Umno in power for too long to respond to change

THE delegates at the upcoming Umno general assembly will have to seriously consider the party's relevance to the Malay voters after the recently-concluded PAS elections. PAS is growing in confidence that its partnership in the Pakatan Rakyat alliance will bear fruit in the next general election.

The election of moderate leaders like Mat Sabu, Salehuddin Ayub and Husam Musa to continue the leadership of the party signals their members' willingness to compromise on their idealogical principles and move the party to the country's political center to solidify the support of the Malay majority middle class.

This is not surprising as the smell of power will intoxicate anyone within reach of it. They would do anything to obtain and consume the power. Umno, on the other hand, has been drunk on power for decades and is less aware that the political environment has changed significantly or just lacks the motivation to reverse the situation.

Pakatan's strategy of using PKR to pull its ideologically opposite partners DAP and PAS to the center has succeeded in convincing more and more people that the alliance can actually become an credible alternative to Barisan Nasional as the government of the country.

The last two general election results have indicated that Pakatan's strategy to attract voters in the suburban areas to add to its overwhelming strength in city areas has been successful. The slight increase in the number of seats won by Pakatan in the last general election in May belies its actual forward momentum as Barisan managed to hold back the Opposition's advance largely due to the popularity of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak.

However, the Prime Minister and Umno president will no longer be an advantage for Barisan as the results of the last election and his uneven performance as Prime Minister have dented his image as a reformer which, sadly, wasn't all due to him. Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi went through the same critical path when he was leading our country until he voluntarily stepped down in 2009 to allow Najib to take over in an orderly manner, in the mold of the statesman that he is.

Since May, I have had a feeling of deja vu about the state of affairs that Barisan and Umno is in at the moment. But this time, I lack the vigour to take action as I did immediately after 2008 general election.

Then, I was driven by anger due to the unfavourable election results and the slow process of rejuvenating Umno with younger talent, to the extent that I derived extraordinary courage to tell Tun Abdullah to step down as Prime Minister in a Johor Umno state executive meeting where I have been a member since 2003 by virtue of being the Umno chief in the Pulai constituency.

My motivation was simple. Umno was in a long-term decline and the rejuvenation of the leadership in the party had to happen quicker, before Barsian faced the next general election. Umno was lucky to have Najib, who as the Deputy Prime Minister then, was ready to take over the leadership of the country and rejuvenate and prepare the party for the longer term. He would had more difficulty than Tun Abdullah before him because of the adverse results of the polls then.

Unfortunately, my high hopes of an Umno rejuvenation and revival sank after GE13 as Barisan's popular vote declined further to 47% from 51% in GE12. The voters did not believe that Umno was transforming fast enough and rejected it again. The situation for Umno is dire now as the voters may have more conviction that the party is really vulnerable and can actually be defeated at the polls, something that seemed improbable a few elections ago.

Previously, the convention was that the Prime Minister of the country was the person who assumed the presidency of Umno. And change in the leadership in the country can only happen in Umno first. No more.

Pakatan's strategy of capturing the urban and semi-urban constituencies in the country has pushed Umno as the backbone of Barisan into a defensive political mode. In its anxiety to keep its mainly Malay rural vote, Umno is tailoring its strategy to attract the attention of the rural voters which eventually falls back on religion and race. This strategy is not new as the two issues are the idealogical mainstay of PAS and DAP. But it would be dangerous for Umno to be too dependent on these issues to win support. This is because it is the government of the day and must do what is right for the country. Pakatan, as the Opposition, is not expected by voters to carry such a responsibility.

The use of race and religion issues can impact negatively on urban constituencies like mine in Pulai and even in rural Sabah and Sarawak, as in the case of the use of the word Allah in publications, and lose Barisan more votes than it gains.

The decision to move Barisan's policies from the center to the right will not gain it more votes in the urban and semi-urban areas and may actually lose more votes. This ill-thought policy shift will give Pakatan a golden opportunity to penetrate the rural areas. Pakatan just needs to expand its reach to the rural areas using its huge army of dedicated urban believers armed with internet connectivity to capture the mainly Malay rural areas and east Malaysia in GE14.

On the other hand, Barisan faces an uphill task to attract young believers to its cause in the urban and semi-urban areas because of its slow rejuvenation process to create younger and more appealing leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin. It will fail to gain ground in those areas and ultimately suffer at the polls.

As a Member of Parliament, I have won three polls with declining majorities each time, which is not surprising to me since Pulai, in Johor Baru, is quickly becoming a major urban centre due to the rapid development of the Iskandar region.

After GE13 , many of my Umno members were quick to blame the Chinese voter tsunami for the bad results. However, as their party chief, I have always reminded them that we still managed to win the Pulai seat despite having a large Chinese voter population of 42%, out of the 100,000 voters.

I reminded them that the 48% Malay voters in Pulai can no longer ensure a win for Barisan in the next elections. And I also reminded them that the we had only 80% of Malay support in the last GE, which is far better than the average 50% Malay support in major urban centres around the Klang Valley. Pulai was a considerable feat considering my opponent in GE12 was none other than Salahuddin Ayub, the newly re-elected PAS vice-president.

The point I was trying to explain to them was we could lose many more marginal constituencies and ultimately, the government, if our Malay support declined further and that the Chinese cannot take power without the support of the Malays. We have to respond to the new political climate, which demands performance from the party in government and less rhetoric in its government.

Umno cannot continue to rely on a strategy of creating non-grassroots-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to be its Malay voice. Although they may appeal to some Malays, the figureheads representing these NGOs may not be attractive to the Malay voters generally and might actually cause Umno to lose more Malay votes. I was not surprised by the Merdeka Centre research results published a few months ago that showed Barisan managed to get only 61% of the Malay votes in GE13, despite having the backing of these NGOs.

Finally, Umno's real problem is staying in power for too long. Power has institutionalised Umno to the point that it is unable to respond, much less change and rejuvenate itself quickly. I believe many Malays in the country still love Umno and appreciate its history of fighting for the Malay community since its inception. But they are beginning to feel less confident that it can continue to do so in its present form. Maybe the Malays will will vote it out  power to force Umno to change out of love for it in GE14. We will have to wait and see.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. 

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