The enemy line is clearly drawn, there are no more undercurrents and Umno wants to present itself as the party of the future at the polls. But can it come up with winnable candidates?
DATUK Seri Najib Tun Razak started the Umno general assembly with a fiery speech that was matched by a fierce speaking style. It was quite unlike him because he is a born gentleman.
But the Umno president is going to war and wars are not always won by gentlemen, hence, the fight mode on the first day.
However, delegates could see that, on the whole, he has been smiling and purring like one of his many cats at home.
Kapar division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah claimed that is because his president has things under control.
Moreover, as far as general assemblies go, this one has been quite trouble-free.
The undercurrents are gone and those seated on the Umno stage were largely the president’s men. It was such a contrast to two years ago when there seemed to be a invisible sheet of ice separating the Umno No. 1 and his then No. 2. They did not talk, they did not even want to look at each other.
This year, Najib and Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi hugged like brothers on stage and they were chatting away as the debate was going on.
Some thought they were hamming it up for the delegates but Najib seems very comfortable with his Dr Ahmad Zahid, calling him “my longtime friend” and referring to him as the “de facto deputy president”.
The delegates have given their endorsement for Najib to hold on to his presidency and that Dr Ahmad Zahid should be the next deputy president without a contest. It was a major leg-up for the Deputy Prime Minister.
Dr Ahmad Zahid has passed through the door, the post is as good as his.
Supreme council member Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz – another longtime friend of Najib – played a big part in presenting a convincing argument at the supreme council meeting on Tuesday night. He said he did not want history to repeat because Barisan Nasional won big in 1986 but a few months later, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah challenged Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for the presidency and the party broke into two.
Dr Ahmad Zahid was on a high and he led the delegates to take a pledge of loyalty to the party and president and to accept the leadership’s choice of winnable candidates in the coming months.
Of course, some have asked what is the point of democratising the election process and then locking up the contest for the top posts? But with the top posts confirmed, the party can now move on to the business of fighting the general election.
Vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein made it a point to support the no-contest move. It was to signal that he is thinking of the party rather than himself, that he is not impatient.
Dr Ahmad Zahid reciprocated by insisting that Hishammuddin get a free pass for one of the three vice-president posts. But there is no precedent for that and it remained a personal opinion.
Another subtle but equally interesting development was taking place on the sidelines.
The First Lady and the Second Lady-to-be were seen together for the first time in years. They sat side-by-side throughout the three days as they followed the proceedings.
No one could quite tell what the problem had been between Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor and Datin Seri Hamidah Khamis but the ice seems to be thawing even though the body language has yet to warm up.
Many had expected another intense round of bashing the opposition when the debates started. But there was hardly any mention of Dr Mahathir among the speakers even though they are totally cheesed off by what he is doing as the leader of the opposition coalition.
Journalists were puzzled that there was no mention at all of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir given how the 3Ms had loomed over the party gathering last year.
“There was no need to talk about them anymore, every single person in our party understands that they (the 3Ms) are now the enemy, full stop. As our president said during his opening speech, Mahathir has crossed the line. We cannot support a man who is trying to destroy Umno,” said Faizal.
The Mahathir baggage has been exported to the opposition. The conversation in Umno these days is that they are not afraid to face an opposition that is led by a 92-year-old man from the past.
As a result, the debates were about highlighting the achievements and success stories of the Barisan Nasional government.
Umno leaders are fed-up with the opposition which has been running down the Government non-stop since 2008.
The debates trumpeted what the Government had done, from big ticket policies like affordable housing, BR1M and infrastructure projects to grants for traders, scholarships and policies to help small farmers.
They also debunked false accusations and fake news propagated by the other side. Their objective is to show that Malaysia is not a failed state nor is it headed for bankruptcy as claimed by Dr Mahathir.
The more erudite among them spoke about Malaysia’s 6.2% growth rate, that the World Economic Forum has named Malaysia as the region’s top emerging nation.
It was obvious that speakers had been instructed to steer away from controversial issues or make unseemly remarks about the other races.
The party wants to woo the “persuadable voters,” their term for voters who can still be persuaded to choose Barisan. They do not want to turn off potential support with harsh words and mud-slinging.
The persuadable voters include people like civil servants and people who have benefitted from government policies.
“We used to assume that they would support us no matter what but we cannot assume anymore. We need to reach out to them, send the right message,” said Faizal.
The assembly was also about reminding everyone that although the Umno of today is a far cry from the Umno of yesterday, it is still a big tent for the Malays.
There are many Umno politicians who are in it for the position, connections and contracts. And while the party makes a big show of standing up on big issues like religion, race and the Malay Rulers, it is the party’s efforts for the small man that keeps it relevant.
This came out well when Azlieza Azizan, a raspy voiced Puteri Umno leader from the Tangga Batu division in Melaka spoke emotionally about her family’s ties with the party. Her touching account about growing up as the daughter of an army commando, going to school in an army truck and her faith in her party won her huge cheers.
Jumawi Jaffar, the Umno Youth chief for Tenom in Sabah, has a reputation as a grassroots man. He is closely connected to where he comes from and spoke knowledgeably of land issues and the hardship of farmers.
Jumawi was among those arrested by the MACC for questioning in connection to the Rural and Regional Ministry’s distribution of funds when it was under Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal. He seems to have emerged unscathed, and his proposal for the Government to set up a council on costs of living was promptly accepted by the party.
The debates were meant to build up a sense of success and a feel-good mood.
But Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin injected some reality into the euphoria by reminding everybody that the world is changing so rapidly and the fourth industrial revolution has arrived.
He said the next election will determine the destiny of the party and if Umno is to survive, it has to present itself as the party of the future and the Barisan Nasional manifesto has to unveil a new social deal for the new generation.
Going by Najib’s closing speech, it was clear that his aim this year was to secure a consensus and pledge from his party on the thorny question of choosing candidates for the general election. The division warlords are a traditional hindrance to introducing fresh and capable people to contest.
He explained that the Government had put in place the blueprint for the future, the economy is on track and what he needs now to win the election is the mandate to pick winnable candidates.
Or as Khairy put it: “Let the candidates in the general election reflect the future.”
This was what the general assembly was building up to.
“I’ve seen it all and I’m telling you, the mood was very high this time,” said Nazri.
There were countless standing ovations throughout the three days, especially when speakers beat the election war drum.
There was also a new confidence. Three years ago, delegates had arrived at PWTC unsure whether their party would still be in power after the next general election. They went home confident not only of winning, but of doing better than in 2013.