Umno in search of leadership and direction

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 28, 2018.
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Tomorrow Umno will have its first general assembly since becoming an opposition party.

That itself should make it a big occasion of sorts, never mind the bitterness still surrounding the party after losing power in the 14th general election (GE14).

If not for anything else then it’s to put on a show of strength to show friends and foes that they are ready to bounce back.

But no, it’s everything but that.

The preparation for the assembly has been lukewarm and low-key. That is sending the wrong signal — that the party is still in a state of shock and still struggling to get back on its feet.

An aide to a former Umno minister admits that the party is finding it hard to operate as the opposition and with little money to spend for activities.

Some party officials claim the low-key assembly is because of a shortage of funds, hence it is like part of an austerity drive.

Again this sends the wrong signal as questions can be asked, if they are not already being posed, as to where all the money has gone — as it simply cannot dry up so soon after GE14. And is Umno saying that without being the federal government they are facing financial difficulties?

However, a source in the Umno headquarters says everything is “seperti biasa” or business as usual. “Only the days are different,” he says, drawing attention to the schedule, where the simultaneous opening of the youth, wanita and puteri assemblies by the deputy president is now slotted for tonight (a Friday) instead of Wednesday night as in previous years.

Yes, but previously, the assemblies of the three wings would commence the next day, on Thursday and last from morning till late evening, while the assembly would be launched by the president on Friday morning with the proceedings — the debate and etc following on Friday and Saturday. And on Sunday, the assembly would be adjourned.

This time, the assemblies for the youth, wanita and puteri wings will take place on Saturday for only half a day beginning in the morning. The opening of the Umno assembly will be held that very night, that is at 9pm tomorrow — leaving delegates’ debates and whatnot for Sunday. Members of the supreme council are given the other half of the day to wind up the debate.

In short, everything is being cramped into Sunday.

Still, there is an element of excitement or rather anticipation among members.

As pointed out by former youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, the party is looking forward to hearing what the Umno president has to say “and the direction in which he wants to take the party”.

To Khairy, “the party has been quite rudderless the past few months and in desperate need of leadership as well as of direction”.

It is an open secret that Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been accused of “being ineffective, not doing much and giving the impression that Datuk Seri Najib Razak is still calling the shots”.

But a source close to the Umno president refutes such claims and says that Ahmad Zahid’s policy speech tomorrow night will be to rally the troops to come out of their slumber.

Umno insiders say that delegates are expected to raise the issue of the Umno-Pas  collaboration — to get more details or to put across their reservations or objections if any.

After all, party vice president Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri was quoted recently as saying that the leadership would want to know the opinions and feelings of the grassroots on the matter.

However, Ahmad Zahid himself has confirmed that all Umno members of parliament (MPs) have signed a statutory declaration to give him as president the mandate to embark on any collaboration with any political parties.

Wouldn’t that render the opinions and feedback from the floor on Sunday “irrelevant”?

Ahmad Zahid has also on record said that apart from courting Pas, his party is also “open to forge a unity government working with any party from the Pakatan Harapan fold”.

Feel free to form your own opinions about what he is actually saying.

Nonetheless, one thing is for sure — delegates will attack the Umno folks who resigned from the party recently, in particular the MPs.

Expect also extra attention on attacks on Pakatan parties for cooperating with DAP.

But say what they want and whether or not they put up a bold front, it can’t be denied that the mood this time will be different from that of previous Umno assemblies. In those days, the “Perhimpuan Agung” more often than not had all the trimmings and ingredients of festivals.

It won’t be the same now, for sure. Not when they have just taken a battering at GE14, losing the federal and many state governments as well, including Johor, the state where Umno was born way back in 1946.

Mohsin Abdullah is a contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for more than four decades.