Corrected at 11.20am, 20 March 2009
Najib (left) is widely expected to be made the next prime minister (File pic)
IT goes without saying that the upcoming Umno general assembly from 24 to 28 March 2009 will be about power transitions.
(Corrected) When the assembly closes, Umno will have a new president, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, and the delegates would have chosen a new deputy president, three vice-presidents and the leaders for the Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings, who are also vice-presidents in the Supreme Council.
As the new Umno president, Najib is widely expected to be made the next prime minister, barring any sudden political developments. Additionally, his deputy in the party will most likely, by convention, be made Malaysia’s new deputy premier. Hence, Umno’s transition of power is also a transition of power for the nation.
Many issues will crop up during the general assembly but the question that remains for the party and the nation is, does Umno have the kind of leadership the party and the nation needs?
Second in command
“To be successful, Najib needs to head a strong team. The choice of his number two is crucial,” says emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology Dr Clive Kessler, from the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “It must strengthen him and the government, be credible, and provide balance.”
For associate professor Joseph Liow, a specialist in Malaysian politics from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is the deputy president candidate most capable of fulfilling this role.
“Muhyiddin is seen in many circles as potentially the most competent. He clearly has a broader internal reach than [rival candidate] Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib,” Liow says in an interview.
“Many among the younger cohort of Umno leaders see him as someone who would be their best bet as a reformer, to the extent that the party can really be reformed,” Liow continues. He also points out that both former party president-hopeful Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh and former president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad have thrown their weight behind Muhyiddin.
Muhyiddin (right) is seen by some as the most competent candidate to fulfil the role of deputy president
In a poll conducted by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, Muhyiddin was placed in the lead in the deputy presidential race, with 52% of respondents favouring him.
In the wings, meanwhile, both the Umno Youth and Wanita chief posts are also being hotly contested by upcoming leaders.
But these personalities aside, Umno’s new line-up of leaders may still not have what it takes to turn the party around. And Umno needs capable leaders, especially now, post-March 2008, and with the economy in trouble.
Dearth of leadership
“To be blunt, there is a serious dearth of leadership talent — leadership of adequate stature, vision and intelligence — in Umno these days,” Kessler says in an e-mail interview from Sydney, Australia.
Political analyst Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff concurs. The associate professor from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia says Umno requires leadership that “doesn’t insult the intellect of the people, knows how to glorify democracy, and accept differences in opinion.”
However, he believes that Malaysian politicians, Umno leaders in particular, are feudalistic. Hence, he is not hopeful about promised reforms. “There will not be so much change as to satisfy my expectations.”
Kessler says that events since the March 2008 elections have brought to light the wide gulf between the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government and the Malaysian people. The party can only retain its current political influence by closing that gap.
“A person may win the party vote and may, on that basis, be able to impose his [or her] and Umno’s will upon the governing coalition,” Kessler explains. “But that no longer guarantees the leader and the party the ability to lead the country.”
And, that, Kessler adds, will be the main task facing Najib and his team.
Cleaning up Umno
It does appear that Najib is aware of the need to repair perceptions and demonstrate strength. “We have to clean up Umno,” Najib said recently, acknowledging that “many people see the party as being arrogant and having unhealthy practices.”
The “unhealthy practice” that Umno seems most cognisant of is corruption. “Umno leaders and members have always admitted that the question has never been whether there is corruption or not: it has been a matter of degree,” Liow notes.
And it appears that the party is finally doing something to weed out money politics.
Khairy Jamaluddin (File pic)The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has launched probes into several Umno members. More recently, Umno’s disciplinary committee found a total of 15 persons, including Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam and Khairy Jamaluddin, guilty of breaching the party’s code of ethics.
However, immediately after this latest move, allegations of ulterior motives began circulating, as the disciplinary board’s actions appeared to be aimed at figures aligned with outgoing president Abdullah.
Whether this is true or not, Kessler says the disciplinary board’s action — which has prevented Ali from contesting the deputy presidency race, and may affect Khairy’s chances for the Umno Youth chief post — will prove costly.
“Any ideas that Umno is, or might become, anything like a ‘level playing field’, even for its own grandees and insiders, has taken another big blow,” Kessler argues.
“If it was hard for the public to give credence to Umno before, it will be even more difficult now,” he adds.
Apart from the party elections, Mohammad Agus says delegates will keep busy with other issues such as the economy and how to protect smallholders and Malay Malaysians. Ethnic relations and the question of the support of BN component parties will also most likely be discussed.
For certain, the issue of reform will take centre-stage. “The agenda at the general assembly will be all about reform and making Umno relevant again. It will be about whether Najib can rescue the party the way his father (Tun Abdul Razak) did post-13 May, 1969,” Kessler says.
But as much as this will be the case, the Umno general assembly will also continue harping on the Malay agenda, says Liow.
“I believe the hard-liners will mobilise. Umno cannot not fall back on the Malay agenda. That has been its raison d’être all this time, and will remain so,” Liow adds.
Liow hazards that such harping may result in critical developments with regards to the BN coalition, considering how much ground the other component parties lost in the 12th general election.
“There could well be questions raised about whether MIC, MCA and Gerakan are dead weights, and how Umno is to work with them,” Liow suggests. This will only worsen racial rifts, and cause the ruling coalition to implode.
Venn diagram: Reform and renewal unlikely?It is no surprise that Merdeka Centre’s opinion poll found that 79% of Malaysians surveyed wanted Umno delegates to take the views of Malaysians into consideration when voting for the Umno leadership.
So much of the nation’s fate hinges on the kind of leadership that is put in place within Umno, and unfortunately, the verdict is pessimistic about Umno’s ability to reform.
“Talking ‘reform’ and ‘renewal’ may sound nice, but I doubt whether it is possible,” Kessler explains, saying that Umno party members may not really understand its necessity.
But for the nation’s sake as much as the party’s, Malaysians can only hope that, as the party’s general assembly comes and goes, Umno will surprise us.