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Of Umno’s cleansing
Published on: Sunday, July 01, 2018

By Datuk Stan Yee
When Umno holds its party congress on Saturday, 30 June 2018, some 117,000 or so delegates are expected to elect an entire leadership hierarchy.

All party positions will be contested, including the traditionally out of bound posts of party President and Deputy President that were once protected from contests by the “quota and bonus votes mechanism”.

The party is at a low ebb, not only because it is no longer the dominant party in the ruling coalition, but also because it had gone horribly wrong, whose leadership, according to Khairy Jamaluddin, should have been fitted with a “cat bell” to alert others that it had strayed.

There is a saying that things have to get worse before they get better. How worse Umno can get is perhaps personified in the sorry state in which its erstwhile President Najib Razak has found himself.

The long postponed Congress

This Umno Congress has been slow in coming. Since its last triennial election in October 2013 the party had twice postponed its internal polls, which is far beyond the three-year limit imposed by its own constitution. 

But for the indulgence of a friendly Registrar of Society who, many believe, had wrongfully disregarded the final April 19 2018 deadline, it could have been barred from taking part in GE14.

Sabah delegates

It is not known how many delegates from Sabah’s 25 divisions will attend this congress. Umno Sabah appears to be in disarray following the much-publicised report that it was going to leave Umno and BN to be in coalition with other Sabah parties to rebuild its future. The head of Umno Sabah, Tan Sri Musa Aman who had been Sabah’s Chief Minister for 15 years before the election, left Sabah soon after and has not yet returned, thus adding more uncertainty to Umno Sabah’s situation.

The contenders

Of the five vying for the top Umno leadership posts two are relatively unknown persons, while the three others are no strangers in Malaysian politics.

The 81 year-old Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has had a chequered past in and out of Umno politics.

Some of his high-water marks (if one can call it that) included the time when he locked horns with Tun Mahathir for the Umno Presidency in 1987, which he lost by only 43 votes. He later founded Semangat 46 in 1988 (apparently with Tunku Abdul Rahman’s blessing). That was when Umno was split into “Team A and Team B” in its factional power struggle. The Semangat-led Gagasan Rakyat coalition did badly in the 1990 general election.

It came crashing down, dragging with it Datuk Pairin’s Parti Bersatu Sabah, which had left BN to strike out with this new party. Much subdued, Tengku Razaleigh later re-joined Umno, having dissolved Semangat 46 in 1996.

Many now see Tengku Razaleigh as more suited to an advisory role than to rough it out again in the political arena, never mind Tun Mahathir’s one-of-a-kind political escapade at the age of 92. Besides, the Tengku’s political commentaries and posturing over the years have shown him to be rather ambivalent towards Umno.

I have often wondered if he would leave the party. Oftentimes he appeared to be warming up to this eventuality.

He has said many memorable things about Umno’s political behavior. One of his best-remembered utterances (and, on hindsight, somewhat prophetic), was made in his Pre-National Day speech on 18 August 2012, when he said.

“The present generation in power has let Malaysia down. Our race-based party system is the key political reason why we are a sick country. Without a doubt, Malaysia is slipping. Billions have been looted from this country, and billions more are being siphoned out as our entire political structure crumbles. It is time to wake up.”

Another candidate for presidency is Acting Umno President Dato’ Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a 65 year-old Deputy Prime Minister in the previous government. His recent tiff with Tun Mahathir over the Bugis issue, which was really a non-issue in public reckoning, did the Tun little damage. Instead, it portrayed Zahid negatively for the way he tried to rake up and make an issue of the 92 year-old Tun’s parentage and ethnic background.

If Zahid is trying to play to the Malay gallery to win support he is treading on thin ice. He does not appear to have a reform agenda for Umno, unlike Tengku Razaleigh and Khairy who are both loud in their resolve to make Umno more relevant to present-day Malaysia.

Instead, Zahid’s immediate objective appears to be to bring down the PH government.

At least this appears to be what was on his mind when he said to the party’s Federal Territory delegates at the Putra World Trade Centre recently,

“We know that they (PH) are shaky everywhere. We have the most number of MPs. Elect me and I will know what to do.” And added seemingly ominously,

“I am good with the one who just got out.”

There is no doubt he was alluding to PKR de factor leader Anwar Ibrahim who was released from a long jail sentence recently. This portends a conspiracy-filled preoccupation if Umno had Zahid at the helm.

In this party election Zahid is staking his political fortune in a fast changing Umno, and is facing a future as uncertain as he is of the grassroots’ assessment of his relevance, and a past not unmarred by controversies.

The third contender who aspires to be Umno’s supremo is Khairy Jamaluddin, a 42 year-old Oxford graduate who held the Youth and Sports portfolio in Najib’s government. He is young, well educated and has become very vocal after Umno’s collapse in the last election. When he let loose his remorse for standing by and letting Umno slide, it sounded like a collective mea culpa, but was probably a loud acknowledgement of what the public have known all along, only that few had visions of the “Kool-aid” mass suicide to which he likened the last stages of Najib’s disastrous leadership.

Khairy was not untainted by the racist regime he was part of, but like Tun Mahathir he had the saving grace to stand back and take a long hard look at himself and the company he kept. He had uttered some rather racist remarks at some past Umno assemblies too, even if, foolishly, just not to be outdone by the others.

But he must be glad to have held back from acting out those blood-curdling theatrics that some of his colleagues had done and will be long remembered.

