Commentary Politics

Umno has its work cut out, especially with leaders on different pages

You can bet that this year's assembly won't be as cheery as this.

Written by Aziz Hassan

September 27, 2018.

Recollections & Reflections – A commentary

FOR the first time in as long as one can remember, the Umno annual general assembly looks sure to become just another political gathering, although for sure there will be media coverage, especially to look for signs that point to the party’s way forward.

The very little pre-assembly media coverage is a sign of the times for the country’s once most dominant political party, with both ordinary members and those in leadership positions still waiting to see what reforms Umno will bring on board as part of its rejuvenation after the May 9 defeat of the Barisan Nasional, an expansion of the original Alliance it has led from the first general elections in 1959.

There have been quite a number of statements expressing frustrations about Umno’s delay to reform after the defeat, a point common with those who have decided to jump ship, but in all fairness none of them has said openly in very clear terms what the reforms should be.

One gets the impression that the frustrations are more a knee-jerk reaction to the defeat without first analysing in detail what caused the disaster. Was it due to ideology or that Umno has always been Malay and Bumiputra and deemed to not be inclusive?

Have any of these quitters and doubters analysed where Umno won and lost, which would help show where the party’s strengths are and where it shouldn’t be wasting its time, effort and money on? Or have they considered the issues that finally broke the camel’s back?

Issues of the day decided election results, never ideology and Umno better understand this

Of the 14 general elections since after independence, a study of the results will show the years when the Alliance and then BN stumbled, although not enough to cause extreme anxiety.

The first was in 1969, the third GE, but the next five were comfortably won. There was another stumble in 1990 with the Semangat 46 splinter group causing some concerns especially in Kelantan but it was still not enough to rock the boat violently.

The ones in 1995 and 1999 were also not bad, although the letter did affect Umno’s hold on certain seats due to the post-Anwar Ibrahim dismissal in 1998, and mind you, the results favouring Umno and BN were achieved during MM1, during the time Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was seen to rule with an iron fist and showing little tolerance for dissent. This was also a time when political corruption was said to be rife and cronyism another negative connotation and yet the then ruling coalition remained unshakeable. How do you explain that?

There were no reforms of any significance during MM1 but despite the hammering in the foreign media and in the local alternative media, Mahathir emerged from his years in power unscathed, although the social media of those days wasn’t that advanced as it is today to provide the critics with various platforms to malign the government.

The elections in 2004 were an exception because these were the first after Mahathir’s 22 years and hopes rose that everything will be better under his successor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. But Pak Lah was slow to introduce the promises he had made and the few he did manage were hastily done near the end of his rule. For that Umno and BN paid the price in the next GE in 2008. It has been downhill since then. Although Umno won a few more seats in 2013 than it did in 2008, the gains were not enough to turn the tables significantly, especially with the disastrous performances of MCA, Gerakan and to a lesser extent MIC.

Malaysian politics has been race- or ethnic-based since pre-independence and has for the most part been so until today but the results strongly indicate that ideology has never featured strongly on polling day. Rather the shifts between one era and another were influenced mainly by issues of the day.

Of the parties in the peninsula, the only one that can comfortably claim to be truly mutli-racial is PKR where its membership, elected office-bearers and those elected to public office are taken into account. The rest are ethnic based. There isn’t a significant difference in the composition of the membership in Sabah and Sarawak either.

Senior leaders looking for counsel from Mahathir wasn’t such a smart thing to do

And of those in the new ruling coalition, Mahathir’s Pribumi Bersatu and Mat Sabu’s Amanah are fully Malay while the DAP says it’s multi-racial but is Chinese dominated and yet the first two named received enough support to help form the government. It was the same with PAS when it was part of the then opposition Barisan Alternatif and then Pakatan Rakyat.

What makes Umno’s job harder is to find at least two parties in the peninsula with enough support to enable it to form a government because the field has become much smaller. This is Umno’s next biggest challenge, not to decide on a shift in its thinking because with the right coalition partners, Malaysian politics has shown that ideologies and the platforms from which you work on count for very little.

But as Umno tries to find its footing again, the other downside is that those in the senior leadership are on different pages and have made decisions that only add to the confusion among members.

Why should Zahid and recently former vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein seek Mahathir’s counsel when it’s crystal clear that Mahathir has been contentious of Umno since about four years ago?

Why is Najib more conspicuous in his presence in both the mainstream and alternative media and has left Zahid way back in the background?

Members will have their say at the assembly, that’s for sure, but for now the party seems to be clueless as to what needs to be done.






About the author


Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.