Umno admits the next general election will be its most challenging but it has signalled that last weekend’s party general assembly will not be its last as the ruling party.
THE cannons were all pointed outwards. This was glaringly evident at the Umno general assembly this year. The guns had started shooting when the Wanita, Pemuda and Puteri wings began their own assemblies on Wednesday.
“This is a war drum assembly. The ground is tough but we are upbeat,” said Putrajaya Umno Youth chief Datuk Zaki Zahid.
Everyone was conscious that the enemy is outside the party and that they were about to face the most critical general election in the party’s history. It has sunk in that this could be their last general assembly as a ruling party and it is a scary thought for them.
Their sights are on the general election. They did not want to end up scoring their own goals, as deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin said when winding up. It explained why the atmosphere at Dewan Merdeka was so different.
As such, while the media corps gave the thumbs-up to the revamped media centre this year, they found the proceedings rather tame and decorous. Journalists who are used to the flowery and bombastic rhetoric, the chest-thumping and jokes that are so much a part of Umno assemblies, found the proceedings somewhat too tame and serious.
The debates had to reflect their intent to hold on to power, and their habit of telling jokes and praising their leaders sky-high had to be put on hold.
They did not want to say anything that could damage the party’s image as what happened in 2005 when their jingoistic tone of debate shocked the nation. The stakes are high for Umno, and as party president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said, there is no such thing as second place in an election.
The Malays call it “jaga mulut” (holding one’s tongue). But some claimed it also reflects the new awareness in Umno. They cannot simply say what they like in the new political landscape and hope to get away with it as what happened to Perak DAP leader Nga Kor Ming whose racist slur against Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir is still playing out on the Internet.
The guns were aimed mainly at PKR and DAP whereas, PAS, some noted, got off rather lightly. There was not a single reference to the sex video or the sodomy trial, but numerous speakers poked fun at the “parti sekeluarga” or party of one family, where the husband is the de facto leader, the wife is the president and their daughter is the vice-president.
PKR deputy president Azmin Ali’s bravado about breaking down the prison walls if Anwar goes to jail was a favourite topic among speakers. They slammed him for challenging the law, the cheekier ones referred to him as the “buah hati” (beloved), alluding to the preferential treatment he gets from Anwar.
They also hit hard at DAP. They were fed up with DAP blaming Umno for everything under the sky. As one of them pointed out, Umno was blamed even when stray dogs disrupted the Penang Hill train service in Penang last year. PAS was painted as being under the thumb of DAP to the point of putting aside their religious aspirations.
Umno, said Pasir Salak Umno politician Dr Faizal Abdullah, has been slow to react in the past.
“We are going to tackle every issue thrown at us. You can already see that from the speakers,” he said.
Some were quite hilarious when hitting back. For instance, a Wanita Umno speaker said it was absurd of former Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin to claim that Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil owned a RM26,000 bra. The speaker had people collapsing in laughter when she suggested that he either had see-through vision or a secret crush on the Wanita Umno chief.
The endless references to winnable candidates shows that the idea has perolated into the party psyche. Now comes the hard part of telling those who are no longer winnable to make way.
That will be Najib’s headache and he had better have lots of Panadol on standby.
Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, a more mature and measured person today than when he rode in on a wave of controversy three years ago, put it well when he said that a winnable candidate is one thing, but he or she can only do well with the backing of the party. But, as he noted, Umno has a winnable president.
Former Terengganu Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh and former Umno secretary-general Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad made it a little easier for the Umno president when they said on the sidelines of the assembly that they would make way for new faces in the election.
More may follow in the months ahead but as some pointed out, the problem is less about old faces finding it hard to let go than about aspiring candidates sabotaging each other if they are not picked.
Najib’s remark about “orang Umno” or party loyalists or stalwarts reminded them that being an Umno member is more than just carrying a membership card, it’s about going the extra mile for the party.
Umno and the Barisan Nasional will have to rely in a big way on the Malay vote to survive the general election.
“People will hear what they want to hear from the president’s speech. His message that we have to adapt to the new landscape, lead in the new media, talk the language of the youth – we can relate to what he is saying,” said Zaki.
Moreover, internal Umno surveys show that more than 60% of young voters are still undecided.
“If we want to tackle this group of voters, we cannot behave like we are still living in the 1980s or 1990s,” said Dr Faizal.
People are still talking about the way Shahrizat fired up the Wanita Umno assembly with her fierce opening speech. This was a new side to the usually decorous politician who is fighting off criticism over her family’s RM250mil cattle rearing project. She is furious about the way the Pakatan politicians have gone for her.
She was like a tigress. Her eyes, dramatised by dark eyeliner, blazed as she went for the jugular of her critics in PKR. The ladies loved the way she turned the tables on PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and her husband Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. She was basically saying: “Don’t mess with me.”
But Umno’s top lady is not in a good place now even though there is no doubt about her support from the senior ladies. Some in Umno wondered whether the message was also aimed at those within the party. Was she also telling critics in the party not to push her around, that the 1.3 million Wanita members could shake up the party if the ladies rebelled?
No one could quite read her at this point in time. Neither could anyone tell where she is heading from here. The National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) issue has hurt her and the collateral impact on the party is still reverberating.
Despite their support for her, the Wanita ladies are quite uncomfortable with Shahrizat’s claim that Pakatan politicians were attacking her because she is the Wanita leader. They are concerned about Wanita Umno being dragged into a controversy that has nothing to do with the wing.
The controversy was evidently off-limits at the general assembly. She would have felt the heat from the men if not for a looming general election.
The weird thing is that while there was hardly a mention of controversy inside the assembly, it was a top topic outside the Dewan Merdeka. Opinion in the party about the issue is quite negative. Privately, many say she should make a decision about the situation rather than leave it to the president.
Shahrizat has reached a critical junction in her career. She will have to think about whether she is still a winnable candidate and she may have to decide very soon before the issue escalates and pulls more people in or, worse, pulls the party down.
Umno’s last assembly before the polls settled a number of questions surrounding the leadership. It is quite clear by now that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is firmly behind Najib and wants Najib to win well and for Umno to survive. He is true-blue “orang Umno”. And so is Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The two Tuns are not on the best of terms but they are on the same page in their support for Najib and Umno.
Najib also made it crystal clear that he appreciates Muhyiddin whom he described as a loyal Deputy Prime Minister. He is aware of the gossip out there that he and Muhyiddin have different ideas about Umno’s direction. The No. 1 and No. 2 are two different personalities but they are “orang Umno”.
When Najib took over Umno 30 months ago, the party was floundering, battered black and blue. As Najib rallied the troops at the end of the assembly, everyone could see that this man had taken their party back on the track. He has set them in a state of preparedness for the polls. That was the aim of this year’s assembly.
Very few had seen Najib as an orator but every year, his off-the-cuff speeches in Umno get better. He made a striking figure in his fuschia pink baju Melayu. Confident, earnest and focused, he spoke like a man who knows he has pulled off a job that very few people could and he has done it to the best of his ability.
He is on top of the game and unfazed by the politics of the day. Most importantly, he knows his party is behind him. Despite having somewhat of a poker face, Najib showed a humorous side as he playfully mocked his opponents. The Malays call it “perli” and the audience loved it.
The feedback coming in from the Malay ground has actually been very positive for Umno but the party leader does not want his members to take it easy, thinking they are going to make it. He wants them to stay alert, hungry for power and work hard to win.
His message at the assembly was not only for those inside PWTC but as Umno’s best brand name, he is also telling those outside the party to put their trust in him and in Umno to lead the Barisan Nasional.
Umno, he is saying, is ready for Battlefield Putrajaya.
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