(Najib pic courtesy of theSun)
THE most solid expression of reform within Umno at the party’s recently concluded five-day general assembly was in new president Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s closing address. Whether change will come in the quantity or quality that Malaysians expect is unclear — but some change seems forthcoming.
“Our next general assembly will be held specifically to amend the party constitution,” Najib proclaimed, in acknowledgement of a perennial criticism of the party’s structure. “Our next election will involve all 191 Umno divisions, with 60,000 individuals voting!”
Najib pointed to the fact that party polls were held in such a way that only a handful of delegates — little more than 2,500 individuals, in the case of the latest elections — chose the new Umno leadership on behalf of its three million members. This gave rise to allegations of corruption. “It is possible to memorise [the delegates'] names and phone numbers, and ‘shake hands’ with them,” Najib said.
The other item to be amended would be the quota system to qualify for party elections. Currently, aspiring candidates for the Umno leadership need to accrue a specific number of nominations by the party’s divisions before they can run.
“As an Umno leader, I don’t want to hide behind the quota system,” Najib declared. Najib himself secured the Umno presidency uncontested because his only declared opponent, Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, failed to secure the 58 necessary nominations.
The quota system has come under fire, including from former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Many of its critics come from the party itself, and some have suggested that it prevents younger blood in Umno from vying for leadership positions. Last year Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin simply called the technicality “undemocratic”.
Muhyiddin (Pic courtesy of theSun)Now Muhyiddin, who has been consistently preaching reform for Umno, is the new party deputy president. When Najib raised these two resolutions today, assembled party delegates in Putra World Trade Centre’s Merdeka Hall signalled a vociferous approval.
“A clean Umno is a guarantee to our continued power,” Najib affirmed. “As long as the party’s reputation remains soiled, the people will not side with Umno.”
Rhetoric and renewal
The proposals are significant improvements to the party; as rhetoric, they carry quantifiable weight. If Umno itself recognises the deficit of public perception that its current polling systems afford, the party may indeed be heading towards substantial renewal.
In his closing, Najib ended with a tone of reconciliation. Likely prompted by Mahathir’s surprise appearance earlier today, the new party head expressed his intention to mediate a concord between the former prime minister and outgoing prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
“I hope to bring together these two national figures, so they can discuss issues related to the party and the country,” Najib said. “Even though the initial meeting may be a little awkward, I am certain that harmony will eventually result.”
The intention? “If leaders show us an example, I am sure that the party will be able to follow,” Najib added, a reference to Umno’s perennial problem of factionalism.
It is a well-known fact that Mahathir and Abdullah have been at loggerheads for a wide variety of issues. Even as late as yesterday, Mahathir lashed out at the election of Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah’s son-in-law, as the Umno Youth chief, saying that the wing had “openly and directly endorsed corruption.”
No public criticism
In his speech, Najib revealed that Abdullah — who announced that he would tender his resignation as prime minister on 2 April — had assured the incoming prime minister that “I will not criticise you in public”. Certainly a jibe at Mahathir’s public outcries against Abdullah’s administration, Najib said, “When we retire, we should defend the party that nurtured us.
Dr M (Pic by Samsul Said / Flickr) “I hope that we can come together, and not criticise each other openly, but discuss problems among ourselves first,” Najib said.
That is an expression, echoed by Umno delegates themselves, not to air the party’s dirty laundry in public. However, it may also be read as a resistance in the party for much-needed transparency — exactly the kind of reform that Najib’s proposed party-election amendments would ideally bring about.
Much of the talk of reform in Umno so far has been mere bombast — “change” that the party grassroots itself seemed to resist. Since day one of the general assembly, it has been difficult to divine whether Umno’s stated aim of rejuvenation is really sincere.
Full support for Najib
Something more solid may be teased out from the words of the new Umno president today. At the very least, party delegates seem enamoured with the rhetoric of reform, and if applause levels are any indication, have deigned to give Najib their full support.
Mahathir, a figure venerated as a near-saint among Umno adherents, returns to their fold as an expression of approval for Najib’s incoming administration. That is a huge endorsement
“Don’t pre-judge me,” Najib told reporters after his address. “I have not even taken office yet.” He was rebuking the foreign press for their negative coverage of the impending change in the country’s leadership with Abdullah making way for his deputy.
“Judge me by my actions,” he continued. That seems to be the best we can do: to keep our critical eyes trained on the party. The candour of the new Umno, and attendantly the fate of our country, will only become clear in time.