Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Transforming Umno

By N Shashi Kala
25 Nov 08 : 9.00AM

IT has been more than two weeks since the close of nominations for Umno supreme council posts. Every post, except the presidency and the Wanita deputy chief position, is being contested.

But as the candidates prepare to do battle for the hearts, and some would say pockets, of the 2,500 delegates at the 24 to 28 March 2009 Umno general assembly, the issue of reforming the party is sadly in danger of being sidelined.

The candidates include a sprinkling of new faces, but the majority are familiar names in the Umno echelon — holdovers from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's time as Umno president.

This has left some observers wondering if Umno is actually making any attempt to reform itself in the wake of the 8 March 2008 general election.

Prime Minister and Umno president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came under tremendous pressure to resign after the elections. After stonewalling for a period, he finally decided to exit via a transition of power agreement with his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, slated for March.

To that end, he is not defending his presidency, leaving Najib to win uncontested. But will the team that is headed for the polls help bring about much-needed rejuvenation within the party?

Reform prospects dim

Pulai Umno division head Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed tells The Nut Graph that the message sent out by the divisions on reform has been mixed.

"For the presidency, they accept the generational change as a result of the handover from Abdullah to Najib. For the deputy president's post, I think the membership didn't have a real choice between a younger candidate and an older one," says Nur Jazlan.

(The list of candidates for the Umno supreme council posts is available here.)

Nur Jazlan, who is the 42-year-old son of former Information Minister Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat, shocked many Umno members by offering to contest the deputy's post. The two-term Member of Parliament (MP) for Pulai in Johor was branded an upstart for daring to run for such a senior post.

He withdrew after failing to receive a single nomination, and bemoans the lack of new blood in the Umno hierarchy.

"The members like my message on rejuvenation but are not willing to carry it out. They like democracy within the party and would like to have a choice of leaders. But now they are stuck with the older set of leaders on offer," muses Nur Jazlan.

Political scientist Dr Joseph Liow, who is associate professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes Umno is now going through a period of quick consolidation, with Najib coming into this from a position of strength. But he points out the prospects for reform are dim.

"After all Najib, (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin (Yassin, contesting for the deputy presidency), Datuk Mukhriz (Mahathir, contesting for Youth chief), Datuk Seri Shahrizat (Abdul Jalil, contesting for Umno Wanita chief), et al are all part of the old Umno system, and they have been a part of it for some time," he says.

Ongoing regeneration

But Nur Jazlan is more optimistic. He says that the process of reform is there, but slow.

"That's why I needed to shock the system [by announcing my intention to contest for the deputy presidency]. If I didn't do that, they (Umno) would not even start thinking about reform," he says.

The lack of impetus for the grassroots to opt for change is due to Umno's top-down power structure, says Nur Jazlan (right).

But he says he has faith in Najib's commitment to implement the big changes needed by the party after he takes over, "even if it means going against the entrenched interests within the party."

"I think Datuk Seri Najib realises that Umno must change quickly or it will be changed in the future," Nur Jazlan adds.

Umno member and Tambun MP Datuk Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah agrees with Nur Jazlan, explaining that regeneration within the party is ongoing.

"Sometimes, when people look at Umno, they only look at the supreme council; that is just one part of the whole party. We have got the Youth and Puteri wings," he says.

He notes that the formation of Puteri in 2001 is one example of the regeneration process, which can also be seen in the new faces contesting for the vice-presidency.

"For the deputy president post, the divisions have gone for people with experience and exposure. But for the vice-presidency, the divisions are looking at the future; to future leaders who can assume greater responsibility," Husni says. The deputy finance minister is one of 68 candidates vying for a supreme council seat.

But would the new guard be as receptive to reform as Abdullah was? Or will Abdullah's departure herald an end to such thoughts, and a return to business-as-usual within Umno?

Not dead

Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, a political scientist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, thinks the reform agenda in Umno is not dead.

"The fact that Abdullah is not running for the president's post doesn't mean his plans will be thrown out. In fact, many Umno leaders support his plan, but they don't think he is firm enough to implement them," he tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview.

Liow, on the other hand, doesn't expect Abdullah loyalists to do well in the coming party elections. He says Abdullah's son-in-law and current Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin, (left) especially, is fighting for his political life.

"Whether he is defeated [for the Youth chief post] or not would be an indication of the fate of Abdullah's legacy," says Liow.

But Husni's view is that Abdullah's legacy is assured as Najib has openly declared he will continue with his predecessor's policies.

"The future of the policies will be highly dependent on who is the leader. And the leader, Najib, has already said he will continue with the substance. On those grounds, I believe the policies that Pak Lah has put into place will continue into the future," he says.

Mahathir's return?

Despite perceptions that he is Mahathir's proxy, Liow believes Najib will be his own man.

Muhyiddin Yassin (right), who is contesting for the deputy presidency "I certainly do see Mahathir playing an active role. That said, Najib and Muhyiddin, and Mukhriz for that matter if he wins, will want to distance themselves from obvious alignment with the Tun.

"Overall, I'm not sure if it would be a wholesale return to Mahathirism, though we will see glimpses of it. After all, Najib matured basically under that system," Liow concludes.

Shamsul agrees, saying Umno cannot go back to its old ways, and especially not Mahathir's way, which is viewed by many within the party as divisive.

With four months left to go before the elections, the battle lines are now being drawn. The jostling for support will intensify, leading to worry that the whole exercise could leave Umno even more divided than it presently is.

But Husni doesn't fear the worst. He believes competition within the party is healthy.

"Competition will create a competitive spirit. And a competitive spirit in itself will enhance the strength of the leaders and the party."

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