Anyone who went to the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) during last week’s Umno general assembly would have noticed that the ambience was different from the kind we’ve come to expect at the annual gathering. There were not as many people congregating at the walkways and the lobby to observe the proceedings.
Yes, there were the usual groups of observers sitting on the floor to watch the debates taking place in the Dewan Merdeka as shown on the big screen at the lobby. But they were small in number. There was no live telecast of the debates. Observers had to be content with a delayed telecast. The security was tight and the observer passes were limited.
Outwardly at least, the general assembly was generally quiet and tame. With the exception of intermittent shouts from some delegates, there was an overall quietness. Gone were harsh remarks and the furious looks on the speakers as they attacked the opposition. No, this year’s assembly was not about taking swipes at the opposition. The President’s opening speech was even conciliatory to PAS, commending it for abstaining from voting on the 2016 Budget.
This year’s assembly was about addressing internal party matters. It was choreographed to show the delegates’ resounding support for the the Umno President, Mohd Najib Abdul Razak, who is caught in allegations of corruption pertaining to the 1MDB scandal and the RM2.6 billion political donation. So, inwardly there was a climate of tenseness.
The whole assembly was designed to provide the President and his men with an uninterrupted opportunity to express their views and perspectives on the ensuing conflict within the party. No limelight was given to the outcast Deputy President, Muhyiddin Yassin, and Vice-President, Shafie Apdal. They were blocked from speaking and there was no mention of their names in the salutations by the emcee and speakers throughout the assembly.
For the first time in the history of the Umno general assembly, the President did not mention the names of the Deputy President, the Vice-Presidents and other dignitaries in his usual salutary notes at the beginning of his opening and closing speeches. Previously, the practice was for the President to mention their names one by one, pausing in between to allow the delegates to give each a round of applause.
It is believed that this practice was not followed because some parties feared that the delegates would give a thundering applause to Muhyiddin and Shafie and, more worryingly, to the former President and Najib’s fiercest critic, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who attended the opening ceremony. It was ironic that the Secretary-General took pains to announce the names of all foreign political parties whose representatives attended the assembly, but did not acknowledge the presence of Dr Mahathir, who helmed the party for 22 years. Perhaps, he simply did not want the President to be embarrassed.
Apart from this, the speakers were carefully selected and even the text of their speeches were allegedly vetted by a certain committee at the headquarters. There were complaints from internal sources that the lists of speakers submitted by the liaison chiefs of certain states were scrapped in favour of more President-friendly speakers. This was to ensure that the speakers did not raise “sensitive” issues that would put Najib in an awkward position. They were expected to toe the line and follow the script. The main script was, of course, to condemn Dr Mahathir and pledge undivided loyalty to Najib.
Despite the shouts of “Hidup Najib” from the floor, excessive condemnation of Dr Mahathir did not sit well with the delegates. A speaker from Perak was booed by the audience a few times when he started to hurl abuse at Dr Mahathir.
At the same time, there were calls for Muhyiddin and Shafie to apologise to Najib and mend their ties with him. But this call was rejected by Muhyiddin and Shafie. They said they had nothing to apologise for because their criticisms were not personal, but based solely on differences over a matter of principle. Understandably, Najib’s offer of the so-called olive-branch to Muhyiddin during his winding-up speech received a cold response from the latter.
Support for Muhyiddin
While forces aligned to Najib were trying hard to orchestrate the assembly as a show of solid support for the embattled President, the underlying sentiment among the delegates was contrary to their expectation. The delegates whispered support for Muhyiddin and never missed any opportunity to shake his hand. A jubilant mood among the delegates was evident whenever he walked around, with many of them giving him words of encouragement.
A day before the general assembly, Muhyiddin received a rousing welcome as he entered the conference halls where the Wanita, Pemuda and Puteri wings were holding their separate assemblies. The delegates clapped hands and shouted “Hidup Tan Sri” as an expression of support for the Deputy President.
While most of the 191 division chiefs pledged their undivided support and loyalty to Najib, with some of them saying they were “ready to die” in defence of the President, a group of rebel branch chiefs called Gabungan Ketua Cawangan Malaya held a press conference at PWTC to call for Najib’s resignation.
