UMNO’S purging of dissidents and potential challengers of president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi may strengthen his grasp on the party but only make it harder for Umno to win back the middle ground Malay voters lost to PAS and Bersatu.
Whether or not sacked leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin and Tan Sri Noh Omar and suspended leaders Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Shahril Hamdan will join other parties in the Perikatan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan coalitions, Umno is already pushing Malay swing voters further away.
There was no postmortem done on Umno’s consecutive defeats in the 2018 and 2022 General Elections, obviously because there has not been a clear break from the leadership that lost GE14 in 2018, and a truthful diagnosis will undermine the leadership.
Previously, Umno’s electoral appeal lay in its ethno-nationalist ideology aimed at conservative Malays, its extensive patronage system built upon unbroken incumbency and also the New Economic Policy for the beneficiaries, and its credentials as the “pair of safe hands” (or “the devil you know”) among middle ground voters.
Over the years, however, its ideology has been eroded by its system of patronage. When Umno’s upper echelon enriched itself, no Umno grassroots member at the bottom would work for free during elections. To mobilise Malay voters, Umno tried to play up ethno-religious issues on a seasonal basis. Meanwhile, its cyclical schisms produced moderate splinters – S46, PKR and Bersatu – that pulled some Malay voters away from Umno, many of whom never returned.
With opposition parties forming coalitions and both DAP and PAS mellowing their positions, the marginal return of Umno’s ethno-religious antics decreased to the extent that it lost urban Malay support in almost every peninsula state. Amidst its double-speak of ethnocentrism and moderation, MCA, MIC and Gerakan became Umno’s collateral damage after 2008.
Umno’s fall in 2018 cannot be explained other than by the peaking of kleptocracy during the rule of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Despite Najib’s success in pulling PAS out of Pakatan Rakyat to split the latter’s Malay votes, the 1MDB scandal produced a new Umno splinter, the Mahathir-led Bersatu, which pulled enough Malay votes away from Barisan Nasional to break its uninterrupted 61-year-rule in 2018.
In the next four years, Umno indulged itself in its love-hate triangle with PAS and Bersatu. On one hand, it demonised Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and DAP, trapped in the tune set by Anwar and DAP’s ex-partners PAS and Bersatu. On the other hand, while in government, it fought Bersatu and PAS over dominance, showcasing how Malay unity was impossible even when three Malay-Muslim nationalist parties shared power.
With no clear vision except regaining its own dominance, Umno allowed both its opponents, Pakatan and Perikatan, to frame the 15th General Election as a battle to end Umno’s corruption, with a multi-ethnic alternative and a Malay-nationalist one. In the end, the former won 82 seats, the latter 74, allowing Barisan to play kingmaker with its 30 seats.
While it was the most rational decision for Umno to play second fiddle to Pakatan than to be the third to its direct rivals PAS and Bersatu, it poses an existential question to Umno: how should it position itself against its new ally Pakatan and main rival Perikatan? What is its “product differentiation” or unique selling point vis-à-vis its rival?
The trinity of its old magic formula – Malay nationalism, patronage, “safe hands” credentials – will have to be re-examined. Clearly, to stay in the unity government, it cannot play up ultra-nationalism anymore. On the other hand, if it gets too similar to Pakatan, it cannot hope to win back those Malay voters who distrust Pakatan.
Can Umno restore its “safe hands” credentials? This appeal has been badly damaged by a long list of scandals including 1MDB (confirmed by Najib’s jailing), Sarawak’s rural schools’ solar energy project (confirmed by Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor’s 10-year sentence), littoral combat ships and Ahmad Zahid’s Yayasan Akalbudi.
Umno should see how other Barisan parties have declined since 2008 as patronage increasingly loses its hold on voters. But how can Umno transform its organi-sation and machinery so that it can operate without patronage and slush funds? Should Umno push for generous public funding for political parties now that it is no longer the dominant party?
How can Umno attract decent talents who do not join politics to get rich? In term of ministerial talents, besides Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, who are Umno’s answers to Transport Minister Anthony Loke, hugely popular among Malays even though they may not trust his party, DAP?
An open and vigorously fought party election, even if still won by Ahmad Zahid, could have allowed Umno leaders and its grassroots to debate, do some soul searching and formulate a new narrative to face Perikatan in the upcoming state elections.
The no-contest resolution for the two top posts passed at Umno’s general assembly on Jan 14 left the door ajar for Khairy and other dissidents to mount a campaign to sweep through divisions, wings, and the Supreme Council up to the three vice-presidential positions. The night of the long knives on Jan 27 has now slammed the door shut.
Refusing to cut ties with Najib and continuing to frame its “court cluster” cases as selective prosecution under the first Pakatan government, Umno is both strengthening Perikatan’s anti-corruption narrative and undermining Pakatan’s reformist credibility. In the state polls, the former will drive more Malay swing voters to Perikatan while the latter might keep Pakatan supporters at home rather than voting for Umno.
Now, if Khairy and Sharil move to Bersatu, Umno’s support among the Malays, especially the youth, may just drop to the bottom. The immediate danger, however, may come from Hishammuddin, who may resign, force a by-election and, backed by anti-Ahmad Zahid forces, win as resoundingly as Tan Sri Shahrir Samad did in Johor Baru in 1988.
Like it or not, Umno is an important institution in Malaysian politics. Its sudden decline may result in a toxic binary competition between a multiethnic bloc and a monoethnic bloc, which may sink the country in endless ethno-religious rows and scare away investments. May Umno find its way home soon.
Political scientist Prof Wong Chin Huat is deputy head (Strategy) of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Asia Headquarters, Sunway University. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.