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Will Najib succeed?

Najib and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin at a press conference
after the closing of the general assembly

“THIS 60th Umno general assembly is among the best I have attended,” party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak declared in his winding up speech today, 16 Oct 2009. “This assembly has made the most significant, radical and huge amendments to the party’s constitution in the history of our struggle,” he said.

Najib is probably right about the constitutional amendments on 15 Oct, in which seven major areas for change were agreed to by a 2,500-strong delegation in less than an hour. But the delegates’ debates on his policy address left much to be desired.

Yes, all the delegates cried, Umno needs to change. Umno needs to win back the people’s support. And how is Umno supposed to do this? Pulau Pinang delegate Shabudin Yahaya said the party needed to set up its own ulama wing. He also suggested that the party needed to set up its own television network and newspaper, as if the government-controlled terrestrial stations and Umno-controlled Malay-language press weren’t enough.

Malacca delegate Datuk Idderis Kassim said the party should not be afraid of PAS. He then went on an incomprehensible treatise on how ogling a woman is okay when it is done the first time, but becomes sinful when it is done again.

Selangor delegate Abdul Shukur Idrus lamented on the party’s loss of support among Malay Malaysians. Perchance, he theorised, the problem was that Umno had only focused on giving out material goodies to the people without teaching them how to be grateful.

And Johor candidate Datuk Samsol Bari Jamali accused those who say Umno is racist of being racists themselves, masquerading as multiculturalists. Compromise with other races, he said, but not at the risk of diluting Malay privileges.

What change?

Yes, the delegates wanted change, but it is clear many are still stuck in the axis of Umno’s malaiseMalay supremacy, to be sure, but also money politics and authoritarianism. In fact, an overwhelming number of delegates whinged about needing “peruntukan” — financial allocations — to reform the party effectively.

To be fair to Najib, he did not give in to this whinging in his winding up address.

“Do you need peruntukan to stop being lazy and start being hardworking? No, you don’t,” he said. Do grassroots leaders need peruntukan to stop being so arrogant and start being humble? No, he said. Do they need peruntukan to stop finding fault all the time and start being constructive? Again, he said no.

The thing is, there were delegates who shouted “yes” to all three questions from the back of the hall. Which raises the question of whether the majority of Umno members and leaders understand what it really means to reform the party.

Najib greeting delegates on 15 Oct

Therefore, it is to Najib’s credit that he was far more convincing and charismatic in his winding up address than he was in his messy policy speech. “It is difficult to change people,” he said. “But we can improve and strengthen systems and processes so that people are forced to change for the better.”

Yes, Najib had finally gotten to the heart of the matter — systems and processes need to be strengthened, and they need to be transparent so that individuals can be held accountable. But again, did the rest of the delegates understand this? Not an easy question to answer, but Najib continued with a warning anyway: “Do not try to exploit the system.

“We must present Umno as a clean party with integrity, one that the rakyat is comfortable with,” he said. “Let people see us as champions of the rakyat, not a party to get contracts from.”

Indeed, trying to get Umno to change must be like herding cats. But herd the delegates Najib did in his winding up speech. Never mind that he did not manage to truly address the issue of the party’s history of authoritarianism in government, Malay supremacy and political Islam. The silver lining is that he chose to honour an important principle of governance, and his rhetoric was solid.

Past ghosts

But here’s the rub. The much-touted constitutional amendments are actually an attempt to roll back on earlier changes that were ironically made to solve Umno’s leadership crises and endemic corruption.

Tengku Razaleigh (Wiki commons)
Take Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah‘s 1987 challenge to unseat Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad from the party presidency. Razaleigh had only garnered 20% of nominations from some 192 divisions nationwide, and yet managed to get 50% of votes from delegates at the general assembly.

And so, when the party splintered into Umno Baru, led by Mahathir, and Semangat 46, led by Razaleigh, Mahathir introduced the 10-vote bonus system. With this system, any candidate who secured nominations to contest for top posts received an automatic bonus of 10 votes.  

But then, Mahathir’s headache came back when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim mounted a successful challenge to Tun Ghafar Baba for the deputy presidency in 1993. After gaining enough nominations, Anwar managed to defeat Ghafar with only his bonus votes, and this was the impetus for the introduction of Umno’s much-maligned quota system.

Mahathir maintains that both the bonus vote and quota systems were introduced to curb money politics, even though he now supports the removal of the quota system. But here’s the complicating factor. Anwar was a critic of the nexus between political parties and businesses, but was not averse to politicians cultivating close personal relationships with business figures.

The question then is, did Anwar take money politics out of the general assembly in 1993 only to inject it and spread it at the grassroots level? How then did he manage to unseat Ghafar so swiftly?

This is the party’s dirty history that has come back to haunt it. The constitutional amendments that Najib’s leadership is spearheading look wonderful and indeed historic on paper. They are most likely even genuine attempts by his leadership to eradicate money politics in the party, and to make it more democratic and inclusive.

But will it curb money politics in Umno, or will the ghosts of Umno’s past help spread money politics further at the grassroots level? Will Umno leaders with the most access to money still be the ones winning elections and rising in the party’s ranks?  

The silver lining is that Najib is one Umno leader who has identified the problem correctly, for the most part. He also knows the rakyat is watching.

See also:
Umno’s reforms “not good enough”

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One Response to “Will Najib succeed?”

  1. PH Chin says:

    Based on the Youth’s lukewarm reaction to KJ’s speech, I can’t help but feel the call for reform is an enormous uphill task, even for Datuk Seri Najib.

    I hope he will succeed in his reform effort though for the sake of our nation.

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