Over 70 years ago, Onn Jaafar, founder of Umno, began to reject Umno’s and other Malayan political parties’ race-based structure and policies which he regarded as ultimately detrimental to the new nation’s development.
Acting on this far-reaching and visionary premise, Onn, regarded as the most important political leader together with Tunku Abdul Rahman responsible for Malaya’s independence, called for Umno to open its membership to Malayans of all races and for the party to be renamed as the United Malayan National Organisation.
When his recommendations were not supported, he left the party on 26 August 1951 to establish the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP), the first non-communal party in Malaya.
IMP was not able to win support from the Malayan electorate and was dissolved in 1953. It was a party that could not defeat the strength and resources of the communal party giants of the time. It was also a party that was well ahead of its time in seeking to reconfigure the ethno-religious and identity politics and political system that was being embedded.
Today after 15 national elections, it is time for our communal and religious parties to go back to the drawing board and draw inspiration from Onn to see how to dismantle or restructure the communal party system and to forge single non-racial and multi-racial parties in its place.
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We are encouraged by the speech of Zahid Hamidi, Deputy Prime Minister, president of Umno and chairman of Barisan Nasional, at a recent election rally in Padang Serai, where he declared that the politics of inclusivity and unity is now more relevant and real than ever before in Malaysia.
He shared two further observations.
The first is that now is the time to not look back and talk about the past, especially about the political battles between Pakatan Harapan and BN. “It is our fate to work with PH in government and this is the end of the existence of BN and Umno as you know”.
The second was his hope that the unity government will continue to work together not only for the next five years but beyond that. “I hope this is not only for five years, not 10 years, but I hope it will be a grand coalition to form a glorious government to lead the country forward.”
This speech can be seen as a key extension of the national unity lead provided by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his fellow rulers that has been responsible for the formation of the present ‘unity government’.
The Ruler’s position on national unity and Zahid’s speech can be read as one which echoes the nationwide public sentiment in support for the country and Malaysians to close ranks and to reject the politics of racial and religious polarisation.
Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM), as a multi-racial and multilingual coalition of over 20 NGOs with varied backgrounds that focuses on coming together to play a role in shaping a better Malaysia, sees this new political and public consensus on national unity as providing the opportunity to begin a national discourse and action that can bring about the restructuring of the composition of the current racially and religiously based parties in Malaysia.
Such a restructuring, as envisaged by Onn Jaafar and taken up now by this present generation of political leaders, can bring about a more stable and solid foundation for national unity.
The emergence of non-racial and non-sectarian parties from the existing coalitions can become the role model for other bodies and associations in Malaysia to open up their membership to all races and to de-communalise their policies and activities. This will provide a major step forward in our journey to a truly inclusive and harmonious nation.
Stanley Yong Yew Wei is chair of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia. This statement was issued on behalf of the GBM executive council