Commentary Politics

Why should being Malay be an issue for Umno?


Written by Aziz Hassan

September 22, 2018.

Recollections & Reflections – A commentary

TESTING times again for Umno Who would have thought a few years ago that the party that had been in the forefront of the country’s politics since its founding in 1946 would be in this predicament, especially since it was also in the lead role of a coalition government that ruled Malaya and then Malaysia for 61 straight years, until what happened last May 9 consigned it to the backwaters.

In the days that followed that defeat a few MPs quit the party, taking no one by surprise. For now they remain as independents but for how long more no one can tell for sure because it is also uncertain if parties within the now ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition will accept them if they decide to switch allegiances.

But the recent resignations of two former federal ministers caused some anxiety.

The general position was that not many were surprised former foreign minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman decided to throw in the towel but the one some hours earlier by former international trade minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed was seen as a big blow to Umno, although some always considered Tok Pa to be more comfortable as a civil servant, which he was before being involved actively in politics, than being a politician.

He was regarded as one of the few who worked more and spent less time on politics although he was a supreme council member of Umno. He did talk politics but not often and only when absolutely necessary. Tok Pa was also perceived to have kept his hands clean. It was for all these reasons that his resignation impacted Umno in a way that the others didn’t, particularly from an image and public relations perspective.

There is also a view among some in Umno that the party has been slow to show it is ready for reforms to be in line with the new political landscape, with the suggestion that the party needs to shift from its Malay-Bumiputra domain to one that embraces multi-racialism or a party that also focuses on issues that affect the other races and religions.

A comprehensive, independent survey is what Umno needs to determine what the community expects of it before the party moves ahead

This may be what Umno needs as part of its rejuvenation but it first needs to fully understand how the community perceives it or if the community indeed wants it to no longer concentrate on everything Malay. Is this what the rural Malays want? This is crucial because the election results over the years will show that Umno’s support base has always been rural and thus shifting to a more urbane, middle-class domain may eventually kill off the party completely, in that it loses its rural support while failing to find ground among the urban, middle-class Malays.

The research has to be thorough, done by an independent outfit familiar with such work and the sampling truly across the board. After having got the inputs can Umno better decide its direction.

Umno’s position vis-à-vis the entire political situation must be seen in the proper context.

For example, although it has lost a lot of ground since the outstanding performance in the 2004 general elections when it won 109 of 219 seats or 49.77 per cent, has it reached a hopeless stage? What brought the improvement in the 2013 elections, when it won 88 of 222 seats, after winning only 79 seats five years before that?

And was last May’s 54 seats such an embarrassing show compared to the number of seats won by others? It must not be ignored that Umno remained the party with the most seats, seven more than PKR in second place. The total number of votes given to Umno when combined with those received by PAS was about two percentage points more than Pakatan and friends and that the total by Pakatan plus help from Sabah’s Warisan meant that the new ruling coalition had less than half of the popular votes, something which became such a big deal by the detractors in 2013 when Barisan Nasional still managed to govern despite losing the popular votes.

So when seen in totality, the win by Pakatan and allies wasn’t so flash and dominant, which means that despite being booted out after 61 straight years BN didn’t do too badly.

In the context of race-based politics, the DAP, while being multi-racial, is predominantly Chinese and is known to propagate mainly Chinese-based issues and yet this hasn’t hurt the party in a big way and no one picks on it to rip it apart the way Umno’s Malayness is said to be such an objectionable policy.

When one looks at the 13 elections from 1959 to 2013, the fact is that Umno could have ruled on its own only once and that was in 1964, when it won 59 of 104 seats. The next closest to that was in 2004 when it had 109 of 219 seats but that was an exceptionally brilliant year for BN.

This goes to show that it is highly unlikely that even a reformed Umno is going to shake Malaysian politics in such a way as to put much fear into its rivals. At least in rural Malaysia Umno doesn’t have to fight with too many opponents but the scene in the urban middle-class areas may be a bit congested.

There is no need for those in favour of reforms to over react. Why Umno lost GE14 was there for all to see — the statements over the years by its ministers and parliamentarians that were deemed to be uncouth and insensitive to others and then there was the straw that broke the camel’s back — 1MDB — or if you prefer, the icing on the cake which no one wanted to eat. With that also the fate of Umno’s partners in BN, many of which in the peninsular started going downhill from the 2008 elections.

But if Umno’s support is indeed in the rural areas and that its hardline supporters are Malays who need the party to fight for its interests without denying other Malaysians their rights, what is fundamentally wrong with that and why the need to be apologetic?





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.