Home TA Online Umno’s shocking implosion: Onn Jaafar’s vision is the party’s last hope

Umno’s shocking implosion: Onn Jaafar’s vision is the party’s last hope

Onn Jaafar - Photograph: National Archives

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Will Khairy Jamaluddin be the one to save the party from oblivion, wonders Anil Netto.

With most people absorbed by the ongoing implosion of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), a major shift happened a couple of months ago which may have gone largely unnoticed.

For the first time in 63 years, going back even before the independence of Malaya in 1957, the largest party in the country is no longer a race-based party but a multi-ethnic party – the People’s Justice Party (PKR), which now has 50 seats (as of 12 December).

The second largest party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) with 42 seats, is also multi-ethnic to a certain extent.

This trend is a distinct move towards multi-ethnic parties, including in Sabah and Sarawak.

Back in 1955, the mono-ethnic Umno swept 34 out of 55 seats in the then Federal Legislative Council. Together with its mono-ethnic partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, the Alliance pact won a landslide 54 of the 55 seats. It was a dominance Umno would maintain until 2018.

Even in the throes of regime change after 9 May 2018, Umno still emerged as the largest party in the country with 54 seats in Parliament – followed by PKR with 47 (which later rose to 50 as three MPs joined the party soon after).

Five defections from Umno by 19 September brought the party’s tally down to 49, but a week before that, PKR too had lost a seat when it vacated its Port Dickson seat to force a by-election.

When PKR retained the Port Dickson seat in the 13 October by-election, its tally once again rose to 50 seats, making it the party with the most MPs in Malaysia – a first for a multi-ethnic party. Who else but Anwar Ibrahim, whose ouster as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998 sparked the Reformasi movement, to achieve this feat for the multi-ethnic party 20 years later.

That was confirmation of sorts of the emergence of new politics, based on a multi-ethnic approach, which is slowly but quite surely overshadowing the old politics of divisive racial and religious issues.

Since September, Umno’s tally has dwindled to just 38 seats in the 222-seat Parliament, further evidence that many of the party’s MPs have lost faith in the party’s ability to manipulate issues of race, religion and royalty to its advantage.

Granted, not all is hunky dory for PKR, which has just emerged from divisive faction-ridden party elections. Some of the ex-Umno politicians within its ranks may still harbour traces of Umno DNA. But the fact that a multi-ethnic political party is now the largest party in the country instead of Umno must surely be a defining moment in the new Malaysia.

Zahid blindsided by ICERD rally

The recent attacks on the Hindu temple in Subang Jaya and the Pas-Umno rally to oppose the UN Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination did not lead to the wider unrest some had feared would break out. That was another indication we are now in new territory in Malaysian politics.

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Photograph: Asyraf Rasid/The Sun Daily

In hindsight, the Pas-Umno rally on 8 December was a costly mistake for Umno at least. Zahid Hamidi must have been overjoyed at the sizeable turnout of over 50,000, much to the dismay of many who had hoped that such ethno-religious sentiments on display at the rally were a thing of the past.

But Zahid’s elation was short-lived: he was caught blindsided by the restlessness in Sabah. Just four days later, a wave of Umno MPs in Sabah began quitting the party, leaving behind just one MP, Bung Mokhtar, from its original six MPs in the state. The fear of Umno becoming too Islamic-centred and drawing closer to Pas was one of the reasons cited for the defections.

Of course, the old politics of race and religion will not go away so easily with Umno’s implosion. Some of the Umno MPs who have quit could have done so for all sorts of reasons such as the sudden lack of access to the gravy train, which must have been a shock to their system, and the prospect of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission widening its probes.

Some of these Umno MPs may think they may eventually find a safe haven in Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. If most of these former Umno MPs land up there, many Malaysians who had wanted a new Malaysia fear Bersatu could evolve into Umno 3.0 (Umno Baru in 1988 being the earlier reincarnation). Both Bersatu and PKR should think twice – nay, three or four times – before accepting these former Umno MPs. Best to keep them at arm’s length.

If Bersatu, which won just 13 seats in the general election, does accept them, it might then even surpass PKR’s tally of 50 MPs, thus overhauling the latter as the largest party if the country. But that would be a hollow achievement. PKR’s rein as the largest party in the country would be short-lived – and so might the hope for a new Malaysia.

Whither Umno?

But for now, all eyes are on Umno. Where does it go from here? The party has three options – well, actually two.

