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Can Umno re-invent itself?

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Many problems continue to trouble Umno and despite Najib’s best efforts, the party seemingly lacks the infusion of new blood, new ideas and strategies to deal with the Opposition, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.

Photograph: theSun Daily

The implicit question that was before the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) at its just concluded General Assembly was whether this 3.4m strong political party could overcome its present crisis.

The party faces a general election, which would most likely to held in early 2012, and has the uphill task of recapturing the government’s two-thirds majority in parliament, not to say, four state governments, now in the control of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

Just before the Umno assembly, information chief Ahmad Maslan raised the prospect of a parliamentary impasse after the next election, admitting to Umno’s current weakness. Exaggerating the scenario of a hung parliament, he said that Malays would stand the chance of losing all power including the possibility of a “Christianisation” of Malaysia.

Many problems continue to trouble Umno and despite the best efforts of party president and Prime Minister Najib Razak, the party seemingly lacks the infusion of new blood, new ideas and strategies to deal with the Opposition. Emblematic of this was the deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin’s own admission that the youth wings of the party were not catching the attention of Malaysia’s “Generation Y”.

Moreover, money politics reared its ugly head yet again when the women’s wing leader, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, found herself embroiled in a multimillion-dollar scandal. Dubbed “Cowgate”, the scandal involved the awarding of a RM250m soft loan to a cattle-rearing company run by her husband and children. The Auditor-General’s 2010 report had euphemistically noted that the said company, National Feedlot Corporation, was a “mess”. At least one Umno parliamentarian has called for Shahrizat to step down but the assembly managed to finesse the issue.

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Adding to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s problems was Malaysia’s slippage for the third consecutive year from 4.5 to 4.3 points in the Corruption Perceptions Index. Since taking over in 2009, Najib had tried in myriad ways to re-invent his governing party’s image by tweaking government policies and introducing a plethora of legislation but many critics continue to question if the intended reforms have been merely ersatz. Some of these reforms pertained to the government’s race-based New Economic Policy (NEP), which is stoutly defended by party members and Malay rights groups, such as Perkasa, and thus Najib has been forced to periodically deny that his policies affect the Bumiputera policy. Indeed, just before the party convention, the Umno leader personally launched a Bumiputera Agenda Unit called “Teraju” to assuage his Malay critics.

If truth be told, even with the implementation of the New Economic Model (NEM) along with its twin programmes of government and economic transformation, there has been little palpable change. Umno-favoured companies have continued to receive lucrative contracts, the egregious case being that of the mega RM36bn Mass Rapid Transit project in the Klang Valley. The giant construction company MMC-Gamuda, linked to prominent Umno-friendly tycoons, will be the main beneficiary.

Predictably, Najib’s opening speech at the Umno Assembly was pitched at problems of the party in the face of an impending 13th general election. The sound bites were of a party facing a major watershed and its need to overcome failed past practices. Najib called for the party faithful to understand ‘game changers’ in the political landscape and in particular, learn to use the new media. He identified 10 game-changing events or developments in Malaysian history and opined that the eleventh had to do with young voters and the new media.

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The Prime Minister may indeed have put his finger on a crucial variable in the upcoming general election. According to the Nomura 2012 Outlook Report for Malaysia, there will be some 2.58m newly registered voters i.e. young voters out of some 16m eligible voters this time around. The number of people who would actually vote could be about 10m with 1.7m young voters in the mix, constituting 17 per cent of the electorate.

The major worry for Najib is that the Barisan Nasional (BN) lags behind the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the voter registration drive, with the latter signing up twice as many new voters during the first six months of 2010. DAP led with 32.5 per cent of the new registrations, followed by Umno (32.3 per cent) and Pas (22.7 per cent).

One of the major problems facing Umno was having so-called ‘winnable candidates’ – or more grammatically, capable candidates – with Najib and his deputy Muhyiddin strongly hinting that this would mean dropping some deadwood. Unfortunately for the party, good candidates are hard to come by and capable leaders are either tainted like Shahrizat or politically unacceptable like Khairy Jamaluddin. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has similar problems and saw some of its leaders leave the party but has the advantage of attracting younger candidates. PKR’s partners, the Islamic party, Pas, has also been a magnet for Muslims professionals and the Democratic Action party (DAP) has successfully recruited some Malay members.

What Umno has going for it is the fact that electoral constituencies give an inordinate weighting to rural seats, which are mostly in Umno stronghold areas in the peninsula. This disproportionate weighting has meant that urban constituencies, which has the predominant number of voters, command less than 50 per cent of all the seats. This mal-apportionment extends to Sarawak and Sabah, which command a large number of rural constituencies and 56 parliamentary constituencies, making the two states something of an insurance policy for the BN.

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This said, could the presence of the large number of new voters tip the scale away from any large victory (or even for a loss) for Najib and his coalition partners? Moreover, in the event of an early election, four PR states could remain in situ as the leaders have said they will would till the end of their mandate in 2013. In these changing times, Umno’s role as Malaysia’s ruling political party faces many complex and formidable – some would argue insurmountable – challenges.

Johan Saravanamuttu, former professor of political science at USM, is visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

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