KUALA LUMPUR, 26 March 2009: Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s final speech as Umno president hit the spot on what Malaysians outside the party feel – that Umno has become arrogant and faces inevitable demise unless it changes.
He acknowledged Umno’s loss of credibility and offered two key solutions – to limit the number of terms for the party’s office bearers, and avoid a reversion to strong-armed and repressive leadership.
But will his message hit home to the 2,500 party delegates who today will elect a new deputy president, three vice-presidents and 25 supreme council members?
These leaders will form the line-up of the new cabinet after Abdullah’s deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, assumes the post of prime minister.
“It’s time to introduce regulations and procedures that enable the party to be administered in a more disciplined and controlled manner. A mechanism is needed to let members have greater say and to shed the practices that do not allow those without positions or material wealth to be fairly treated,” he said at the opening of Umno’s 59th general assembly today.
He said the party should also give “every member the right to vote to choose their leaders, especially for key party positions to overcome and eradicate the problem of money politics.”
He proposed to limit the number of terms of the party’s office bearers, although he did not specify the limit.
Reject “old order”
And in a veiled rejection of “Mahathirism” – his predecessor’s strong-armed leadership style which analysts have predicted Najib will return to, he called on members to embrace reform and to leave behind the “old order”.
“Sadly, there are still those who feel that we do not need to pursue reforms. They believe that Umno will regain its glory if we revert to the old ways – the old order, by restricting the freedom of our citizens and by silencing their criticism.
“If we revert to the old path, I believe we are choosing the wrong path, one that will take us to regression and decay. A path that will hasten our demise,” he said.
He linked his pro-reform stance with his decision not to defend his position as party president.
“I have chosen to pave the way for a younger leadership, even though many within the party and government asked me to defend my post,” Abdullah said, to applause.
The heads of all BN component party leaders also attended the ceremony. Former party president and prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who, as of yesterday, was said to be attending the assembly’s opening, did not come.
Loss of trust
Abdullah pinned the public’s loss of trust in Umno on the party’s internal shortcomings:
> longevity of power has led to complacency, with some leaders becoming increasingly out of touch with people;
> relative neglect of rural communities;
> ineffective political programmes which did not reach the younger generation;
> prolonged conflict especially when contesting for party positions; and
> materialism, greed and avarice among members, which have created the perception that Umno is a corrupt party.
He then called for change to begin with individual party members, asking them to make sacrifices and to rid themselves of arrogance, conceit and corruption, and be caring towards all races.
“Umno faces a life and death situation – one that concerns our future and survival. We must come to our senses. Outside [this assembly], there are many who believe that if Umno and BN don’t change their ways, the 8 March 2008 general election will be the last time BN forms the government.
“If we do not change, the people outside this hall will not vote for us again,” he said.
“Today, everything that Umno does is seen as wrong, everything that it says is believed to be untrue.
“Umno, as well as the BN, have become everyone’s favourite whipping [child], labelled as the cause of every defect and discordance.”