The first option – maintaining the Barisan Nasional status quo, with Umno continuing to play the race and religion card – is a non-starter. The BN has all but disappeared, with MIC and MCA reduced to one seat each – further signalling the demise of race-based parties. Moreover, Umno itself now has little support from the non-Malay population and that too only in the peninsula. The BN’s safe deposits of Sabah and Sarawak have long since flown away, and the coalition is rapidly receding into history. So no joy with the BN.

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The second option – tilting further to the right, hand-in-hand with Pas – offers little hope either, even though taken together, both parties enjoyed about two thirds of Malay-Muslim support in the 2018 general election. The focus on race and religion would make it difficult for the party to make much headway in the more mixed constituencies of the peninsula. As it is,  a depleted and isolated Umno will play second fiddle to Pas, which has 18 MPs and controls the East Coast of the peninsula. Moreover, a Pas-Umno pact would have little traction in Sabah and Sarawak now – so how far can these two parties go? When you have the likes of Bung Mokhtar to rely on in Sabah, what hope is there for Umno?

So Umno really has to think outside the box. Rafizi Ramli has just asked Khairy Jamaluddin to remain in Umno. Like Rafizi, many observers think an imploding Umno would leave the new Malaysia with hardly any meaningful opposition.

Not that Umno was playing any meaningful role, given how it closed an eye to rampant corruption and allowed probably the world’s largest kleptocracy to flourish. Smaller parties like Parti Sosialis Malaysia and perhaps a future environmental or Green party could step up to the plate in the longer term, but in the meantime, there will be a vacuum in the opposition, unless…

Does Khairy have what it takes to be a truly Malaysian leader? – Photograph: Bernama

Khairy – who else but him? – has some real soul-searching to do, that is if he feels the party is worth saving. Now, in the new Malaysia, it may finally be time for Umno to take another look at Umno founder Onn Jaafar’s vision of opening up the party to other ethnic groups. After all, this was what Khairy wanted to do when he challenged Zahid for the Umno leadership on 30 June. And he didn’t do too badly either, winning 35% of the popular vote in the party polls compared to Zahid’s 42%. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah finished third with 22%.

At the time, Zahid dismissed Khairy’s plan, saying. “Because Datuk Onn Jaafar has tried to open the membership of Umno to non-Malays and (look) what happened to him? History has told us about it.” Onn eventually left the party in 1951 and started a new party and then a successor party, both of which failed to make much of an impact.

Perhaps now is the time for Khairy to tell Zahid: “You and previously Najib Razak tried to take Umno further down the narrow politics of race and religion and look what happened to you and Umno? History (now being written) has told us about it.”

Umno is rapidly imploding and unless there is a drastic change in direction, it may be too late to salvage it. Perhaps it is time for younger Umno leaders like Khairy to be given the chance to lead the party after the dismal leadership shown by the old guard. Umno needs a serious injection of fresh leadership that is more professional and less tainted by race-based politics.

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The irony is that Onn Jaafar’s vision for the party almost seven decades ago may be the one thing that could save Umno from the abyss of oblivion. “It is absolutely important for the Malays to obtain closer ties with the other people in this country. It is time for us to take the view wider than the kampung view. I ask of you, which will you choose? Peace or chaos, friendship or enmity?” said Onn in 1949. That is a question that is still valid today.

Two years later, Onn Jaafar proposed in the 1951 Umno general assembly that the party be renamed the United Malayans National Organisation. Although some in the leadership were amenable to the proposal, the move was regarded as too radical by Umno leaders down the hierarchy.

But the difference between the Umno of 1951 and the Umno of 2018 is that Umno back then had a choice: the Alliance pact with MCA and MIC which steamrolled its way to a landslide victory in the 1955 election. But that juggernaut has run its course and screeched to a grinding halt.

Umno today does not have the luxury of choice. Desperate times call for radical measures – especially when the alternative is oblivion. With one stroke ie opening up its membership to other ethnic groups, the rump Umno could rise above the ashes of the fallen BN to embrace all Malaysians, including those in Sabah and Sarawak, hopefully minus the massive corruption.

But will Khairy and the demoralised Umno rank-and-file have the farsightedness, the gumption and the vision of inclusiveness to rebrand the party as the United Malaysians National Organisation after years of race-based rhetoric and divisive politics?

If it wants to be relevant, the party has to be inclusive and ditch its narrow race-based approach, along with the old guard who are steeped in race-based politics; otherwise what is the point of saving the party and opening it up to other ethnic groups if it continues with its outdated politics and if its chauvinistic leaders are still hanging around? It calls for an entirely new DNA. If the party is unable to reform and discard the corrupt, it might as well close shop. Few would rage against the dying of the Darkness.

Time will tell how this drama plays out – but time is the one luxury Umno doesn’t have on its side.

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