Umno polls to usher in a new era

Umno’s maiden attempt at democratising its election process is more likely to produce a mixed bag than the dream team of leaders that some are expecting.

The pro-Umno bloggers have been quite critical of the government of late. They had run down Najib’s election war-room team, they were not impressed with the Cabinet line-up and, more recently, they have been going for Pemandu, the body that oversees the government’s transformation programmes.

Joceline Tan, The Star

DATUK Syed Ali Alhabshee does not believe in doing things in a half-hearted way. That also applies to the way he talks.

Syed Ali is the Cheras Umno division chief and some of the Umno people around him often joke that: “Our boss’ mouth is like a bazooka rocket, badaboom, badaboom! Even ghosts are scared of him.”

His annual Cheras Umno Hari Raya open house is often proclaimed as “the best” albeit by the Umno chaps in the division

But their Raya do this year was a showstopper. Syed Ali turned the strip of no-man’s land beneath the elevated highway next to his party headquarters into a twinkling fairyland with giant ketupats dangling everywhere.

The VIP guest Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who has seen more than his share of Raya open houses, turned his head this way and that, taking in the crowd, the noise and the lights.

“You are very creative,” the Prime Minister told Syed Ali when he realised that all the festivity was taking place underneath a busy highway.

Anyone who has been to Cheras Umno for Raya would know that Syed Ali is no ordinary Umno warlord because apart from Najib, the other VIP guests included Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and his wife Puan Seri Noorainee Abdul Rahman, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali and a string of ministers.

Fireworks lit up the sky when the two Tuns arrived. More fireworks exploded when Muhyiddin came and also when Najib’s car drew up. Everyone thought that was about it with the pyrotechnics but the last of the fireworks went off when Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor arrived at about 10.30pm from a Raya do elsewhere.

The First Lady had skipped dinner at her earlier stop, and she told Syed Ali: “Syed, I came because of you.”

Cheras is one of those Chinese-dominated seats where the DAP always does well. Malays make up only 10% of the voters and politicians like Syed Ali will always be the electoral bystander. But he is the go-to man for the average Joe in Cheras and his division has helped people in trouble and in need.

The unspoken is sometimes more significant than the spoken in Malay politics. It is not easy to get the “big three” of Umno around the same table and the fact that they were in Cheras says a lot.

“My boss (Syed Ali) has shown it is not the position you hold but the role you play in the party that matters. He is only a division chief but he speaks up, he fights for Umno, he defends the party, he is committed to the party’s survival. For him, it’s not about position, it’s about the party and the leaders appreciate that,” said Datuk Zurainah Musa, the Wanita Umno vice-head of Cheras.

Moreover, Cheras Umno is the only division that Dr Mahathir has allowed to use his name for the “Tun Mahathir Scholarship”.

The signal from the Umno top guns is clear: Umno needs more leaders who can stand up for the party even though they do not hold a big post.

“People are always asking me to contest for a supreme council seat. They phone me, they SMS, they even come to my office. They tell me I will win but I tell them I can work even without a post,” said Syed Ali.

Syed Ali’s politics is probably too Malay right wing for most people’s comfort. But for someone who is still rather old politics, he has made excellent use of the new media.

His political blog (umno is filled with hard-hitting statements. He has asked a former Hindraf leader to resign his deputy minister post and he slammed DAP for their attacks on theTanda Putera film. He defends the police, he labelled the Chinese education group Dong Zong as racist and is opposed to Chin Peng’s return because he said Malay hearts are “still bleeding” over the atrocities of the communists.

Lately, some of his “bazooka rockets” have been aimed at those within the party and in connection to the party election.

He told those eyeing posts in the Umno election that such contests are not “for fun” and those going for posts should look into the mirror and ask themselves if they deserve it. He also appealed to delegates to elect those who are clean and do not have baggage.

His earlier call for Wanita Umno leader Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil to make way caused a stir but he has since toned down because he can see that the tide is with Shahrizat.

Syed Ali is one of the few people airing comments and opinions on the Umno election. That is the beauty of not vying for a post – it frees one from having to pretend to be, as they say, all sugar and spice and everything.

Those vying for posts are on their best behaviour which in Malay politics would equate to being humble and friendly to all. Open attacks against an opponent is a definite no-no. For that matter, any over-the-top promotion of oneself would be seen as boastful.

