polls in order to maintain the positive momentum.

The narrative outlined above is all about boosting confidence.

There can be no mistakes, and setbacks are unacceptable: Batu Sapi and Galas have to be victories.

Samy Vellu must leave in January and the MCA’s leaders must remain united.

However, the upbeat mood is underscored by uncertainty.

The party leadership know they aren’t fully adjusted to the new highly competitive environment.

Umno is riddled with structural weaknesses.

These range from a woeful inability to attract younger talent, thereby hampering regeneration, and its complex and troubling relationship with Perkasa (and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself).

Furthermore, its reliance on patronage politics is so deeply rooted that Umno is a mere shadow of itself in states where it is in opposition.

All of which leads me to the conclusion that while Umno’s deft strategies may help it retain power, they cannot replace reform in the long-run.

Malaysia is facing a formidable set of challenges. Currency wars, the rise of China, India and Indonesia and shifts in global trade patterns are impacting our future.

If Umno wishes to triumph, it must go beyond mere political campaigning.

The party must show leadership. Umno needs to realise that the real battle is not about racial or religious credentials.

The actual struggle is more about positioning both the Malay community and Malaysia in the new global order and securing a better future for all of us.

Vision is paramount: who has one for Malaysia’s future and who hasn’t. Umno has to show it can rise above its challengers.

Malays now have a choice, and Umno must work harder to be chosen.