Winning by popularity: Can Umno rely on the prime minister’s personal standing?

What panic? The panic that Islam is in danger, and that only Malays acting together as Malays can save it. The panic that Malays and their place in the country are imperilled, and that only by coming and acting together in the name and on the basis of Islam can their stake in the nation be safeguarded.

Clive Kessler, The Malaysian Insider

“BN needs to milk Najib’s popularity harder, say analysts” reads a recent headline (The Malaysian Insider, 12 January 2013).

Sorry, but this is just delusional.

A strategy that seeks to use Najib’s supposed popularity to save Umno/BN, to pull its chestnuts from the fire at the last moment, will fail miserably.

Umno has been around, and in charge (though in recent times unconvincingly), for over half a century.

Najib has been PM for less than five years.

So, with reason, he is less unpopular than his now increasingly unpopular party.

He has not had a sufficient chance yet to make himself as unpopular as Umno itself, by its own doing over recent years, has become.

And because he is widely seen as weak and vacillating, many people tend to be indifferent to him, unmoved by him, rather than to hate him.

They just don’t feel strongly about him in any way: love, admire, sympathise or hate.

He does not inspire political passions of any kind.

Rather, he comes across politically as simply a “cold fish.”

Nothing blood-stirring there about him.

And when he tries, such as at the conclusion of Umno General Assemblies, to display political passion, it tends to fall flat, embarrassingly.

That lack of powerful personal feeling or emotional “valence”, positive or negative, towards the prime minister shows up in the polls as “popularity.”

Where what you are being measured against — here a suddenly and surprisingly quite unpopular party — is a negative, mere indifference comes over as a plus, a positive.

Or that is how some people see things, how many people feel about what the government is now offering.

But any notion that PM Najib’s supposed personal popularity can possibly rescue Umno/BN is just fantasy.

How might Umno/BN win the election?

It’s pretty late in the day now to try to work out a compelling strategy.

But it would have to go beyond personalities, including Najib’s.

All else aside, that is the only way to neutralize the “negative” side of popular feelings about Najib.

It would require Umno/BN to devise and promote a positive, coherent and principled agenda.


Principled in the sense that it was unifying, that it united people and massed popular support from all directions.

By practising the politics of convergence, and seeking to draw in its supporters and allies on all sides, from all quarters.

Not a strategy, in other words, that divided, that sought to prevail at the polls by building up a numerical majority amassed from one side of the field only.

Not a strategy that seeks “traction” by appealing to, by driving and even frightening together in an anxious and fearful huddle, the majority — or as many of them as can possibly be made to feel beleaguered — against all the various minorities.

Can Umno/BN do that?

Can it rise above the politics — well-known for its tactical popularity among the cattle rustlers in old cowboy Western movies — of the stampede, the politics of unleashing and seeking to control panic?