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Umno reforms meet inertia

Khairy, Rosnah and Shahrizat (Rosnah pic courtesy of Merdeka Review)

THE 60th Umno general assembly has been touted as one in which the biggest political party in Malaysia will set much-needed reforms in motion. But if the party’s Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings’ assemblies on 14 Oct 2009 are any indication, it looks as though the party will have to wade through institutional and historical inertia before changes can even be attempted.

Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin’s speech was much-anticipated, being his first since he was elected the wing’s head in March 2009. Khairy did not disappoint. After starting with the requisite praises of leaders past and present, Khairy moved on to the obligatory opposition-bashing.

But to Khairy’s credit, his attacks on the Pakatan Rakyat were quite measured. When he accused PAS of subjugating itself to DAP, he stayed clear of challenging PAS to introduce more Islamic laws. He merely said that for a party that previously espoused setting up an Islamic state as its primary goal, PAS was uncharacteristically eager to change its tune at the prospect of grasping federal power.

Similarly, his attacks on DAP steered clear of accusing the secular party of being anti-Islam and anti-Malay Malaysian. He merely said that for a self-proclaimed multi-racial party, DAP seems overrun by only one particular race of Malaysians.

And credit to Khairy, his attacks on PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim steered clear of degrading and insulting comments about Anwar’s alleged homosexuality. But as restrained as he was, Khairy couldn’t stop the Youth delegates from throwing in their two cents about Anwar’s alleged sexual preferences.

Khairy (file pic)

Therefore, it was a stunning moment when Khairy cut short his rabble-rousing to get to the heart of his address: Umno, he said, had to ditch Malay dominance. Kepimpinan Melayu must replace ketuanan Melayu. So revolutionary was Khairy’s vision in the realm of modern Umno discourse that the delegates sat stunned for what seemed an uncomfortably long time. They shifted in their seats, leafed through copies of Utusan Malaysia, and fiddled with their mobile devices. They certainly greeted Khairy with a standing ovation at the end of his speech, but it was unclear whether they even understood what he was really talking about. Indeed, during the debate of his speech, many Youth delegates resorted to the same old rhetoric of patronage and did not even address Khairy’s call to ditch ketuanan Melayu.

But it was a moment nonetheless — watching an Umno leader take on the very ideology that fuels the party’s grassroots. It might have even been the miracle many Malaysians were waiting for if not for the other two addresses delivered on the same day.

Rhetoric vs results

Newly-minted Wanita chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil also decided to up the ante with her address. She said that Wanita’s three urgent priorities were:

bulletpointEnsuring women received justice under Islamic Family Law. Shahrizat, however, did not challenge the substance of the legislation, merely its application in the syariah courts. She talked about the importance of looking after Muslim women’s welfare in cases of divorce, child support and maintenance.
bulletpointEmpowering women economically. Instead of going on a spiel that blamed women for their lack of economic empowerment, Shahrizat identified a few core barriers to women’s participation in the workforce, for example, that so few employers offer childcare support for working women.
bulletpointIncreasing women’s access to leadership. Here, Shahrizat hoped that the abolition of the party’s quota system would allow for women’s delegates to have more direct access to leadership even at the grassroots level.

Shahrizat (file pic)

In many ways, Shahrizat’s speech was even better than Khairy’s. She had numbers and figures to back her claims. She identified problems and issues. She provided solutions.

But perhaps Shahrizat needs to be evaluated against higher standards than Khairy. She is a former and current Women, Family and Community Development Minister. She should already know these issues like the back of her hand, and in fact she should have tried to solve them a long time ago. That she needs to raise them as Wanita chief again is actually problematic — does Shahrizat merely deliver on rhetoric, and not on actual results?

Smorgasbord of ketuanan rhetoric

Even so, Shahrizat’s address shone with promise compared to that given by newly-elected Puteri Umno chief, Datuk Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin. To be fair, Rosnah tried to cover an ambitious amount of ground in her maiden policy speech. She had ideas on school education, facilities, urban poverty, language, foreign domestic workers and yes, even Islam. But if Rosnah’s ideas on reform in these areas catch on in Puteri Umno, then multiracial Malaysia will have a problem.

Rosnah wants the national language to be called “Bahasa Melayu”, not “Bahasa Malaysia”. After all, she says, why call it “Bahasa Malaysia” when only Malay Malaysians speak the language anyway while all the other races only want to defend their own native languages? She is also aghast at how much Malaysia is conceding to the demands made by Indonesian domestic workers. Why legislate a day off for them? Why raise their wages? They only run away, fall in love, and get pregnant out of wedlock anyway. Get workers from Cambodia instead, she says.

Rosnah (pic courtesy of theSun)

That Rosnah talks about all of this as part of her “reform” package is worrying. Her address, unlike Shahrizat’s and Khairy’s, uses the phrase “ketuanan Melayu” quite liberally. Perhaps what is even more worrying is that today’s Puteri leaders are tomorrow’s Wanita leaders. At least the problem with Shahrizat now is that she spouts beautiful rhetoric but does not deliver in substance. Imagine the kind of problems the party, and the public, will likely have with Shahrizat’s heir.

And so, with the conclusion of the Youth, Wanita and Puteri assemblies today, the country may still not witness a giant leap for Umno. Khairy stuck his neck out, Shahrizat repeated a description of ongoing issues, and Rosnah merely regurgitated supremacist rhetoric.

If anything, however, it will be interesting to observe longer-term reactions towards Khairy’s address. After all, it is Umno Youth that has often occupied the headlines for its defensive and exclusivist rhetoric in the past. Can Khairy single-handedly drag Umno Youth, and by extension Wanita and Puteri, into a new way of thinking and doing politics? Good thing he laid out his vision on public record — now, not only Umno Youth, but the entire country, can hold him accountable to this vision. favicon

See also: 
What is Umno changing?

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6 Responses to “Umno reforms meet inertia”

  1. by stander says:

    Though Khairy is testing the waters with his speech, credit should be given to him for being frank and unafraid to give his opinion.

    We hope he sincerely meant what he said, unlike [Tun Abdullah Badawi], who talked the talk but did not walk the talk.

  2. grotesque says:

    Stay on course KJ, then we will forgive you for your past sins.

  3. SM says:

    KJ’s speech was indeed very measured and forward looking. No one ever really said that KJ was stupid; he has proven that he knows what to say and when to say it!

    Sharizat, well, she’s a minister through the back door, so enough said. As for Rosnah, you need to watch her closely … she’s following the typical old-style racist agenda, which by all accounts will never go out of style in Umno!

  4. Sang Beruas says:

    I rather first see Umno being kicked out of government. No forgiveness to any Umno crony until they experience being the federal opposition for the first time!

  5. Aylwin Chin says:

    I don’t buy it. They’re not consistent at all. There have been ample opportunities for them to moderate their excesses, curb the massive corruption within their ranks, manage national resources in a proper and upright fashion, and to simply do good for the common people. They’ll still buy submarines and send tourists into space! The rakyat has developed a long memory over the years.

  6. Dass says:

    “Kepimpinan Melayu must replace ketuanan Melayu.” I can only respect the Malays if they can stand on the same platform as the other races to compete in education, business and politics. If they are spoonfed by the goverment by quota system and special privilages, I can only call them Kaum kurang upaya.

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