Never in the history of Umno have branch chiefs called for the resignation of the President. Though it is still too early to gauge their influence in the party, their move seems to be gaining traction. More branch chiefs have since come forward to state their dissatisfaction with Najib and to call for his resignation.
It seems that while Supreme Council members and division chiefs aligned to Najib are pressing for Muhyiddin’s ouster from the party, the grassroots are not yet ready to lose him. They still want the party’s Number Two to stay.
Outside Umno, there is an outpouring of support for Muhyiddin, who was sacked from the Cabinet and silenced at the Umno assembly only for speaking what the people believe is the truth. He received a heartening note from a young Chinese lady at a café where he was having breakfast two days after the assembly ended. She thanked him for standing up for all Malaysians when no one dares to do it and prayed that his struggle would not be in vain. Muhyiddin posted the note on his Facebook page. The post received 30,000 likes in less than an hour.
Against this backdrop, these are the main takeaways from the assembly that the powers-that-be in Umno must take serious note of:
- Silencing dissent is not the best way to address the current malaise in Umno. With the advent of social media, dissenting voices easily reach the party grassroots far and wide. With high internet connectivity and widespread smart phone ownership, dissenting voices disseminated through Whatsapp and telegram messages are influencing the sentiment and behaviour of the party’s grassroots.
- There is a limit to deep-rooted patronage in Umno as a means to prop up support for certain leaders. The common practice of showering division chiefs with lucrative contracts, cash and positions will not work. There are opposing groups in each division and pampering selected division chiefs with goodies will only anger the opposing groups, who in turn may turn against the leadership as a show of protest.
- Some Umno warlords may also see the present political uncertainty in Umno as an opportunity to maximise their personal gains. This is the crux of the culture of warlordism often associated with local Umno chiefs. The warlords see in every political war lucrative opportunities up for grabs. They will encourage wars rather than doing all they can to end them once and for all. So, dispensing patronage to selected warlords in order to maintain support will not help the party to remain intact, but will be self-defeating. A typical warlord will demand for more and put the party leadership to ransom, switch camps or even abandon the party once he sees that his faction is losing the ground and there is grave danger that his “supply” will be cut.
- There is also a limit to the politics of race, religion and repression. In the fast changing social demography and national political landscape, the mantra of the Christian threat against Islam or the non-Malay aggression against the Malays’ special position will no longer be effective in shoring up support for Umno. The race and religion mantra was deployed to the maximum in the last general election. Though Umno won additional seats, BN for the first time since 1969 lost popular votes to the opposition. Umno must realise that the electorate for the next general election will include more young voters whose psychological and sentimental attachment to race as a political identity is somewhat diluted. As such, Umno can no longer rely on the race and religion and the repression of dissidents to save the party. Yes, the opposition is equally divided due to squabbles over race and religion, but it will be unsafe for Umno to rely on that divisiveness to win the election. Remember, in politics, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
- At the moment, the prevalent assumption among Umno’s top echelon is that silencing the critics of 1MDB and the RM2.6 billion donation will allow the party to consolidate and win the next general election. Be that as it may, the real challenge for Umno in the 14th general election is not so much the negative public perception about 1MDB or RM2.6 billion donation. It is about the bread and butter issue of the cost of living. A failure to effectively address this main concern of the rakyat, while serious allegations of corruption against the country’s top leadership remain unsolved, will prove fatal to Umno. With the falling oil prices, decreasing government revenues, rising prices of goods and services, and the burden of GST, the already negative public perception about the government’s ineffectiveness in handling the economy will become worse. It will be unfortunate if the voters, when they approach the ballot boxes, silently tell the government, “It is the economy, stupid.”
With all these takeaways, it is important for Umno’s top echelon to engage in deep self-evaluation in order to ensure that the Malay party, which has served the country for five decades after independence, will remain relevant for many more decades to come. Umno is at a critical crossroads. May God bless this party.
Dr Marzuki Mohamad is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science of the International Islamic University Malaysia.
This article appeared in Free Malaysia Today on 19 December 2015 http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/highlight/2015/12/19/lessons-for-umno-from-its-general-assembly/