ONE event above all others held the attention of the Malay-language press from 23 to 29 March 2009: the 59th Umno general assembly. Commentary dwelt on the need for new party leaders to secure public confidence, expressed unabashed confidence in Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s impending rule, and looked forward to the challenges facing Umno in the three upcoming by-elections.
In its 26 March edition, on the day Umno delegates would vote in a new supreme council for their party, Berita Harian, in Rakyat impi Umno akan bangun semula, hoped that the talk of change would bring about “concrete action, and no longer remain as political rhetoric designed to sweet-talk the ear.”
They warned that the fall of India’s Congress party, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and Indonesia’s Golkar, had to be “taken as lessons by the Umno leadership, should they want to see Umno continue forward”.
“Umno’s ability to rise again is not only the dream of Malay [Malaysians] but also of other races that want the party to become the country’s protector within a better and more confident context,” the editorial asserted.
In Kesinambungan tradisi peralihan kuasa lancar on 26 March, Berita Harian political analyst Kadir Dikoh warned Umno that “society outside, including Malay [Malaysians] who are not Umno members, are watching to see whether Umno is really contrite”, and that this would be tested in the 13th general election.
Citing the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s poor performance in the previous national polls, Kadir repeated a variation of a worn axiom for his conclusion: “Learn from history, for those who don’t learn from history will be tortured to repeat their mistakes again and again.”
Najib and Abdullah hug after Pak Lah’s final Umno presidential address on 26 March
(Pic courtesy of theSun)
Cause to celebrate
Coverage became unequivocally jubilant after the general assembly’s conclusion.
Najib’s call that outgoing prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad set aside their differences for Umno’s good made headlines on 29 March. Mingguan Malaysia ran a photograph, captioned “Making history”, of Najib, Mahathir, and Abdullah raising arms together.
Within its pages, Baharom Mahusim’s Bermulanya zaman penyatuan styled the recently concluded Umno general assembly as a return to form for Malaysia’s largest political party.
The writer detailed the succession of events which saw Mahathir’s surprise appearance in the Putra World Trade Centre’s Merdeka Hall for the closing speech of the new Umno leadership.
Baharom held that Mahathir’s “sharp and spicy criticism on a variety of issues” regarding Abdullah’s administration in the last five years had “affected Umno, the government, and Abdullah’s image itself.” Baharom maintained that this falling out directly caused BN’s fall in five states during the 12th general election in 2008.
“Kelantan — which slipped into PAS’s hands in 1990 after the break-up of Malay [Malaysians] and Umno due to the dispute between Dr Mahathir and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s camp — is still dominated by PAS until now,” the writer continued.
Tun Abdul Razak (Public domain) Comparing Najib’s call for reconciliation in Laksana kehendak rakyat in Mingguan Malaysia on 29 March to Tun Abdul Razak’s role in unifying the country after May 1969, Baharom styled the new Umno president as having “big dreams”. According to the writer, Najib, the new Umno leadership line-up, and ordinary party members themselves realise that the power transition from Abdullah is a “moment to be seized”.
“The people’s active participation in working towards unity in these challenging times is an iconic symbol that ensures Najib’s success in facing political storms,” Baharom wrote, seeming to take Malaysians support for the soon-to-be prime minister as a given.
Facing the by-elections
Zukiflee Bakar’s Cabaran pertama Umno bermula moved away from fawning over the general assembly to mull over how a re-energised Umno would face the three coming by-elections on 7 April. Describing a BN victory in Batang Ai, Sarawak as a given, he asserted that Bukit Gantang, Perak was more crucial, as it was where the ruling coalition would face the biggest challenge.
“In this parliamentary constituency is the Changkat Jering state assembly seat — one of the areas that made it possible for the opposition state government to fall. A BN victory in this area is very important to show the people that the act of their representative, Capt (Rtd) (Mohd) Osman (Mohd) Jailu, to leave PKR was correct,” Zukiflee wrote.
The writer interpreted PAS’s decision to field embattled Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin as a candidate in Bukit Gantang as a devious ploy. “Mohammad Nizar will surely attract sympathy from voters as an alleged victim of the BN’s ‘power hijack’.”
Zukiflee asserted that the campaign strategy of “announcing instant projects and assistance is no longer relevant in elections”, and urged the BN to focus on winning the people’s hearts. “This means that BN’s campaign has to be rakyat-friendly”.
The writer also warned against the BN fielding leaders, either from Umno or the BN component parties, who might be a liability in securing popular support for the party. “We do not want the presence of such leaders to cause BN to have to deflect more attacks, because there are already a host of issues that have to be addressed.” However, no indication as to the identities of these politicians were given.
Notable in both Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian was the relative absence of reporting on the controversy surrounding Khairy Jamaluddin’s victory as Umno’s new Youth chief.
After a three-hour delay on 25 March in announcing the poll results for the party wing, disgruntled supporters of defeated rivals Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Datuk Seri Mohd Khir Toyo accused Khairy of money politics. The ensuing scuffle was widely covered in much of the media. In both the Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia editions of 26 March, however, this fracas was conspicuously absent.
Also missing in the two dailies’ reports was the fact that Khairy was booed and heckled when he got on stage or when his name was mentioned during the assembly.