Remaking Malaysia: The big questions in the Umno fight

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 25, 2018 - July 01, 2018.
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HAD Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin announced his candidacy earlier, I don’t think veteran Umno leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah would have decided to run for Umno president. But that’s just my opinion.

It’s baffling why Khairy made his announcement to vie for the Umno top post a day after Tengku Razaleigh made his bid known. Even his lengthy press statement explaining why he is gunning for the party presidency — although he had been adamant that he would only contest one of the three vice-presidents’ posts — is of no help.

This is a big question, whatever Khairy’s real reason and strategy may be.

The Umno president’s post aside, all the other positions will also be contested. But for this article, I’ll stick to the No 1 post because in Umno, only the president’s post matters. And I’ll focus only on the big names.

So, whoever becomes Umno president will have to answer another big question — where is Umno heading? But one thing is for sure — the “Umno for Malays” and “ketuanan Melayu” rhetoric will continue to be the party’s agenda, no matter who wins. The only thing is the degree of “Malayness” the winner will project, so to speak.

Whether Umno will go right, centre right or far right of the political spectrum depends on who becomes the president. That, in a way, answers the big question about where the party is headed post-GE14.

Khairy had suggested that Umno consider opening its membership to non-Malays in this era of a “New Malaysia”. And we all know how that was received by the party — its leaders and members alike. Or the majority of them anyway.

It will be interesting to see if Khairy, or KJ as he is widely known, will come up with other proposals to revive a party that must come to terms with the reality of losing political power.

Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi, currently acting Umno president, and Tengku Razaleigh, or Ku Li as he is popularly known, have their own takes on the Malayness of the Umno struggle.

I will not go into the specifics. Suffice it to say that it is a given that Umno’s survival depends on Malay support. It’s the Malay votes that Umno is going after, considering that the number of Malay voters will continue to increase as the nation’s population grows.

Thus, it’s a no-brainer that bangsa dan agama will feature prominently in Umno’s future. And closer ties with PAS cannot be dismissed. Not that this was not attempted before. But now, Umno is in an unfamiliar situation of being the opposition. And it can be expected that the Malayness element will be milked to the maximum as the party sets itself up to be a strong opponent to the Pakatan Harapan government with GE15 in mind. The race card will be played because Umno insists that it wants to be a Malay-only party, although it says it will take care of the non-Malays too. How? That’s an important question.

Therefore, this Umno election is one for all to fight for. It’s good that all the posts are being contested. At least now, Umno can say it is not sticking to the old habit or rule that the top posts will not be contested.

Nevertheless, there were efforts by certain quarters in the party to keep that so-called tradition alive. Obviously, they failed.

To be fair, the no-contest regulation or advice was implemented to ensure unity and avoid a split. True, the leaders, namely the president and, to a certain extent, his deputy, benefited from the practice. But the fact remains that Umno did not know how to behave when facing party elections, which resulted in various camps or groupings embarking on vicious campaigning and creating bad blood even after the elections were over. Healing was only superficial. And, of course, there was money politics — a mild way of saying vote buying.

Such divisiveness had prompted Umno to delay party elections whenever the general election was around the corner.

Yet, the no-contest ruling for top posts only left Umno open to accusations of being undemocratic — a criticism that the party was not bothered to address.

Now that Umno has dismantled the rule, Zahid himself has said the party is now more democratic. Does this mean Umno leaders will behave themselves in this party elections? No more camps, no vicious campaigning, no mudslinging and no vote buying? After all, there are no more government positions to fight for. Unlike in the good old days when Umno results at the Supreme Council level were linked to plum positions in government. As for the other levels, there were rewards for the winners.

However, the fact of the matter is that even now there are camps. Maybe they are not called that but there are groups of people aligning themselves with this leader and that leader. Perhaps, they share the same ideology or beliefs and not worldly attractions. But there are groups, nevertheless.

And already, strong words have been uttered. For example, Ku Li said that he “won’t go crawling” to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a reference to Zahid’s meeting with the prime minister.

Let’s be honest. Such words will not be forgotten easily by Umno folks supporting Zahid. That is just one example. Enough said.

Datuk Dahlan Maamor, a TV talk-show host with strong ties with Umno (he used to be an Umno member), posted on Facebook: “Siapa kata kalau ada lawan tak berpecah? Sedangkan tak lawan pun berpecah apatah lawan bagi nak rak.”

In English, that means: “Whoever said that if there is no contest there will not be a split? Even with no contest there are breakups, what more when there are contests like crazy.”

It is against such a backdrop that the Umno elections are being held, where party divisions nationwide will choose leaders — a system that was implemented in 2013. Before that, as we know, top party officials, including supreme council members, were voted in by the 2,000-odd delegates at the general assembly.

Now, candidates must win over the majority of the 191 divisions throughout the country.

Winning the majority of delegates within a division will see a candidate “carry” that particular division, which equals one vote.

In the 2013 party elections, Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin were returned as president and deputy president unopposed.

Contests were only held for vice-presidents and supreme council members.

Zahid came out tops, getting 188 divisions, to win one of the three vice-presidents’ posts. Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein took the two remaining slots.

Shafie left Umno and is now Parti Warisan Sabah president and Sabah Chief Minister while Hishammuddin has opted out of the Umno race.

But Zahid is said to be losing ground. Just how he went from, pardon the expression, hero to zero is one of the big questions arising from the Umno polls.

An Umno insider, who acknowledges that Zahid “is not popular” based on observations on new media, says the acting Umno president “still has engagement with the grassroots by applying the personal touch”.

And it is believed that Zahid can count on his home state, Perak, which has 24 Umno divisions, to deliver. He also recently received a boost from Kelantan Umno, which announced that it was backing him. This gives rise to another question: Why isn’t Kelantan Umno with its 14 divisions throwing its support behind Ku Li? He is after all a Kelantan prince.

As for KJ, it is said that the younger members will support him, taking into account his role as Umno Youth chief. And should his ally, Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, somehow rope in the support of the 25 Sabah Umno divisions, he should be on solid ground, so to speak. And let’s not forget the eight Umno divisions of Negeri Sembilan, Khairy’s home state.

Now, what about Ku Li? He can be assured of support from the older set and the not-so-old members. It would be interesting to see how he is perceived by the younger crowd who would be too young to remember his jasa (service) to Umno back in the day.

So, it’s between the incumbency of Zahid, the youthfulness of Khairy and the statesmanship of Tengku Razaleigh.

Naturally, the biggest question is, who will win?

Mohsin Abdullah is contributing editor at The Edge Malaysia. He has covered politics for over four decades.


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