UMNO’S general assemblies are, for obvious reasons, dedicated to the future of the Malays. On that score, this year’s proceedings appear no different from previous general assemblies with almost all Umno leaders focusing their speeches and debates on the race.
But there seems to be a slight shift in the emphasis of this year’s assembly. Whether intentional or not, this year’s assembly has increased its attention towards the welfare of the other communities.
Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad set the tone to expand Umno’s attention while briefing the delegates on Tuesday.
Johor Baru Umno Youth chief Abu Talib Alias said the outgoing president spent the most part of the briefing reminding the delegates of their duty to serve all races and not just the Malays.
“He stressed that ours is a multi-racial country and Umno cannot rule on its own (without the co-operation of other Barisan Nasional component parties).
“Even if we could, he said we should never neglect the sensitivities of the other races,” he said.
Judging from the reaction, Abu Talib said the message had been well received by the delegates.
“It goes to show the deep concern the Prime Minister has for the harmonious racial ties in the country. He could have told us other things but instead, chose to remind us about the importance of racial co-operation,” he said.
Dr Mahathir's message was reinforced by his deputy Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi during his opening speech for the Wanita Umno, Umno Youth and Puteri Umno annual meetings that night.
Abdullah urged Muslims to be thankful for God’s blessings.
He said Umno leaders, from Datuk Onn Jaafar to Dr Mahathir, had made Malaysians, not just Malays, respected worldwide.
Then, looking at the non-Malay observers and VIPs from other Barisan Nasional component parties sitting in the front row, he said Malaysians of all races should be thankful for their lot.
A political observer said the shifting emphasis, however small, was indicative of a new breed of leaders and thinkers emerging in Umno.
He said the younger generation of politicians, including those from other political parties, were not as suspicious of each other.
“But it is also a reflection of the changing trends in an increasingly shrinking world. The Malays may be the majority in this country but this is a small country,” he said.
The next day, Umno Youth chief Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein took over the “Malaysians” baton when arguing for a revamp of the national schools.
Hishammuddin said the future of the country depended on the schools because of the role they played in uniting all the races.
Citing a certain community, he said it was willing to invest billions of ringgit to educate its younger generation.
He said the Government had to do something fast to make the schools the top choice for parents of all races again.
Puteri Umno chief Azalina Othman Said echoed Hishammuddin’s view when addressing the same issue to the wing’s delegates.
But will the shifting emphasis alienate the conservative segment of the race?
Wanita Umno exco member Raja Ropiaah Raja Abdullah said there would always be some Malays who are worried about Umno moving too fast ahead.
“But if they realise the dangers the country faces from outside, they will conclude that we have to work with other races more closely than before,” she said.
She also said their fears could be placated if other races did not question the special rights of the Malays.
This development augurs well for the country. But despite the Umno leaders' initiative, the political observer was sceptical about racial ties in the country.
He said the ties were still fragile and could snap just as easily if not managed properly.
“There is still a long way to go before Malaysians could mingle without realising they are of different races,” he said.
Perhaps there is, perhaps there isn't.
But the Umno leaders' initiative during this general assembly was certainly a step in the right direction.