AN OMINOUS time for an ominous book?
On October 20 in Kuala Lumpur, Umno veteran Razaleigh Hamzah launched The End of Umno: Essays on Malaysia’s Former Dominant Party, which was edited by Bridget Welsh. (Interestingly, Mohd Nazifuddin Najib, the son of former Prime Minister and Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, attended the launch.)
Just a day before that, current Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi claimed trial to 45 charges of money-laundering, criminal breach of trust and graft. It was the first time a serving Umno president has been hauled by the court to face criminal charges.
“Is it the end of Umno?” I asked Welsh, who specialises in Southeast Asian politics.
“For Najib’s Umno, yes. Most of the tainted leaders will have to go. The party can survive with new leadership and its members (especially the young) rejuvenating its roots. The party cannot thrive without reform and new engagement with its base,” she said.
In a video presented at the book launch, Clive Kessler, one of the book’s contributors, was asked whether it was too soon to start writing obituaries for Umno.
It is too early to say, said Kessler, a political observer who has written extensively on Malaysia.
“Basically, of the Malay votes, only 25% were for Pakatan Harapan and the other 75% were divided between Umno/BN and PAS, which were not turning away from ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) or ketuanan Melayu charged by Islam,” Kessler said.
“Many have decided to firmly be Malay by transferring their allegiance – perhaps in the short term – from Umno to PAS. But this direction is where Umno increasingly is fated to be – in cooperation with PAS, on PAS’ term.”
He added the only direction left for Umno was to move to the centre, where the party once positioned itself but abandoned in the Najib era.
“What’s the impact of Zahid’s criminal charges on Umno?” I asked Welsh.
“He will have to go. The important question is when the charges will come for the other leaders as well. Essentially, all in the Najib era are tainted. The party will have to elect new leaders,” she said.
James Chin, another contributor, was asked how Umno could stay electorally relevant in the new Malaysia.
“ All the cards are against Umno now and in some ways, all the cards are being held by Pakatan,” said Chin, who is also a professor of political science at University of Tasmania.
“So, if Pakatan can show that it can bring development to Malaysia, and look after the bottom 40% of the population, then Umno will be in big trouble.”
Chin noted the general expectation in Malaysia that in two years’ time there would a leadership change.
“We do not know how the leadership will look like under (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim. With (Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) we know exactly what we are getting – a 93-year-old person who is PM for a second time; he’s very clear about what he wants to do....
If you are confused about Mahathir, go read the book he wrote in 1970,” he said, referring to The Malay Dilemma.
When asked if there was a chance that Umno could be welcomed into the government, Chin said anything could happen. After all, nobody predicted that Dr Mahathir as 92 years old person would come back to politics and win office, he said.
“But for the first time in its history, Umno leaders are going to try to run a party without any resources. What we can expect to see over the next 24 months is that more Umno MPs and assemblymen will feel that they cannot survive in a party where there is no resource and they will start moving to Pakatan parties – and for many there are only two choices: PKR or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.”
However, Kessler believes that Umno still has a lot of resources.
“Tengku Razaleigh has mentioned billions of ringgits in terms of properties and things like that. It might not be easy to mobilise their resources now and obviously, patronage is a big part of the way Umno has operated, so that makes it difficult for them,” he said.
When asked whether Umno should be written off as an electoral force, Chin noted that Umno seems to be disintegrating, especially after seven MPs resigned from the party. But there would always be a hope for Umno to make a comeback, he said, highlighting two circumstances for this to happen: 1) the disintegration of Pakatan and 2) the economy tanks and the government is not able to get support, especially from the lower income voters.
In the book, Welsh introduced an interesting concept derived from an archaic Malay belief: Hantu Raya (great ghost) and saka (inheritance).
“Najib, his persona and tenure in office, is the Hantu Raya, which delegitimised the government and harmed the party,” she wrote.
“Not only has he eroded the semangat or soul of the party itself, leaving behind a party that reacts in the patterns of the past, but he has also cut it off from its traditional lifelines – power and money.”
Welsh argued that Umno would need to exorcise the spirit of immediate past to move out of the denial trance it is now in – something that, given post-GE14 developments over the past couple of months, was not likely to happen any time soon.
The saka is the Umno’s spirit that Pakatan may have inherited, she said.
“The practices of Umno have routinised while in government for nearly six decades have extended beyond party. In fact, many practices of Umno are alive and well within Pakatan.... Many current Pakatan leaders are from Umno,” she wrote.
Umno’ future would rest on whether Pakatan can maintain its coalition intact, and dampen the politicking and jockeying for positions, while delivering and consolidating its own political legitimacy, she noted.
Particularly important would be steps taken on political reform and management of the economy. The conditions of the nation Pakatan inherited from Barisan – a high debt, a compromised civil service and deep institutional weaknesses – were not in their favour, said Welsh.
“The Hantu Raya has done considerable damage indeed. Umno’s political fortune will improve, however, if Pakatan adopts the practices of Umno and succumbs to the saka.”
The Hantu Raya may be barely alive but Umno’s saka seems to be living on in Pakatan.