Umno's third echelon has been overlooked for several years now but this youth generation of the party seems poised to take off. JOCELINE TAN reports.
THE convoy of superbikes and Proton cars driven by Umno Youth and Puteri members roared into Kuala Terengganu in the heat of the afternoon.
Leading the convoy was the burly-looking Datuk Abdul Rauf Yusoh, Umno Youth head for Bukit Bintang and chairman of the entourage that had begun in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.
It had been a tiring but interesting journey, all made in the name of membership recruitment. This was the Youth and Puteri way of doing things their way, so to speak.
As they rode into town, they were greeted by Terengganu Umno deputy head Datuk Idris Jusoh who, in a simple ceremony, handed over a huge stack of membership forms to Rauf.
“We wanted a membership drive with an impact and everywhere we went, we have been greeted so warmly,” said Abdul Rauf, a wealthy corporate figure who fancies big bikes.
Such unconventional recruitment methods would have been undreamt of in Umno a few years ago.
But the political crisis of 1999 has forced the rank and file to reflect about the changing expectations of the younger Malay generation. The onus to engage young Malays has been heaviest on the third echelon in Umno, an overlooked tier of the party for a number of years now.
The third echelon is also sometimes known as the third wave, people who have no government posts but who hold minor positions in the party. They are a powerful group in their own right but are basically still well outside the magic circle that defines the top and second echelons.
“I guess people like us are part of the third echelon,” said Umno Youth exco member Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh, who is deputy head of the Kuala Terengganu division.
A defining factor of the third echelon is age and potential. They are people in their 30s and 40s and perhaps even in their 20s, hold some sort of position in the party largely located in the Youth and Wanita wings and, more recently, the Puteri wing.
Umno’s third echelon re-emerged in the limelight the last couple of years as Umno struggled to regain the Malay ground and especially among young Malays. But for the greater part of the last decade, this group had found itself having to wait longer and longer for the chance to move up.
“The process of renewal,” as a third waver put it delicately, “has been rather slow.”
This was recently underscored by the leadership change in MCA. Many young Umno leaders noted that not only were MCA’s new president and deputy president only in the mid-40s, the two men were also highly experienced, having been in key positions in the party and government since their 30s.
During a meeting that some Umno Youth leaders had with a party veteran from the Tun Razak years, the latter told them: “You boys are not getting enough exposure. In my days, so many of us were appointed political secretaries. It was a stepping stone to more responsible positions and that’s where it began for us.”
Said Umno supreme council member Datuk Shahrir Samad who was talent-spotted during the Tun Razak period: “What’s typical about Tun Razak was his willingness to try out new people. But he didn’t have much of a choice because he had inherited a Cabinet which was quite senior and old, so he had to bring new and young people into ministerial posts.”
The third echelon of today has not exactly languished in neglect but neither have they enjoyed the recognition of their earlier peers.
Part of their dilemma is a result of the “ageing” of the top Umno leadership. The average age of Umno’s top echelon has grown over the years and since few politicians find it easy to voluntarily let go of power, others have had to wait longer at the bottom of the ladder.
Young Umno leaders cannot help but note that the Youth wing boasts only one minister and one mentri besar – Youth leader Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein and Youth exco member Datuk Seri Khir Toyo. Hishammuddin is the youngest face in the Cabinet.
What puzzles them too is that junior ministry posts like parliamentary secretaries – generally seen as training ground for young politicians – are going to the not-so-young.
A government post, no matter how far down the scale, is important to those in the third echelon for it is the passport to eventually move onto the second tier. But to get a shot at a government post, one first has to get the chance to contest the general election but new faces from Umno reportedly comprised less than 10% in the 1999 general election.
“There were fewer of them because the last election was not the time to experiment with new blood,” said Juhaidi Yean Abdullah, an aide to Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Mustapa Mohamed.
In contrast, the opposition parties, sensing a golden chance, fielded a large number of young, energetic professionals. In PAS, those who won were quickly incorporated into the party leadership structure and they are the ones who now lend the party a youthful and professional image as opposed to its formerly ulama-dominated face.
However, said Datuk Dr Rais Yatim, Umno politics has also become subjected to loyalty.
“Ability still counts but I think loyalty to the leadership has become rather important in one’s rise up the hierarchy. That’s the reality, I suppose,” said the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.
This was evident following the internal crises in Umno in 1986, and again in 1999. Old faces were brought back to the government, while senior ones managed to stay on longer than they might have otherwise been able to.
Still, it is not unusual that the Prime Minister should appoint those he trusts, has confidence in and feels comfortable with. Others say the younger set in Umno have only themselves to blame if they have been sidelined.
“Unfortunately, the younger ones in Umno suffer the perception of being too materialistic, position-crazy and always looking out for projects and contracts,” said Juhaidi.
Umno does not have a system of identifying and grooming young potentials like, for instance, in Singapore’s PAP. Young Umno aspirants are largely left to their own devices to find their way up. Over the years, many of them have found that one way up is via the patronage of a senior leader in the top echelon.
It is a risky business though, for if the patron falls, he brings them down with him.
Umno also used to pluck talent from the academia. Wanita chief Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz was one such talent, so was Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Ghani Othman.
But as Bank Simpanan Nasional chairman Datuk Azim Zabidi who hails from the Bukit Bintang division pointed out, bringing in people from outside the ranks is more difficult to pull off these days.
“The so-called tradition in Umno demands that you pick from the ranks. I call it the warlord syndrome,” he said, referring to the way the division leadership dictates the choice of candidates in the general election.
But, Azim added, “there is really a good crop at the division level of Umno waiting to be tapped.”
The emphasis of Umno leaders on winning the young Malay ground has boosted the spirit and morale of the young wings in the party.
“It looks like things are going to be different from now,” said Wan Farid.
But the third wave now poised to move up will also have to shoulder a more onerous set of responsibilities.
Tambun MP Datuk Husni Hanadzlah is one of those rare politicians who actually worries about how Malays will cope with the effects of globalisation 10 years down the road. He has held numerous dialogues with groups ranging from teachers to the police and army to discuss topics like globalisation, democracy and good governance.
His purpose in bringing such complex subjects to the grassroots: “If people are more knowledge-based, they will be less easily misled by unsound arguments.”
The Malays, Husni said, are facing a huge gap in the knowledge economy.
“The challenge for the third wave is less about PAS than about taking the Malays through the modernisation process and about articulating Islam in a progressive way.”
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