Umno’s crisis and opportunity

Who knows, one fine day, it could offer itself to Malaysians of all races if the ‘M’ in Umno is changed from Malay to Malaysian 

UMNO has never had it so bad. Electoral-wise, the 15th General Election (GE15) saw its worst-ever performance on the count of the number of lawmakers it managed to send to the Parliament. 

Twenty-six MPs coming from Umno seems pretty awkward for a political party that has long been the backbone of Malaysia’s national politics. 

But it is far from being shelved into irrelevance. Those who draw that assumption from its drubbing in GE15 would be seriously mistaken. This may just be what the party needed to rise like a phoenix from the electoral ashes. 

As expected, some senior party members have resigned. And more are expected to join the line. Calls have emerged for the top leadership, including president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, to resign. At press time, Umno has yet to hold its Supreme Council meeting. 

So, what’s next for Umno? 

For a start, Umno should stay out of the federal government and concentrate on rebuilding the party, layer by layer. 

It would be tempting to join a coalition to be part of the federal government. The winning MPs and key party officials may be given positions. They can enjoy perks that come with those positions or offices. 

While it helps financially, it would be a distraction to rebuilding the party. Its present crop of leaders, and the new ones who would come on board, have to go back to basics. There is much clean-up to be done. 

When the common people look at Umno leaders today, they no longer see hardworking common men who want to make a difference in the lives of fellow citizens. At one point of its history, Umno leaders carried such an image. They were with the people, helping them to solve their problems. 

But over the years, a new generation of Umno leaders has emerged. Today, the corporate boys dot the party. 

Nothing wrong with being a corporate guy or an entrepreneur. It’s a good calling for those who want to take route in life.

But the trouble comes with the image of Umno leaders lapping up government contracts and then passing them down for a nice, fat cut. Of course, this is not the story of each and every Umno leader. But we have heard anecdotal stories, enough to taint the party. 

In the recent election campaign, Khairy Jamaluddin spoke about Umno needing a clean-up. Khairy, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, highlighted corruption as one of the things that fail the party. At the same time, the former minister and former Umno youth leader made clear his feelings about Ahmad Zahid, whom he felt must go because of the string of corruption-related court cases that he is facing. 

Datuk Seri Utama Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin, a former minister and an Umno parliament candidate in the earlier two GEs, also felt that Umno was being dragged down by scandals and corruption. When met two days before GE15 polling, he told me that he agreed with Khairy on Umno needing a clean-up. 

“Corruption? It has an impact. Hence, we cannot win fully,” he said. 

Getting rid of the corruption tag is just the beginning. Umno will likely need to go further. 

The grand-old political party — Umno was established way back in 1946 — will also benefit from a major change in its leadership. The GE15 debacle may just be the right opportunity for it to refresh and rejuvenate. 

There is no reason why a regenerated Umno could not present itself as a party of choice to the Malaysian electorate. It has a deep history, a wide presence and a track record it can be proud of. 

And, who knows, one fine day, it could offer itself to Malaysians of all races if the “M” in United Malays National Organisation or Umno is changed from Malay to Malaysian. 

  • Habhajan Singh is the corporate editor at The Malaysian Reserve.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition