THERE is a cautious hopefulness about the upcoming amendments to the Umno constitution, which will be debated in an extraordinary general meeting held within the party’s annual general assembly beginning today, 13 Oct till Friday, 16 Oct 2009. Party veterans and leaders say the constitutional amendments are a welcome start towards reforming the party, which saw its worst defeat in decades in the March 2008 general election.
However, there are still some doubts among some party faithful who say these proposed changes have yet to be established or tested. Additionally, what exactly is Umno doing to its constitution that will ensure the party rejuvenates itself?
At the forefront of the amendments is the removal of the quota system, put in place during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad‘s tenure as party president, and the widening of the party’s voter base. These two structural barriers have been identified as blocking the contest for top posts and encouraging money politics.
The party is moving to enlarge the voting base from 2,500 delegates to 146,500 members. The rationale is that by doing so, it becomes much harder to bribe such a huge number of voters.
Principle vs logistics
Veteran party leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah says he believes these amendments will open the way to reform, but maintains that ultimately all members have the right to vote for their leaders. However, the proposal to extend voting rights to all three million members was dropped during discussions on the proposed amendments.
Wan Farid Umno constitution amendment committee secretary Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh tells The Nut Graph that the option to allow all members to vote was put aside for now because it was an impractical move. “I do not think that at the moment, Umno has the necessary logistics to conduct the national party election based on three million members. But the empowerment of members must start somewhere. And this is the beginning,” he says.
Some have accepted this as reasonable, such as Umno disciplinary board member Tan Sri Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas, who voices doubts about the existence and quality of the three million members in the first place.
Others like Tengku Razaleigh, however, are adamant about the right of every single Umno member to choose the leadership directly. “There is a very basic principle at stake here: each and every member of Umno who has paid his [or her] RM1 subscription has the right to have a direct say in who represents him [or her] as president. Either we accept this principle, or we don’t. Are we afraid of our own members?” he asks in an e-mail interview.
No more quotas
As for the controversial nomination quota for the party’s top posts, there seems to be agreement — and relief — across the board that it will be removed. Tengku Razaleigh stresses that the quota is undemocratic, unconstitutional and contravenes the party’s founding spirit. He had previously failed to secure the 58 nominations he needed to challenge Datuk Seri Najib Razak for the party presidency in the March 2009 party elections.
Umno members understand that these measures are necessary for transformation, Wan Farid says, and that the rakyat is observing the party’s steps towards reform. “The fact remains that not many politicians, especially those whose party are in the government, want to change a system that puts them into power. But we have to be serious about transformation if we want to be taken seriously by the rakyat,” he says.
As to the amendments to make the party leadership more inclusive, Wanita Umno permanent chairperson Tan Sri Napsiah Omar agrees that women and younger members would be better represented if the proposed amendments are voted in. The amendments look set to increase the number of women members represented in branch-, division-, and state-level committees. Currently, only three to five women are members of these committees — a disproportionately small percentage compared with their total membership.
Wanita Umno delegates (Courtesy of theSun)The removal of the quota system also opens up the opportunity for anyone, including a woman, to rise to the top.
There is also the proposal to automatically make the chiefs of the Wanita, Pemuda and Puteri wings delegates at the divisional delegates meeting. This would mean a small army of 51,000 younger male and female members casting their votes for the party’s leaders.
“From what I understand of the amendments, a man or woman can be nominated to become president. It would now depend on whether women members utilise these new changes as the vote is gender neutral. The discrimination will not come from the party constitution.
“The structural impediments are removed, but of course this has to be tested,” Napsiah observes.
But there is a caveat to anyone contesting a high post within the party. Aspiring leaders would have had to serve a minimum number of years before contesting for higher posts. Opinions on this condition are currently split.
Napsiah, for example, says this assurance of experience was fair and understandable; while Tengku Razaleigh insists that every party member has the right, guaranteed by the federal constitution, to contest any party position.
“Every society (and a political party is a society) is bound by the federal constitution through the Societies Act to apply these principles. It’s not just a matter of delaying talent, which of course it does. It’s about doing the right thing,” he argues.
All said and done, will these structural changes bring about meaningful reform?
Tengku Razaleigh says the attempts to restrict the scope of the amendments with “some arcane restrictions” on who can contest looks like “self-serving attempts by the incumbents to block renewal”.
“Let’s just see if the party leadership will allow these elementary reforms. Either we comply with the federal constitution and behave like a lawful, democratic party, or we continue to waffle about reform. There is no other way to recover the trust of the people, and indeed of our own members,” he stresses.
Others also point out that there has to be a change of culture and mindset among Umno members themselves, or structural amendments are pointless. Napsiah, for instance, says that for there to be more representation of women, Wanita members themselves have to free themselves from the long-held notion that men should take the lead.
Tengku Razaleigh (Wiki commons)“Back in the 1940s when they formed the party, they basically made sure women didn’t get into the men’s hair by giving us a separate entity altogether. They already made it a point to give us a separate platform.
“But there is also a tendency for women to say ‘Bagi orang laki ke depan lah’. If we restrict ourselves now, then don’t blame the system. We must be brave enough to break this mindset,” she argues.
Acknowledging the views of naysayers, Wan Farid says the battle for reform is half-won if there is already an acknowledgement of problems within Umno. The other half would be won by rectifying the problems. “I believe if one realises and acknowledges that there is a problem, and one is committed both by words and deeds in resolving it, then one ought to be given the benefit of the doubt,” he says.
Umno reforms “not good enough”
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