Malaysians were left bewildered yesterday after newspapers reported that the prime minister had paid homage in an elaborate ceremony to an obscure political figure from the past. Experts said the event was packed with symbolism and provided important clues about the direction Abdullah Badawi planned to steer his United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the dominant party in the ruling National Front coalition. Mr Abdullah led 20,000 people on a 1km march in Batu Pahat in southern Johore state at the weekend, re-enacting a march 60 years ago led by Onn Jaafar, a founding Unmo member who has been all but overlooked by history. Mr Abdullah raised flags, read poems and gave a stirring speech praising Onn as a nationalist who first rallied the Malays to demand independence from the colonial British. 'It is vital that we carry on with the struggle Onn began. The Malays must remain strong, and to be strong, we have to stay united,' he told the crowd. The event was widely reported and even telecast live by several television channels. Political analysts agreed that most ordinary Malaysians would have been perplexed by both the identity of Onn and the elaborate event, but described the ceremony as politically symbolic. 'Mr Abdullah needs a figure from history to burnish his faltering political image and, above all, to counter the pervasive presence and influence of the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad,' veteran political analyst M.G.G. Pillai said. Onn founded and became the first president of Umno in 1946. He resigned in anger five years later after it rejected his request that the party open membership to minority Chinese and Indians and turn itself into a multiracial party. Membership is still restricted to Malays. After that Onn was written out of Umno and Malaysian history, until Mr Abdullah elevated him as the man who saved Malaysia from colonialism and set it on the path to independence. Umno would organise numerous events throughout the year to further honour Onn's legacy, Mr Abdullah announced. 'By resurrecting Mr Onn, Umno is in effect recognising multiracialism as a new philosophy for Malaysia,' said Abdul Razak Baginda, the executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Institute. 'It is very interesting political experiment and I would watch it closely.'