NST Online | 17-Oct-2008: Without competent crisis management, Umno risks losing the struggle to save itself from slipping into political oblivion, observes ZUBAIDAH ABU BAKAR
(From left) Che Johan Che Pa says Umno cannot afford to detach itself from the people; and Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir says Umno needs to consider change seriously
THE “R” words — revamp, reform, reinvent, re-engineer, revive, rebrand and revitalise — were never so prominent in Umno’s vocabulary as they have been since the party’s poor performance in the March elections, as party members attempt to restore Umno’s injured pride.
But what are Umno’s actual plans for executing change?
Party leaders talked about a recovery plan months ago, but nothing of the sort has yet been seen. It appears the party still lacks a clear idea of the kind of change it seeks.
The special committee on rebranding chaired by former Terengganu menteri besar Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh should by now have some ideas, having been in action for the past three months.
According to Che Johan Che Pa, a grassroots leader from Pasir Mas, changes have to begin from the top. The push is now coming from the grassroots, he says; to effect any form of change to suit internal and external needs, the lead should be from the top.
“Umno has to be where the people are,” says Che Johan. “The party cannot detach itself from the people. It cannot continue to offer the same things for more than 50 years.”
Lumut division chief and Pangkor assemblyman Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir shares this sentiment. “For sure, Umno cannot be playing the same tune,” he says. “Umno must sit down; must have its own thinking group to look into this whole concept of change seriously.”
The grassroots are effecting changes at the ongoing divisional elections, though; delegates no longer want to be yes-men and rubber stamps for decisions made by division committees. They are offering alternative nominees for senior party posts and insisting on secret ballots or show of hands in selecting their nominees.
This was reflected at the Machang division meeting when there was a nomination from the floor for Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah after the division secretary proposed Datuk Seri Najib Razak for the Umno presidency.
There is a similar trend in other divisions as well as in the party’s Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings.
“Reform and change have been started in Umno by the grassroots as translated by the choice of leadership at the highest level,” says Zambry.
“Other than this, Umno has yet to establish what kind of change it really wants, what is it that it wants to reinvent.”
The acceptance of personalities who in the past would have fallen foul of the party, such as vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, is another change being pushed forward.
Muhyiddin has been very vocal against outgoing party president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s leadership, and now he leads the nominations for the deputy presidency, paving the way for his appointment as deputy prime minister when the power transition from Abdullah to Najib takes effect next year.
The grassroots are hopeful that Umno’s new team of leaders will listen to them and make the necessary changes, structural and in policy, in accordance with the dominant views of Malaysians.
The debate continues on whether more young people should be on the supreme council, the highest decision-making body in Umno, where hierarchy, seniority and age have long ruled.
Many would share the view of vice-presidential aspirants Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar and Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, that Umno needs a good mix of young and old leaders to remain resilient.
Forty-two-year-old Pulai member of parliament Nur Jazlan Mohamed, whose chances to be No 2 in Umno analysts have described as “thin as paper”, says Umno is in danger of losing power if it fails to regenerate and move with the times as young Malay voters have spurned it in favour of Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
“Umno must realise it is at a crossroads, it’s a matter of life and death,” he was quoted saying in an interview with Reuters. “I don’t think it will have the resilience to recover if we were to lose power.”
To regain lost ground is no easy matter, and has to be handled cautiously. Any change has to take into consideration the demands of the masses as well as the emergence of a more appealing opposition led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Yes, Umno’s support among the Malays has waned, but all is not yet lost. Surveys indicate that Malay support for Umno remains around 50 per cent.
“If we exclude Kelantan, Umno still enjoyed the support of 65 per cent of the Malays in the last general election,” notes Ibrahim Suffian, head of Merdeka Centre, an opinion poll centre that conducted several post-election surveys.
These findings also suggest that over-emphasising Malay issues had cost Umno the support of non-Malays.
“All these and other negative perceptions can be rectified within the BN framework,” says Ibrahim.
Conservative Umno members must accept that Malays no longer see Umno as the one and only protector of Malay interests; the debacle of Umno is not the debacle of the Malays.
Another Merdeka Centre survey concluded that while most Malays want their special privileges to continue, significant numbers have no qualms about treating other communities equally.
The survey found that 58 per cent of Malays say they should be accorded special rights and privileges as the country’s original society, while 40 per cent say people should be accorded the same rights in Malaysia regardless of race or religion.
Umno leaders should, therefore, look at reality before making racist remarks. In a nutshell, Umno can no longer afford missteps. There is much to be learned from past mistakes such as being fixated on Malay interests; an attitude that lost the elections for Umno’s allies.
The new leaders have to be willing to champion new approaches or any change the party undertakes will be an exercise in futility: Umno may change in form but not in substance. Projecting a new image of openness and flexibility towards multiracialism is the way to strengthen its hold on federal power.