Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tug-of-war in Umno

Tug-of-war in Umno
27 Mar 09 : 8.52PM

By Zedeck Siew

Muhyiddin Yassin (pic courtesy of theSun)

IF the Umno general assembly debates of the past two days are any indication, there is a grave disconnect between what the party leadership is publicly indicating change to be, and what the party grassroots themselves feel.

Talking to the press this afternoon, newly-minted Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin continued the talk of reform he espoused before party polls.

"We want to address all the pertinent issues post-2008 general elections to meet the demands of a multiracial society," Muhyiddin said. And, since Muhyiddin will also be deputy prime minister, his talk about Umno's need to reclaim "political and psychological ground" may be extended to encompass the entire Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. Since the 12th general election, the BN's stranglehold on Malaysian politics has waned considerably.

Implicit in this admission of renewal is an acknowledgement of the party's need to shift towards a more centrist position in the Malaysian discourse, and ability to practice a more inclusive brand of politics. This would mean a consolidation of the BN coalition, which party leaders such as Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin now admit is in shambles.

In his opening address, Najib (left) suggested that the Umno constitution be reviewed (pic courtesy of theSun)

The new Umno leadership seems to support concrete internal reform, such as the suggestion in new president Datuk Seri Najib Razak's opening address that the Umno constitution be reviewed with regards to the quota system. The suggestion was to ensure the selection of Umno leaders will be more inclusive.

By giving votes to more Umno members, the party polls' reliance on delegates will decline. This would be a strong step to reducing the incidence of "intense lobbying", — an euphemism for money politics, as observed by the likes of United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) president Tan Sri Bernard Dompok.

Citing developments such as Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal's election as vice-president, Muhyiddin styled Umno delegates as being mature. "This is a strong representation and reflects that our delegates are adopting a Malaysian outlook instead of confining to their respective regions," he said.

Challenging Umno's political will

With a line-up that is favourable to Najib, observers think that the new Umno will be able to make some good changes. This is, of course, provided that Umno actually has the political will to do so.

However, speeches made at the Umno general assembly today demonstrate that this may be unlikely.

Debates on the motion of thanks for the presidential policy speech, motion on economy, and the motion on education and religion have been the general assembly's main agenda from last night and throughout today, 27 March 2009, in the Merdeka Hall of the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC).

The addresses, delivered by representatives from various states and the party wings, saw delegates urging the party for consolidation. Umno Puteri representative Mazlina Mohammad Lazim said that "If Umno doesn't help Umno itself, how can it help others?" Such a statement might appear to represent a call towards introspection.

But it was really a call for more free gifts. Mazlina said that the government must ensure Umno loyalists are given positions in government-linked companies (GLCs). The day before, Penang representative Musa Sheikh Fadzir echoed this, saying that Umno division chiefs should be appointed to GLCs.

Musa also called for the dissolution of Umno's disciplinary board, as the action taken against some leaders convicted of money politics had caused internal strife. Further, the board's investigations had brought bad press to the party. It was shameful, Musa believed, for the party to have been so shamed in public.

"We should deal with the question of money politics amongst ourselves," Musa told delegates. "No need to talk about it in the papers!"

Defending racial superiority

The speeches also resisted inclusiveness. Today, Selangor representative Datuk Ismail Tijo played up the need to defend the racial supremacy of Malay Malaysians, saying that some quarters were willing to "insult the Malays, as if we have no dignity".

"And then there is Anwar Ibrahim, [who] wants to put us on the same level as other races," Ismail said, taking a dig at opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)'s overtly multi-cultural rhetoric. "If we are not careful, this country will be the next Palestine," Ismail asserted.

"We have to go to Selangor and take back Selangor!" Ismail added, alluding to the state, which is currently under PR rule.

Surely this would be a bad move for Umno, considering the public relations disaster its take-over of the state of Perak has since become?

The speeches showed that reform for Umno, to its delegates, meant that the party had to become even less transparent and practise more patronage.

In other words, the party appears to be far from cognisant of the reasons behind past failings. It appears unwilling to transform itself, despite what Umno's new leaders seem to want to believe.

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