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Can Umno change for the better?

Najib Razak (Public domain)
DATUK Seri Najib Razak said it most aptly: the Barisan Nasional (BN) has to change, or it will be changed. Every component party in the coalition knows it only too well. Except for one.

Umno itself.

Umno does not need to overhaul its election machinery, media apparatus or selection of candidates. The target of reform should be the system itself — the electoral one-party state that Umno started building since 1955, and overhauled once after 1969.

The political system stands on two bases: authoritarianism and ethnic politics. In the past, these have reinforced each other: ethnic politics has been used to rationalise authoritarianism. Authoritarianism in turn forces Malaysians of all ethnicities and faiths to participate in the oligarchic game of ethnic power-sharing. Ethno-hegemony has almost been synonymous with political stability.

The BN system was such a smart design of equilibrium that it impressed even many foreign observers. Some genuinely saw Malaysia as a model of ethnic accommodation when many other third-world countries had failed. Apparently, the successes in the West’s so-called multicultural democracies were not comparable with Malaysia’s.

The reformist-Mahathirite spectrum

That the BN suffered disastrous losses on 8 March spoke volumes that “something has gone wrong” with the system. But what? This is the same question former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad asked in his once-banned book, The Malay Dilemma.

The most radical position, split into two strands, is that both authoritarianism and communalism are outdated. Both need to be replaced. The “external” and “radical” strand is represented by Umno’s own ousted deputy president, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (1993-1998). He now leads a multiethnic opposition coalition vowing to end the BN’s/Umno’s rule.

The spokesperson for the “internal” and the “moderate” strand is none other than Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who led Umno dissidents in the late 1980s. Razaleigh himself once led another multiethnic opposition coalition to challenge Umno/BN’s rule. He has called for Umno to be transformed into a multiethnic party, not unlike the futile call of the party’s founding president, Datuk Onn Jaafar.

Sharing a similar position, but definitely not daring to associate with the Kelantanese prince, are Umno’s junior partners, especially Gerakan.

The next position is that while authoritarianism is outdated, ethnic parties are still needed. So, there should be political reforms to usher in an independent judiciary, effective anti-graft institutions, reforms to the police force, and even a freer media. But Malay dominance must remain the sacred cow in Malaysian politics.

This is the position of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, and also the likes of Datuk Shahrir Samad and Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek. This might be the reason why Abdullah has given the cold shoulder to Gerakan’s suggestion to transform the BN into a single multiethnic party. Incidentally, all three men were once in Umno’s Team B in the late 1980s, led by Razaleigh and Tun Musa Hitam.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that the electoral one-party state was weakened only by Abdullah’s own weak leadership. In other words, a crafty blend of authoritarianism and communalism would still do well.

Mahathir (Public domain)
Judicial, anti-graft and police reforms would only erode Umno and Malay power. What Umno needs today is even more assertive use of power. The leader of this faction is, of course, none other than Mahathir himself. Many fear that his followers include Najib and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Like Abdullah, who is fighting to leave a legacy, Mahathir’s task is to ensure Umno embraces his legacy. Umno must not challenge his mega projects, Operasi Lalang, or his handling of the 1988 judicial crisis. He was Umno’s second transformative leader after Tun Abdul Razak, who reinvented the umbrella party of Malay groups that Datuk Onn founded in 1946. In fact, Mahathir perfected the concentration of power within the electoral one-party state.

Anyone would inevitably have to dismantle Mahathir’s political architecture to be Umno’s third transformative leader. This explains why the former premier of 22 years had to eliminate Musa and Anwar and pick their weaker alternatives: Tun Ghafar Baba and Abdullah. If only Abdullah was weak and obedient enough, he might have survived well, like Singapore’s Goh Chok Tong.

Abdullah’s last chance

Which faction will prevail in Umno’s party elections? The answer cannot be clearer, what with Muhyiddin’s earlier call to bring back party elections to December, reneging on the conditions for Abdullah’s voluntary retirement.

While Muhyiddin revises his position now, the prospect is not bright for Abdullah to have his three flagship reforms carried out before his retirement. These reforms are the setting-up of the Judicial Appointments Commission, the Malaysian Commission on Anti-Corruption, and the Independent Police Misconduct and Complaints Commission.

