A crisis of leadership?

Philip Golingai, The Star

“FU bu guo san dai” is a Chinese saying that means “wealth (or success) does not pass three generations”.

Arguably, this saying applied to Umno in the 14th and 15th General Elections: The party went into GE14 and GE15 with third- generation leaders.

Umno had been a roaring success since independence in 1957. It ruled all other parties for decades until its historic loss to Pakatan Harapan in GE14 in 2018. The party, under then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, only won 54 seats.

Its fortunes dipped further in 2022 when, led by president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Umno only won 26 seats. It was its worst-ever general elections result.

Based on the GE15 result, Umno is now the third choice in its traditional electorate. PAS and Bersatu (now dubbed Umno 2.0) are the parties of choice among conservative Malay voters.

What happened to this once- powerful party? Well, success breeds failure.

With success comes power and wealth. And when politicians enjoy these trappings of success too much, they forget the party’s cause, and they’re carried away by self-interest. When they stop thinking about what is good for the party, its members, the rakyat and the next generation, when they only think of how to enrich themselves and their family members, failure during general elections is almost guaranteed.

Some Umno leaders have lost their loyalty to the party’s original cause of helping all Malays. I believe that is why they ditched the party at the first sign of trouble – Umno losing power in 2018 – to join parties that were in government then.

Leaders in Umno have found ways to remain in their positions, for example, by decreeing no contests for president and deputy president posts in party polls. This happened in 2013 when the party decided that the president’s post held by Najib then, and the deputy president’s post held by then deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, should not be challenged as it could “weaken the party”.

By agreeing to this no-contest decision, did Najib – currently jailed for corruption in the 1MDB financial scandal – win in the short-term only to lose in the long-term? Arguably, if Najib had allowed party members to contest for the two top posts, he could still be PM and Umno president now because a contest would have allowed him to filter out future enemies, and there might not have been a court case.

He had no reason to worry about competition then as he was at the peak of his power and would not have been defeated. In a political poker game, a politician should only wield the no contest card when he has a bad hand. A powerful politician would use a party contest to strengthen his grip on power.

Another way leaders hang onto power is by postponing party elections, usually for 18 months at a time. The usual excuse is so that the party can focus on strengthening itself.

Take the current leadership term. After Najib resigned and Ahmad Zahid was elected president in 2018, his term was extended for 18 months. It was further extended when the party decided that party polls would only be held within six months after GE15.

Now there are calls again to not contest for the Umno president and deputy president posts. The usual excuse is so that the party can focus on strengthening itself and “restoring the people’s trust”. The other excuse is that a contest will threaten unity and cause divisions.

If the party takes the no contest path, Ahmad Zahid and deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan will remain in their positions.

But for the good of the party, they should abide by the spirit of its Constitution and discipline rules. Leadership contests are held to strengthen party leadership, and the disciplinary committee is supposed to ensure fair play and punish those who resort to money politics.

Ahmad Zahid, currently Deputy Prime Minister and Rural and Regional Development Minister, and Mohamad, now Defence Minister, have the power of incumbency and government patronage. They have the upper hand against potential challengers such as Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin. This is not the time for them to play the no contest card. Before GE15, it would have been a different story as Hishammuddin and Khairy were ministers, they’re not now.

If the Umno president is wise, he will allow all members to contest for the No.1 and No.2 positions. A fair contest, along with firm disciplinary action against those who bring negative elements into the contest, would see the party rejuvenate itself. That would be the wise choice for the current leadership.

However, I have heard that there is a plan for delegates at the 2022 Umno General Assembly – scheduled to take place from Wednesday to next Sunday – to vote for a no contest decision.

It might not be a good decision for a party whose leaders have managed to live down to fu bu guo san dai.