A whole new ball game

Despite the party’s defeat, there is no respite for Umno watchers yet. The upcoming party congress and election are closely watched as this nation of diverse ethnicities and religious backgrounds are anxious to know what the new Umno that will emerge will be like. Many agree that for now, and in the foreseeable future, this erstwhile political powerhouse must realise that this is a whole new ball game that it must play as an opposition party, and do so in an acceptable democratic way.

Few have any doubt that Umno will rise again to re-assert itself. This may take time, but signs are the party is picking itself up and poised to move on.

The interim leadership ushering the party to Saturday’s polls should recognise how important it is for the party to reflect deeply, and draw an honest conclusion about itself. One of its conclusions has to be that the party must renew itself with young blood more suited to a cosmopolitan environment at home and a globalized world outside, requiring a pragmatic, broad and inclusive view of issues and situations.

The party must search its collective conscience. As a party that claims to champion the rights and interests of the Malays, Umno can hardly be proud of its record when it continued to whinge ludicrously that the Malays were under threat and suffered deprivation of one sort or another.

That flies in the face of 60 years of unchallenged executive powers from the prime Minister down to the heads and branch heads of departments and agencies and government-linked companies. In a patronage system that spanned six decades an untold number of concessions, considerations, unexplained largesse, discriminatory favours, negotiated contracts, public service positions, opportunities, scholarships and countless other benefits have been heaped on the Malays in compliance with the NEP, which correctly had the Bumiputra races in Sabah and Sarawak in tow as well. When the NEP was due to expire in 1990, the government found new reasons for this handicap system to continue, arguing that the 30pc corporate ownership for the Malays had not yet been achieved, discounting the many GLCs that have been under full Malay control and virtual ownership.

There are of course many who have benefited immensely from the patronage system and become super-rich.

Looking forward

But the bulk of the community have remained held back, and continued to comprise the majority of the population whose incomes are below the taxable thresholds. The NEP was supposed to bring about broad-based prosperity, not just to create millionaires among a select few. It seems clear, therefore, that Umno as a guardian of Malay interests have only succeeded in helping the upper crust of the community.

If I read the sentiments correctly, it is this sad state of affairs that Malay leaders like Khairy have vowed to address in the new Umno that they expect to come out of the upcoming party election.

Looking forward on a broader front, an optimistic perspective will see a future where the Malays interact fully in mutually beneficial and respectful relationships with other communities. No doubt religion will continue to play a central role, but a heightened religiosity must reinforce and enhance society’s common moral values, improve human conduct and behaviour and inter-ethnic relationships, not the contrary. Here too, Umno’s future conduct must buck its 60-year record.

No more BN type of hegemony

From the point of view of Sabah (I believe Sarawak as well) a resurgent Umno, and the PH coalition for that matter, should be mindful of the feeling of a large segment of the population here, that the central government must never again try to re-impose the BN type of hegemony over this part of the country.

Both Tengku Razaleigh and Khairy have spoken encouragingly about seeing to Sabah and Sarawak’s rights as per MA63 being fully restored and safeguarded.

Unavoidably, any return to KL’s hegemony would evoke the memory of 54 years of successive Prime Ministers by courtesy of Umno. An important fact to remember is that in the past Umno’s candidate for PM and DPM were not elected by the Umno rank-and-file members through a party election. There is no comforting thought about collective wisdom in the choice of PM.

Breaking Umno’s monopoly of the choice of PM

Finally Umno’s monopoly of the choice of Prime Minister has now been broken, although the tradition that only Malay should hold office as PM is still intact. The PM’s race is not an issue, but his personal quality and integrity certainly are. There is strong Malay content in PKR, PPBM and Parti Amanah that are now in the PH coalition.

In this regard Umno is not likely able to bathe in its pre-GE14 sunshine anymore.

The Malays now have alternative ‘homes’ other than in Umno, or PAS.

A constructive or destructive opposition

The whole nation is concerned how Umno will behave as an opposition party, and wonder whether it will be a constructive opposition or a destructive group of conspirators bent on scheming and plotting to topple the government in ways other than in a general election. Khairy has already indicated that he believed multiracialism to be the way forward for this country’s political future. On Umno’s role as an opposition party he also said that if he were elected President he would form a shadow cabinet to scrutinise policies of the PH government.

This is what an enlightened opposition party normally does in a democracy, which is not out of sync with the PH scheme of things.

People are still wary of Umno. As a party, the old Umno did not really have a good democratic record.

In the years following the 2013 election, Umno steadily declined in a process many regarded as self-destructive and heading towards ‘implosion’. Khairy said as much in his assessment of the party.

He is one of those who believe that if the trauma that Umno had gone through was to be avoided in the future, the party must undergo an in-depth transformation.

Umno’s cleansing

A Party election must mean something. It is part of the self-renewal and improvement process.

One of the best things that have emerged from Umno’s implosion is its new-found resolve to subject the party’s leadership to the cleansing process of party election.

The party has gone through hard times and good times in its chequered history, having been high and mighty and lorded over the BN component parties in its hay days, and now found itself seemingly down in the dumps.

But the forthcoming party congress and election hold promise for a new lease of life. Khairy is upbeat, pointing out that Umno has 30 per cent of the votes and still has 50 seats in parliament. That is positive thinking.

There is no denying that as a party that claims to safeguard “Bangsa, Negara and Agama” and champion Malay rights and interests, it still commands a considerable following, and may shine again either as an effective opposition or as a component part of a future government. Much depends on the quality of the leaders that will emerge and, specifically, whether they grasp their call (for now) as the ‘loyal opposition’ to his Majesty’s government.

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