It is a delicate balancing act, and the only other person offering frank commentary on the Umno polls is Dr Mahathir except that he does it in a more polished way than Syed Ali.

Campaigning has been going on in a subtle way at Hari Raya open houses although nomination day is still another three weeks away.

On Wednesday, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam confirmed what many had expected – he is going for the vice-president (VP) post, thus making it a total of five candidates for the three posts, so far.

The former Malacca Chief Minister was quite bitter about losing in the general election and his supporters blame the Chinese for it. But the upside of this is that he is now free to move around to campaign and he has been seen at almost every major Raya open house where he is welcomed like an old friend and hero.

Mohd Ali said he is going in because he wants to defend Malay rights and he expressed concern over the way Islam is being challenged by certain quarters.

The Chinese language papers played up his comment about closing down the Genting casino which he said caused social problems and crimes. Some were puzzled where that comment was coming from but it is, of course, part of the election campaign.

Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein took out a full-page colour advertisement inMingguan Malaysia last Sunday, ostensibly to wish everyone a happy Merdeka. The ad showed him looking handsome and fit with lots of pictures of the minister mingling with the troops and army veterans and on duty in Sabah during the Sulu intrusion.

His Merdeka message was “Hargai kedaulatan, cintai kemerdekaan, pertahankan ibu pertiwi” (treasure our sovereignty, cherish our independence, defend our motherland). As some noted, it could very well have been his campaign slogan to defend his VP post.

Syed Akbar Ali, the pro-Umno blogger known as Outsyed The Box, ran an online poll on the VP Race. The names he listed included the three incumbents Hishammuddin, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal plus the three other VP candidates, Mohd Ali, Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir even though Mukhriz has not shown any interest in the post.

The poll showed Mukhriz leading, followed by Zahid and Mohd Ali. Fortunately for those trailing, the online voters will not be the ones voting in the Umno election. But it is still an interesting indication of how the online inhabitants view the candidates although some saw it as Syed Akbar egging Mukhriz to take the leap.

The pro-Umno bloggers have been quite critical of the government of late. They had run down Najib’s election war-room team, they were not impressed with the Cabinet line-up and, more recently, they have been going for Pemandu, the body that oversees the government’s transformation programmes.

Some claimed the bloggers harbour an anti-Najib agenda but according to the loudest of them all, Zakhir Mohamed aka Bigdog, their attacks have nothing to do with the Umno election.

“We are not against Najib. He is still our choice for president, we want him up there but we don’t approve of some of the people he has appointed and the shadow hands behind the scenes,” said Zakhir.

Zakhir and his gang are also very pro-Mahathir. They worship the ground he walks on, they see the Mahathir era as “Umno’s golden years” and they hanker for the time when the Government was strong and tough.

In that sense, the Umno election is also about the party struggling to make the transition into the new politics.

The younger set in Umno, especially those based in urban centres, can feel the ground shifting under their feet. They know that to survive, Umno has to come to terms with the changes taking place around them.

Umno, said Umno Youth exco member Datuk Zaki Zahid, has to take to heart what the voters want.

“Everybody has a voice these days, that is the sign of the new era. The people have spoken and the new team has to be able to interpret the changes. Our language and rhetoric have to be consistent with the new thinking,” said Zaki.

Part of Umno wants to return to the way things used to be, part of it knows it has to keep apace with the times to survive.

But even those calling for Umno to change and transform are basically talking about dismantling the way the warlords control politics in the party.

They want to change the way the warlords block new and genuine talent from coming into the party and rising up. For instance, they believe that they could have done better in Selangor if not for warlordism.

“The basic core values of Umno as a Malay nationalist party, that it stands up for ‘bangsa, agama dan negara’, all that remains. No one is challenging those core values,” said an Umno official.

These are the conflicting forces that Najib has had to grapple with from the day he took over as president and it is all about to come to a shake-down.

Predicting the Umno polls is not as easy as it used to be with the new election system. Some imagine that given the new and democratised mechanics, capable faces without baggage can easily join the race, get elected and become part of the new team.

But, said the Umno official, the established faces and those who are often featured in the Umno-affiliatedUtusan Malaysia will have the advantage because the majority of the delegates who will be voting are pretty ordinary party members who do not look too deep into issues or personalities.

“I doubt if we will get really outstanding faces emerging. It will be a mixed bag,” he said.