THE first day of the 59th Umno general assembly on 24 March 2009 was coloured by three major elements. These were the banning of new media outfits from covering the event; the closed-door speech of outgoing party president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi; and incoming president Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s speech that jointly opened the Umno Wanita, Youth and Puteri wing assemblies.
Abdullah’s final private address to Umno delegates dwelt on the event most in people’s attentions: the party’s elections, which will see Najib acquiring a new line-up of adjutants, from deputy president downwards. Unity was Abdullah’s main talking point. He urged delegates to have “the right attitude” when casting their ballots, and to set aside their personal differences.
Wanita Umno chief Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz shaking hands with her challenger Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil
(Pic by Zulkifli Ersal, courtesy of theSun)
Such a sentiment was echoed by Najib himself. In commenting on the head-to-head race between Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil for the post of Umno Wanita chief, Najib warned the women’s wing to “not forsake all that we have achieved thus far just because of a temporary excitement over contests for party posts. We do not want to see disunity.”
Return to course
In his address, Najib acknowledged the enormous challenges facing Malaysia’s largest political party. Umno’s setbacks, according to Najib, was the result of the party having deviated from its course. “To the perception of many, Umno has swayed far from its original struggle,” he said.
Umno has always been custodian of the Malay Malaysian race. “Umno and the Malays can never be separated. History has shown that when Umno and the Malays move as one, we rose to far greater heights than we ever thought possible,” Najib said.
“Now, we see that the Malays seem lost and weakened. Because of that there are those who dare question what has previously been agreed to and entrenched in the Federal Constitution,” he continued. “For Umno, it must remain relevant by continuing to win the hearts and minds of the Malays.”
Malay Malaysian ultra-nationalism is the Umno characteristic most often fingered when analysts look at causes for the party’s loss of influence. Many agree that a more inclusive approach to multicultural Malaysia is required if Umno seeks to remain relevant.
But, if Najib’s rhetoric is any indication, it is unlikely that Umno will abandon race-based politics any time soon.
This posturing runs counter to the incoming president’s call for reform. To enact the party’s revival, Najib said, Umno would need “leaders who are able and are themselves enablers. Leaders who dare to change and are accepting of change. Who dare to criticise and are willing to accept criticism.”
Yet when Najib touched on recent criticisms of the Barisan Nasional’s past rule, he took a defensive stance. Referencing the recent furore over the English-language instruction of Mathematics and Science (ETeMS), Najib exhorted young Malaysians to “master the English language … Learning another language does not diminish who we are as Malay [Malaysians] … Put an end to the ridiculous politicising of this issue.”
Najib’s speech at the joint opening of the Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings was televised to crowds
of Umno members, who followed proceedings from the big screen in the PWTC lobby
Perhaps the most obvious contradiction was Najib’s call for Umno to not “regard the new media as our enemy.”
Saying that the party was “rudely awakened” in 2008 when they found themselves unprepared to face the influence of the internet, the incoming party president urged Umno’s younger generation to “be able to speak the language of the cyber community … they must be leaders in the utilisation of technology as an essential part of our political arsenal.”
But while Najib spoke of embracing the new media, his party seemed intent on curtailing it. Today, Umno officials refused to grant six new-media organisations — Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider, Siasah, Merdeka Review, Laksou and The Nut Graph — official access to its general assembly. “All these websites have been irresponsible in their reporting,” said Umno secretary-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, by way of explanation.
Despite the catchphrase of reform, is change really coming to Umno? Events in the next five days will tell — but if today is any indication, the outlook isn’t good.