Fifty-seven years ago today, Umno was born. An elderly stalwart reminisces what it was like then while a new generation leader looks ahead. sa’odah elias reports.
TO MANY Malaysians, the name Datuk Borhan Md Yaman may not ring a bell.
But far from feeling slighted, the 74-year-old pensioner is quite proud to be labelled an unsung hero by those who take the trouble to research the history of Umno.
He was among those, together with the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who lowered the Union Jack at the stroke of midnight on Aug 31, 1957 to symbolise the end of colonial rule and the birth of a sovereign nation.
Tonight, a gathering of about 40,000 Umno members and supporters will mark the party’s 57th anniversary celebrations at the Merdeka Stadium, the historic venue where thousands witnessed the declaration of the country’s independence by the Tunku.
Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the outgoing Umno president and the country’s fourth Prime Minister, will deliver a keynote address at the event, which carries the theme “The Struggles of a Race”, which will also feature an aerial show and a fireworks display.
Looking back over 50 years to the early days of the party, Borhan said:
“In those days, we joined Umno because we believed in the philosophy and struggle of the party. It was not for personal glory.
“Most of us did not expect anything in return for the time and money that we spent in the name of Umno.
“Alas, many of them are now gone. Only a handful of us are left and our reward is just knowing that we helped to put Umno and the Malays where they are today,” he said.
Lamenting on the current crop of members, he said: “How times have changed. Now, most of the time, if there is no ‘pau’ (reward), nothing gets done.
“They are too used to being fed,” said the former teacher-turned-farmer who quit active politics at a relatively young age while still at the height of his political career.
Despite his harsh view of the prevailing culture in the party, this Malacca-born Umno stalwart believes the leadership is taking the organisation in the right direction in this new century.
To him, the greatest challenge facing the present leaders is making sure that Umno continues to hold fast to its spirit and remain relevant.
Still, he feels, not all old practices are out-of date as there is much that could be emulated by the present crop of party elders on “how things were done back then”, especially by those who he called “brash young leaders”.
“There is no better time than today to reflect on our successes and failures.”
Borhan admitted that there were times when he was stumped by the actions of some young leaders who washed the party’s dirty linen in public, something that was just not done during his time.
Borhan himself was edged out while holding the post of Umno Youth exco and Malacca Umno Youth chief in the early 70s.
“By today’s standard, you can say that I was the victim of cantas (cut off). But that is politics. It happened to many of us then, but we accepted it and just went on.”
He feels it is time the party headquarters make a serious effort to imbue in party members, especially those who aspire to become leaders, with the original spirit of Umno’s struggle, so that it will always be their guiding light, never to be overshadowed by their quest for personal advancement.
“Make them attend courses and workshops. There is no short cut towards this. Most of them already know about Umno’s history as well as the how’s and the why’s, and the dates and names of leaders who mattered.
“Leaders must also listen to what the grassroots want. For any political party more so for Umno, because the 'little people' are the boss,” he stressed.
Borhan also suggested that the headquarters make an effort to record the experiences of surviving veterans for posterity.
Plain speaking Puteri Umno chief Azalina Othman Said is one who refuses to accept talk that the original Umno spirit has waned, insisting that it is still very much intact in the party.
What has changed, she believes, are the Malays themselves, and for Umno to continue to be able to represent these more demanding “New Malays”, it needs to reinvent itself.
“We may dress in a Versace suit, we may be more individualistic, but that does not make us less Malay. It is all about adapting without losing our identity and our spirit,” she said.
Azalina likened the relationship between the New Malays and Umno as a man with a wife who is intelligent and independent, yet homebound, subservient and ready to cook and clean for him.
To fulfil that expectation, Umno leaders need to start exercising their judgment – between what is offered by Umno and what is being offered by PAS, the other Malay-based party.
Umno needs to play a delicate balancing act at bringing physical and economic growth while remaining the defender of tradition and the religion.
She believes Umno needs to continue evolving, just as it had from the day of its humble inception in 1946.
From the late 40s to the 50s, she said, the party’s main objective was to secure independence from the colonial rulers.
“In the 60s, it was to develop the Malays to be on par with other races.
“Throughout the 70s, the main struggle was to ensure the success of the New Economic Policy, and this continued until the early part of the 80s.
“Then right through the 90s, it was Umno’s objective to stabilise the Malays in economy.
“However, due to the development in the late 90s, a substantial number of Malays suddenly felt that they no longer needed to be political and that Umno was no longer relevant.
“That, I think, remains our greatest challenge today; not the perceived disunity within Umno or among the Malays.
“If we can reinvent Umno, for it to continue being relevant in the new century, unity will come naturally. Just like in the early days,” said Azalina.
Whatever the defenders and the detractors of Umno say about the party – in the past, present or in the future – the fact remains that the country owes Umno its independence.