Muhyiddin (Source:
Abdullah does not have until March 2009 to accomplish this. His deadline is actually 11 Dec, the day Parliament closes. This is because all three reforms will need the passage of parliamentary legislation, if not also constitutional amendments.

Rationally, there is no reason why Najib and Muhyiddin should allow Abdullah to fulfill his dream. It’s not, as many have argued, that an independent judiciary and other political reforms will hurt Umno leaders, especially Najib. He is, of course, still being tainted by the case of Altantuya Shariibuu’s murder.

By successfully ousting his fourth deputy, Abdullah, Mahathir can assert that he is the most powerful power-broker in Umno politics. And all this without even having rejoined the party yet. There is no reason for Najib and Muhyiddin to anger Mahathir by being kind to Abdullah.

Circling vultures

The fate of Abdullah’s reforms is as dim as that of his followers, or those who did not back Najib or Muhyiddin early enough. Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Datuk Seri Ali Rustam are on the way out. They can’t back down now to defend their vice-president positions, and the competition is already overcrowded. Khairy Jamaluddin will have a tough fight, too. Following the reemergence of the old emperor, the vultures in the party are now circling Abdullah’s leaderless troops.

While an anti-reform Umno may appease party members who feel psychologically traumatised after 8 March, it will not appeal to the electorate at large. Those in Umno who criticise Abdullah now should remember that they could have suffered similar losses in 2004. Indeed, the BN won in those elections hugely because it was led by someone completely different from Mahathir. 

Pak Lah (© Wan Leonard)
In other words, Abdullah won in 2004 because he was an alternative to Anwar rather than a follower of Mahathir. He lost in 2008 because he was not an effective enough reformist. To win the next general election, Najib has to reinvent himself as a reformist. But there is no incentive for him to do so against Mahathir’s wishes. That’s the tragedy of Umno, unless Abdullah dares to attempt something bold for the first and last time.

The whole scenario would change if he covertly backs Razaleigh to win 30% of the nominations. The aged Razaleigh may not stand a better chance than Senator John McCain. But Najib — who is no Obama either — cannot afford to humiliate Abdullah further. He will also have to stop the annihilation of Abdullah’s loyalists.

Both Abdullah’s troops and his reforms will then have a better chance to survive. Thus can Umno successfully reform itself. 

The question remains. Is Abdullah bold enough to deliver this blow, not to Najib, but effectively to Mahathir? Does he dare fight back?

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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5 Responses to “Can Umno change for the better?”

  1. The says:

    Very nice photographs…

  2. vp says:

    If Umno and BN change, can they regain popularity among the rakyat? It depends on how they change. Change internal to Umno will not work, but Umno must instead change towards the rakyat. I don’t care about Umno and BN’s internal changes but I do care how Umno and BN govern the country, help and develop the rakyat. If BN abolishes ISA, engages in transparent financial spending, increases transparency in the way of central government, state government, and even the city councils, reduces corruption, does not control the media, works together with state governments under Pakatan Rakyat, etc. Then, I’m sure BN will regain success in the next elections. There are too many changes that can be done by BN, but I wonder how many Malaysian believe it can change!

  3. Nobel Hargon says:

    Racial harmony was the root of our independence. Fifty years after independence and we are still talking about racial harmony.

    Napolean Bonarparte popularised divide and rule during his era of dominance. The British did the same when it set foot in Malaya. The best part is, our politicians are also doing it.

    Racial sentiments have become political foreplay for many local politicians.
    We are always reminded of our racial status giving dominance over our very existence as humans.

    So have we really achieved our independence?

  4. Allen Tan says:

    Wong Chin Huat’s comment was quite empty. There was no substance. There was no point – just told history as most people know it. It’s just a comment on whether there is hope for Umno.

  5. Allen Tan says:


    How can you promote freedom of speech when you don’t even want to post critical comments on Wong Chin Huat?

    Editor’s response: Your earlier comment was approved. Some clarification: we approve comments that are critical of ideas expressed in the articles we carry, but we do not approve comments that are personal attacks on the individual contributors. Your comments addressed the contents of Wong’s article, and hence were approved.

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