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Umno’s new line-up

(From left) Shafie Apdal, Muhyiddin Yassin, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Hishammuddin Hussein

THAT Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is Umno deputy president is probably a good thing for Malaysia’s largest political party.

Analysts have been looking to him as the most competent contender for the deputy president’s post, especially since Umno’s deputy president is almost certain to be made deputy prime minister, as tradition dictates. With his vast experience in politics and government, Muhyiddin, who is also International Trade and Industry Minister, was the clear favourite.

Another reason for the confidence in Muhyiddin stemmed from his declaration that the party needs to reform. Speaking of change, Muhyiddin said: “There is no choice. If you don’t change, they will change you. If we wait for 10 more years there will be nothing left.”

While not as radical as he could be, Muhyiddin’s reasoning is a clarion call when contrasted with the relative conventionality — and dubious baggage — of his erstwhile rival Tan Sri Muhammad Muhd Taib.

A poll by the Merdeka Centre found that of three candidates before Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam was barred because of money politics, Muhyiddin had the highest approval ratings among the Malaysian public.

Therefore, his convincing win may also be read as the party thinking ahead to the expected cabinet line-up under soon-to-be Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. It appears that the wishes of the leading party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coincided with the wishes of a majority of Malaysians. At least in this instance.

Such inclusiveness may signal an end to Umno’s perceived callousness towards those outside its ranks or race. And if that is the case, it is a step towards making good outgoing Umno president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s recommendation that “the loyalty of every Malaysian irrespective of race must always be appreciated.”

The new VPs

The new vice-presidents also deserve a look, as this will divine Umno’s internal atmosphere from here on out.

Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s 1,592-vote win was seen by many observers to be inevitable. Popular within the party, observers saw Ahmad Zahid as being able to appeal to all Umno factions. His entrance into the upper echelons may accompany a willingness in the party to set aside differences and present a unified front.

However, as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Islamic affairs, Ahmad Zahid has been at the forefront of championing a particular brand of Islam that views the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims, for example, as a challenge to Muslims.

Indeed, in certain circles, he is seen to have an ultra-religious streak in him. Prior to the “Allah” issue, Ahmad Zahid was clear in warning groups not to question the fatwa on pengkid.

Whether Ahmad Zahid’s determined promotion of such restrictions, and the imposition of rules that have caused Malaysians distress, will influence how Umno approaches such matters in future will be something to watch out for.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein also went on to secure a vice-presidency with 1,515 votes despite some initial doubt.

After having been gifted the Panca Warisan by Umno Youth, Hishammuddin implied that the tradition of unsheathing the keris had left the wing with him — and will follow him into Umno proper. “I am now responsible to bring it to the main body if, God willing, I manage to secure a place at a higher level in the party,” Hishammuddin, who was the wing’s chief until the night of 25 March 2009, said.

Hishammuddin raising the keris Panca Warisan, which was presented to him after his last speech as Umno Youth chief
(Pic courtesy of theSun)

That statement bears with it a degree of ominousness — and it now appears that his stance remains popular within the party. The supping of non-Malay Malaysian viscera, however, may be at a temporary end. The Umno Youth assembly saw Hishammuddin preferring to turn down racial dichotomies, sticking to opposition party-bashing instead.

The reasons for Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal’s 1,445-vote victory are clear-cut. Umno has voted him as the third vice-president, the highest post an East Malaysian has ever held within the party. By doing so, the party appears to be facing down the criticism that Sabah and Sarawak have been unfairly treated in BN-led Malaysia, in terms of development and representation.

The issue of equal suffrage for the East Malaysian states gained immediacy following March 2008. The BN’s success in Sabah and Sarawak offset its setbacks in the peninsula, and helped the coalition keep a parliamentary majority. The situation has since allowed Sabahan and Sarawakian politicians from the BN to have more leverage in its negotiations with the central leadership in the peninsula.

While last year’s new cabinet featured the most East Malaysian faces in Malaysian history, such politicians were still given portfolios with relatively light political weight. Shafie, for example, was appointed to head the culture, arts, heritage and national unity ministry. Now, his ascendancy in Umno may be read as being indicative of the party’s awareness of its weaknesses, and its willingness to address them.

The golden question now, of course, is whether the new line-up of Umno leaders will really be conducive to Najib’s stated aim of party rejuvenation. Will Umno — and therefore the BN — be able to regain some of its relevance? Only time will tell.

And, with the grave misgivings that Najib brings into his premiership of the country, it’s still left to be seen whether the rest of us will be able to live with our new prime minister and deputy prime minister.

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