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Najib’s uphill battle

Najib shaking hands
Najib greeting delegates

HALFWAY through his policy address today, 15 Oct 2009, Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak defined a form of insanity. “It is when you do something repeatedly in the same way but hope for differing results,” he said.

The analogy was used to justify Najib’s market liberalisation measures to make Malaysia more competitive. Announced in June 2009, barely two months after he became Umno’s president and Malaysia’s prime minister, these measures removed some of the rules introduced under the New Economic Policy (NEP) and its subsequent replacement plans. The measures included scrapping the 30% bumiputera quota requirement for companies seeking public listing, and making redundant the Foreign Investments Committee, which was in charge of approving bumiputera shareholdings in foreign ventures in Malaysia.

It could have been a real moment of epiphany for this 60th Umno general assembly here at the Putra World Trade Center (PWTC) in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps Najib, addressing the assembly for the first time as party president, could have used this as a teachable moment for Umno — change now, or lose the country’s support forever. If Najib had used this conceptual gem to try and change Umno’s paradigm the way Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin did the day before, this Umno general assembly would have been truly historic.

Instead, Najib went on a spiel about why Malay Malaysians still needed an NEP-like crutch to assist them out of hardship. Essentially, he was trying to appease the delegates that only the methods of implementing the NEP have changed; its Malay-centric goals remain intact, despite the liberalisation measures that he announced.

Neither here nor there?

najib hoists flag
Najib hoisting the Umno flag

During his speech, Najib took a defensive stance on post-March 2008 perceptions that Umno is too Malay supremacist, taking the liberty to lump Umno and Malay Malaysians together as one and the same. Malay Malaysians are not racist, Najib said. South Africa’s apartheid regime was racist. Pre-1960s US was racist. Not Malaysia. Not Malay Malaysians.

Sure, there were lines here and there about how 1Malaysia is supposed to be about acceptance, not mere tolerance. At one point in his speech, Najib said, “Umno cannot be a party that is ultra-left or ultra-right,” and that Umno cannot lean towards either liberalism or conservatism. He meant merely that Umno should be an ideologically centrist party. But it seemed like he was waffling. It sounded like he was trying to balance intra-party pressures to the point that he ended up not standing for anything meaningful at all.

Benefit of the doubt

To give Najib the benefit of the doubt, maybe it’s not so easy after all leading the biggest political party in Malaysia. Three million members are not easy to pacify, especially when the party has been hit by an embarrassing series of by-election defeats and deteriorating public perception.

A case in point might be the reception to Khairy’s speech at the Youth assembly on 14 Oct. While online news sites and some English-language newspapers put as top news his historic call for Umno to ditch Malay dominance, the Malay-language press avoided it like a plague.

Certainly, Khairy made the front pages of the Malay-language press. The Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia, however, picked as its 15 Oct front-page lead Khairy’s call for the formation of a special bank to support the welfare of youth. That it considered this more newsworthy than a call to reject Malay dominance says something about its internal editorial reasoning.

Khairy said on Twitter on 15 Oct, “The difference in [the] coverage angle of my speech in [the] Malay [and] English papers is a study in the phenomena of multiple Malaysias.” Indeed, Khairy has his work cut out for him. Imagine, a major Umno-controlled Malay-language publication blacks out a key idea by a key Umno leader, delivered in the Malay language. Imagine how difficult it must be to shift the party’s paradigm by even an inch.

Wow factor

But the wow factor of a new line-up of party and national leaders can be felt at this year’s assembly. For one thing, the seven key areas proposed for Umno’s constitutional amendments — expanding the party’s voting base; abolishing nomination quotas; expanding the supreme council, divisions and branches; setting up a party elections committee; abolishing annual fees and introducing lifelong membership; revamping membership registration; and recognising division secretaries — were endorsed unanimously by the 2,539 delegates.

There were no debates, save for interventions on the issue of lifelong membership fees. The entire debate on these constitutional amendments took a whirlwind 15 minutes.

Hishammuddin
Hishammuddin

Vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein told a press conference later that he had initially thought pushing through the constitutional amendments would be “mission impossible”.

“It is not easy to ask some 2,500 delegates to devolve influence to 146,500 voting members,” he said. “But the speed with which they accepted the reforms shows how serious they are about reforming the party.”

But the swiftness of the party’s constitutional reforms belied the tone and content of the delegates’ debates on the party president’s policy address. They talked about reform as a matter of political strategy (don’t parachute candidates in by-elections, an indirect nod to Bagan Pinang victor Tan Sri Isa Samad), and deference towards leadership. There was little talk on embracing the idea of racial diversity, acceptance and humility espoused by their own party president.

Umno’s struggle

Wanita Umno
Wanita Umno members lining up in the morning

Perhaps the highlight of the debates was the 30-minute stand-up comedy act by Negeri Sembilan delegate Datuk Ishak Ismail. No party leader was spared by his jibes and risqué anecdotes. Urinating at a football match in England, a naughty story about Cleopatra, Hang Jebat and Roman general Mark Antony, and a taunt to Wanita members that “you are nothing compared to my wife” — he not only had party delegates and leaders but also journalists in stitches. His speech was what American Idol judge Simon Cowell would call memorable. Too bad his was the only one, and even then it was more about style triumphing over substance.

But maybe this is Umno’s dilemma now. The party knows it has to change, but it is too entrenched in its old ways. After spending more than two decades under the tutelage of a charismatic but authoritarian patriarch, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, perhaps the party is still disoriented and cannot differentiate between form and content. Umno needs strong and revolutionary leadership to break with tradition, and an intelligent and proactive membership to understand why this is necessary. On one hand, Umno says it knows this, but it still seems unable to translate knowledge into coherent action.

So, maybe Najib used the wrong analogy — insanity — to define Umno’s problem. Perhaps Umno is more like an addict who understands that the drug is destructive, but keeps going back to use it. In this case, the drug is a cocktail of authoritarianism, corruption and Malay supremacy. As with any addiction, it requires a complete internal transformation to overcome the problem. And perhaps 2009 will not be the year that Umno rids itself of its aching addiction. favicon

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