Umno needs a new face to regain glory

A. Kathirasen, Free Malaysia Today

How the high and mighty have fallen! There was a time when Umno ruled the roost but today it is struggling to find its footing.

From 1957 till the general election of May 2018, it was the dominant force in Malaysian politics. In the early years it was respected, then it was feared, today it is ridiculed.

When people talk of corruption, the first things that come to mind are 1MDB, Umno and Najib Razak, the former prime minister. When people talk of money politics, the first thought that springs up is Umno (as if no money passes hands in other parties).

The July 28, 2020 conviction by the High Court of former Umno president Najib on seven charges of abuse of power, breach of trust and money laundering related to SRC International Sdn Bhd, a former 1MDB subsidiary, has only solidified the perception that corruption is rife in Umno. He is currently undergoing trial on other charges related to 1MDB.

Umno treasurer Tengku Adnan Mansor was also found guilty of graft involving RM2 million and was sentenced to a year’s jail and a RM2 million fine. Both Najib and Adnan are appealing their convictions.

In addition, current president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and several other Umno leaders are facing criminal charges, including for corruption and abuse of power. Zahid alone has been slapped with 47 charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and bribery.

But Umno has not been dragged down by corruption alone. When most Malaysians use the word “cronies” in a derisive sense, the word “Umno” comes automatically attached, like an adjective.

In recent years, when one mentions “Ketuanan Melayu”, Umno comes to mind too. However, it has some competition when one talks of arrogance for both Umno and DAP come to mind.

Today’s Umno is not the party that was founded by Onn Jaafar and a few others in 1946. That was an Umno vibrant with patriotism, vision and ideals.

I remember my parents talking highly of Umno and the Alliance during the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman. I remember how well people thought of Umno when Razak Hussein and later Hussein Onn were Umno presidents and prime ministers.

This was a period when Umno was respected, not just by the Malays but also by the Chinese and Indians. Even though it was acting in the interest of the Malays, it also took a practical view of the situation with regards to the non-Malays and accommodated them.

This was a time when more than a few Umno leaders held glasses of wine or alcohol but were not corrupt. This was a time when some Umno leaders enjoyed horse racing or dancing but were not arrogant; This was a time when a good number of Umno leaders visited temples and churches during functions, but did not abuse their office or powers.

It was that way for the first two-three decades after independence but then, with the spurt in development and the opening up of opportunities for Malay economic progress, some of its leaders (and their wives) became trapped in a net of their own making. To remain in power and enjoy luxury, they had to make more and more divisional and branch chairmen happy, and cash became king.

Somewhere along the way, loyalty to Umno and its leadership came with a price tag. Somewhere along the way ideals and honesty lost out to power, prestige and money. Everyone wanted to be a divisional leader so that they could enjoy the perks of elected office or be appointed to positions in GLCs or easily secure government contracts.

In addition, Umno became arrogant.

Instead of treating allies in the Barisan Nasional as partners, it began dominating them to the extent that these parties lost their voices. Seeing that the representatives of their respective communities – the MCA and the MIC – been reduced to mere puppets, the Chinese and Indians began voting for other parties.

Even civil societies felt alienated as Umno’s arrogance grew.

The party forgot its role of helping poorer Malays move up in life and many in the community felt left out. They could see how Umno leaders and their cronies and civil servants close to Umno were reaping the benefits of a market economy and the affirmative action policy.

Also, somewhere along the way Umno began taking positions and making statements that frightened the non-Malays. It began competing with PAS to see which party sounded more Islamic and which party could cry the loudest that the Malays were under threat.

There were many non-Malays who gladly voted for Umno candidates in the past but today they do not trust Umno to also take care of their interests. And an increasing number of educated Malays have come to see Umno as a coterie of elites scratching each other’s back to enjoy power and pelf.

Umno has to perform thorough house cleaning to emerge from this morass. It doesn’t appear to have embarked on this since its defeat in 2018.

Umno must return to the time when it was a middle-of-the-road party which worked hard to uplift the poor, ordinary, “unconnected” Malays while recognising that this land belonged to all citizens regardless of race or religion.

For a start, there is need for a leadership change. Those who have been convicted must not be allowed to hold any party post and those who are facing criminal charges should take a rest until their cases are resolved.

That should help improve public perception of Umno, and convey the impression that it is changing.

The various factions in Umno must agree to put the party ahead of their interests. This is, after all, the grand old party of Malaysia, except that its not so grand now.

Umno must put a stop to money politics and reform the way party elections are held. The offering of “coffee money” to delegates who attend the Umno general assembly should be shunned. The party must clearly let divisional leaders, branch chairman and members know that they shouldn’t look to it for contracts or other assistance, including cash.

It should teach members to stand on their own feet, but with a little help from the government as provided for in the affirmative action policy. But not too much, or they will forever be in crutches and depend on Umno for moolah.

It should get rid of the “Ketuanan Melayu” types, or tell them to shut up, if it wants respect and support from non-Malays and the people of Sabah and Sarawak.

Umno should ask itself why Sarawak chief minister Abang Johari Openg once said he would not allow Umno to set foot in Sarawak because it was “extreme”. Abang Johari said Umno parliamentarians would harp on religious issues, which, he said, were a personal matter between a person and God.

And Umno has to lose its arrogance; it needs to be humble and listen to not just the grassroots but also the voters, including non-Malay voters.

Importantly, Umno needs an infusion of new blood at all leadership levels. Younger members should be given a chance to stand for parliamentary and state seats this time around.

Also, bring in more women; do not just use them to decorate halls, prepare food and look lovely at functions. Allow more women to stand in the next general election. I’m sure the party will be able to find a few Fatimah Hashims or Rafidah Azizs from among its women members.

From my years in journalism, I can say that women are very much less susceptible to corruption and work sincerely and honestly for their constituents. Umno should learn from the DAP whose women MPs are shining lights. Some of them have proven to be more capable than male elected representatives.

And yes, there are too many tired old faces still around in Umno; they should be rested. Younger members can be expected to bring fresh perspectives to the table and can help rejuvenate the party.

The revival process must begin with a change in the presidency. Deputy president Mohamad Hasan looks like a natural bet for the post. Although he is credited with doing a good job as menteri besar of Negri Sembilan from 2004 to 2018, he is untested at the federal level. But that shouldn’t be a problem, as sometimes people who are new to a position can do a better job than those who have been around for years. This is because they bring new perspectives, and see things with fresh eyes.

Umno members can consider old warhorse Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Khairy Jamaluddin – both of whom stood for but lost in the previous Umno presidential election. They can also consider FT Umno chief Johari Abdul Ghani.

They should also vote in more youths into the party’s supreme council and promote capable youngsters such as Umno information chief Shahril Hamdan who shows great promise.

When I say Umno must change its face, I don’t mean just having a new face as president; I also mean, and this is more important, that its members should institute reforms that will help Umno blossom again as a respected and effective Malaysian – not just Malay – party.