Umno searches its soul amid waning support

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2009, 12:00am

Faced with a resurgent opposition and waning public support, the embattled main party in Malaysia's ruling coalition is doing some soul-searching about its perceived power.

Never before has Umno, the political party established to defend the interests of ethnic Malays, been so willing to demonstrate how democratic and racially inclusive it is.

Since it suffered its biggest ever losses in national and state polls last year, the National Front coalition that has ruled for 52 years has lost seven and won only one by-election in peninsular Malaysia. It has also won one in Borneo.

Reforms are crucial for the coalition that has lost its traditional two-thirds majority in Parliament to the opposition, a loose grouping of three political parties led by Anwar Ibrahim, amid complaints of racial discrimination and corruption.

Last month at the annual assembly of the United Malays National Organisation, Prime Minister Najib Razak stood before almost 4,000 delegates and observers to usher in an era of what seemed a more humble, less autocratic party.

'The people have sent a clear message to us. We are aware and we repent,' Najib said, as the party endorsed reforms to make the election of its top leadership more democratic in a bid to revive public support.

The four-day assembly ended without controversy. There was no verbal bashing of Chinese and Indian minorities, no hardline pro-Malay rhetoric accompanied by the symbolic kissing of the kris, the traditional Malay dagger, a major change compared to previous assemblies.

Najib, who came to power in April, told them that Umno could no longer be arrogant and look down on other races and still lead the country.

'Umno must exist to defend and promote the interest of all Malaysians, not just the Malays,' he said to applause. 'This is what [the] 'One Malaysia' concept is all about,' Najib said raising his right forefinger.

The gesture appeared promising, perhaps just as promising as moves by Umno to amend its constitution to change how leaders are elected. Gone is the system from former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1999 that forced challengers to win nominations from Umno divisions before they qualify to contest.

Leaders used this system to cling to power and power brokers benefited by selling nominations to the incumbents - a practice Najib said had led to widespread vote buying.

Umno also amended and decentralised power to elect leaders from just 3,500 central delegates to over 160,000 branch delegates.

'This general assembly may well be the turning point for Umno as it comes to terms with the new political realities of the country,' writer and political analyst Karim Raslan said. 'But the challenges to this 'new, new Umno' embodied by Najib and other reformers are formidable.'

Political commentators say the changes are long overdue, but are unsure whether they are enough to reverse the party's misfortunes.

Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, a political scientist at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, said: 'Mr Najib works very hard and is imaginative. He has created a positive national momentum for his government but it is tough act convincing the people, especially at the grass roots.

'We all know some of Umno's own three million members had voted for the opposition in 2008. Najib needs to convince ... angry members and the fence-sitters,' he said.

'These groups have heard all the empty rhetoric of Abdullah [former prime minister Abdullah Badawi] and they are not in a mood for more rhetoric from Najib.

'They want total, immediate action ... nothing less.'

Najib's government, just about 200 days in power, is doing just that; acting on many fronts to convince voters it is different from Abdullah's ineffectual five-year government.

He has won praise for taking immediate action to resolve long-standing issues that had collectively alienated ordinary people.

Dr Denison Jayasooria, a political scientist at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said while at the national level Najib was acting to curb crime, reduce corruption and improve service delivery, his actions at the grass roots were more significant.

'The change ... is more significant because the majority of the poor, both rural and urban, had voted for the opposition,' he said. 'Najib is focused on alleviating their woes.'

Among the action is to give citizenship to about 100,000 people, mostly Chinese, who were treated as 'stateless people' and thus denied resources simply because parents had misplaced birth certificates.

He also reserved M$1 billion (HK$2.27 billion) in unit trusts for minority Indians who have always complained their community had been marginalised. Another M$200 million was set aside to upgrade Tamil schools, whose run-down state had angered the community. A further M$1 billion went to upgrade neglected housing schemes for urban Malays, mostly low-level civil servants.

'The real test is the allocation of resources, access and equal opportunities for all poor of all communities including Malays, Chinese and Indian minorities and the indigenous people and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak,' Dr Jayasooria said.

Najib is co-opting the slogans, themes and agenda that had won the opposition parties' alliance, Pakatan Rakyat, huge public support. The word 'change' of the alliance's campaign strategy last year is now more often heard from he and Umno than from Anwar and Pakatan leaders.