Is the Umno president the PM’s sword of Damocles?

Shankar R. Santhiram, Free Malaysia Today

Professionally, as a leadership coach, I get company managing directors, CEOs and line managers asking me how to deal with team members who question their leadership authority. This is common, especially when you have ambitious underlings.

Typically, these people will employ a few strategies to undermine you.

They will subtly sabotage you during meetings by asking questions that raise doubts about your ability. Colleagues or subordinates like this will complain about you to everyone else, except you. And, they will also relentlessly gossip to tarnish your reputation, and act divisively to destabilise you.

To help deal with these types of co-workers, I usually suggest three steps.

The first is to clarify your role. You must remind the person questioning you that you were appointed by the board of directors or the stakeholders, and that you take your appointment very seriously.

Next, you have to set strong boundaries with these people.

They must know you will not relinquish your leadership easily. You will show that you are always open to team members disagreeing with you, but dissent must be aired in a civilised and respectful manner.

And that you have clear boundaries with consequences if they cross the line. If there are serious breaches of behaviour, you won’t hesitate to call them out.

The final step is that all conflict must be dealt with head-on.

If someone persistently pushes their agenda, you’ll listen but you will also re-state what your stand is. When they try to derail conversations, you will redirect them to the matter at hand, and ultimately, you will take control assertively.

Leaders sometimes hope that by ignoring a problem, it will simply disappear. This doesn’t happen. If you don’t deal with a problem or a problematic person, others will wonder if you really have the skill to lead.

Doesn’t my perspective sound reasonable, for both my coachees and for anyone in a leadership position?

Perhaps this information should have been relayed to the top leadership of Umno.

In their recent general assembly, the leaders decided that the best way to deal with anyone who questions them is to shut down the entire democratic process, and not allow room for opposing views.

Of course, the Umno leadership will say that a voice/stand-up vote was taken, and the majority of the members present at their assembly, agreed to the ‘no-contest’ motion for the top two positions.

But what about the loud voices of dissent in the party, like the pleas by their vice-president, and some popular Supreme Council members that barring a contest serves only to weaken and undermine the party?

Since the time Dr Mahathir Mohamad helmed Umno, when incumbents faced serious challenges to their authority, leaders routinely used this method of bulldozing through resolutions that allow for ‘no contest’ for the top jobs. They used this ploy to strengthen their authority, and to extend their tenure in office.

But we all know that when leaders employ this tactic, it simply means that they are vulnerable and weak. When someone isn’t brave enough to test their leadership authority in a clear and unambiguous manner, the suspicion is that they don’t actually command the confidence of their own people.

For many, the main task of the present government is to bring Malaysia back from the brink of catastrophe. In 2018, 52% of the popular vote secured the government. But only for a measly 22-months. Then, the interlopers took over and pursued their own schemes.

In 2022, it was total pandemonium, with no coalition securing enough seats to form a government. Finally, the solution to the impasse was this current ‘unity’ government.

Led by Anwar Ibrahim, this unity government had to include BN, and specifically Umno.

So, those who wanted a government formed on the ‘good-governance, corruption-free’ platform, had no choice but to begrudgingly accept the current president of Umno being appointed as a deputy prime minister, even though he is still being pursued in the courts of law on allegations of corruption.

Many assuaged themselves by declaring that this was alright since we needed a stable and non-fanatical government. The prime minister seemed upright enough, and could rely on his allies in tough times.

But what does this ‘no-contest’ declaration show? Does our deputy prime minister actually bring stability to this unity government or is he a liability?

Should we just sit back and not be critical of this seemingly ‘undemocratic’ move by a party that contributes six ministers in the current Cabinet?

If the current Umno president is successfully challenged, and a new leader emerges, will this unity government collapse? Is this unity government that purports to ‘save’ Malaysia, just held together so precariously?

And, is the frightening alternative only an ultra-nationalistic and religious government, and not a unity government partner in the form of a corruption-free Umno?

Do progressive Malaysians accept that our prime minister will have a sword of Damocles, in the form of the current Umno president, hanging over him for the next five years?

Then what real reforms can we expect?

There seems to be a whole lot of questions now, rather than answers, for us.