(File pic by Samsul Said @ Flickr)
THE appearance of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad during the final day of the 59th Umno general assembly precipitated a riotous cheering. This overwhelmingly positive reception is telling of what the party truly wants — and what a worrying prospect that is.
No doubt Mahathir’s presence was a deft political strategy. Possessing the endorsement of a symbol like Mahathir legitimised new party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak. It provided Najib an opportunity to call for reconciliation between Mahathir and outgoing president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, hence healing a feud that has riven the party.
The photograph of the past, present and future premiers, their arms linked in solidarity, served to psychologically cement talk at the general assembly about party unity. But the image can only be really moving if one was a party member.
Black sheep Khairy
Umno unity is an open question. This is most evident in the booing Abdullah’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, received every time his name was mentioned. His election as Umno Youth chief was tempestuous.
Indeed, if the votes garnered by the other Youth chief contenders — Datuk Seri Mohd Khir Toyo and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir — were combined, they would add up to 486 votes against Khairy’s 304. Here then is an indication that Umno Youth is split over its new leader.
Khairy delivering a speech on the final day
of the general assembly on 28 March Khairy’s win, troubled by guilt of corruption, presents a compelling message that Umno Youth doesn’t care for turning away from money politics. And, inasmuch as the Youth wing can be considered a crèche for Umno’s future leaders, this means that Umno will be the same.
Despite Khairy’s denials of being involved in corruption, the implication is that the 33-year-old son-in-law of outgoing premier Abdullah may be a liability to the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition as it faces three by-elections on 7 April, and, further down the line, the 13th general election.
Additionally, some have already opined that Khairy will be ostracised by the Umno leadership to accommodate Mahathir’s return. Indeed, no one has been more strident in opposing Khairy’s ascent in Umno than Mahathir himself.
Mahathir’s eleventh-hour appearance at the Umno general assembly heralded his announcement that the influential former prime minister would rejoin the party — once Najib took over office. That suggests a sentiment far from conciliatory.
It also bears remembering that the Mahathir era saw Umno being frequently cut up — most notably in 1998, during Reformasi — because he did not suffer any challenge from his deputies too kindly.
Further, it is ironic for Mahathir to crusade against Khairy on grounds of corruption. Money politics became endemic in Umno during Mahathir’s 22-year tenure as party president and prime minister. One may argue that vote-buying became part of the party’s culture with his tacit approval. After all, Mahathir introduced the much-maligned quota system after Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah challenged him for the party presidency in 1987. Najib has now pledged to review the system, recognising that “a clean Umno is a guarantee to our continued power.”
With all this in mind, what are Malaysians to make of the incoming prime minister’s warm welcome of Mahathir back into the fold?
Mahathirism’s second coming
Umno’s near-deification of Mahathir as a “negarawan” is troubling. The nostalgia for Mahathirism was palpable in the Umno delegates’ three standing ovations when Mahathir and wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali entered Putra World Trade Centre’s Merdeka Hall.
It is no secret that Abdullah’s softer approach is now viewed with distaste; only a sense of decorum prevents it from becoming overt acrimony.
In his speech on 26 March, in a veiled rejection of Mahathirism, Abdullah urged the party to reject a strong-armed leadership style.
This message only received lukewarm applause from delegates. An Umno member even revealed that many thought that the speech was Abdullah’s worst.
Abdullah, with Najib behind him, addresses the media after delivering his final presidential speech
and participating in party elections on 26 March (Pic courtesy of theSun)
In fact, the delegates’ debates during the general assembly reveal that, while most recognised the need for transformation, many wanted a return to a back-to-basics strong-arm approach.
For example, a Wanita delegate defended the use of the Internal Security Act, while a Youth delegate, rallying for Umno’s defence of ketuanan Melayu, called for Bukit Bendera division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail’s suspension to be revoked.
Another delegate complained about exposing the party’s money politics to everyone else and about not being able to raise the keris anymore, while a cohort called for the Umno disciplinary committee to be dismantled.
In all proceedings, the by-word was “power”. After all, former Umno Wanita chief Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, in her opening address, told delegates that an Umno that wasn’t in power was meaningless.
The idea of power
All the talk of reform was centred on mechanisms designed to help Umno retain its political primacy. Even Najib’s apparently concrete steps at rejuvenating the party can be read as public relation exercises, rather than sincere rumination about what the party stands for.
“As long as the party’s reputation remains soiled, the people will not side with Umno,” he said. And, with the speeches of the previous five days, his call for the “rakyat” to be included in the rubric of “party” and “government” came off as trite and gimmicky.
This notion is further reinforced in the warm reception Mahathir — and therefore Mahathirism — has received in Umno today. His popularity can be attributed to Umno delegates remembering his administration as one where the BN and Umno, especially, enjoyed unprecedented, unchallenged dominance.
Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj Contrast Umno’s lack of imagination for reviving the party with the talk and action of politicians such as Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM)’s Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj. PSM leaders’ commitment to declaring their assets is as solid a political gesture as Umno’s promised reforms aren’t for so long as they are about the party, not about people.
Indeed, PSM’s message in this instance is one that empowers the Malaysian electorate, not its politicians. The same can hardly be said about Umno’s rhetoric.
Umno, during the period of independence, managed to find an ideal that both its members and the wider Malaysian society could believe in. It managed to periodically do so afterwards as well. Why is it now unable to do the same?
This is Najib’s greatest challenge: to find a message that is both palatable to Umno insiders and Malaysian onlookers. Further, it must be a message that is evidently sincere. Since the conclusion of the 59th Umno general assembly, such an idea has yet to surface. Hopefully it comes before the next general election — as much as for Umno’s sake as for ours.