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Umno’s dilemma: Balancing the general assembly rhetoric

December 8, 2017

Writer says unlike when Abdullah Badawi led Umno, Najib Razak has better control of the party, and thus, the narrative coming from delegates.

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By Tay Tian Yan

Local media outlets will not have to worry about the lack of fresh news over the next couple of days with the Umno general assembly taking place this week.

However, it is believed that for the sake of managing the heat in the run-up to the next general election (GE14), the assembly will not get excessively hot nor lukewarm.

It needs to muster sufficient heat to boost the members’ morale while also not going overboard as to incite the indignation of non-party members or the non-Malays.

When Abdullah Badawi was leading the party, Umno general assemblies were always fiery, exploding with racial and religious issues and making Chinese Malaysians easy targets of their verbal assaults.

The sparks in the Umno general assembly later spread to the greater society, souring relations and creating confrontation among the races.

That explosiveness did not seem to go down well with Pak Lah’s moderate and Mr Nice Guy image, giving rise eventually to public distrust towards the former prime minister.

Many may not be aware but Pak Lah’s weakness stemmed from his inability to take control of his party.

He was an indecisive president and many opted to blast off during the party’s general assembly in a show of defiance, while opportunists seized the chance to raise racial and religious issues to ignite the wrath and fury of non-Malay communities.

Pak Lah not only failed to maintain a firm grip of the party during these general assemblies, but also had his weaknesses exposed through them. As a result, his image was tainted further and public frustration grew.

In the end, he had to leave office as he was unable to put things in order.

If the party president is unable to dominate the assembly, he will instead be dominated by it. If he is unable to control his people, his position will be thinned out by them.

As for current Umno president and Prime Minister Najib Razak, he is adopting a policy of appeasement to effectively bring all rival factions together under him, thus minimising discordant voices and chances of defiant leaders creating trouble during the general assembly.

After several assemblies, Najib has put himself in an incontestable position in the party, and the 1MDB scandal has never been exploited by his opponents to sabotage him in the assembly.

In its stead, he has made use of the assembly to shore up his support in the party, culminating in the exclusion of Muhyiddin Yassin.

Najib has also appointed his first cousin Hishammuddin Hussein as chairman of the resolutions committee. All resolutions and debates have been filtered beforehand.

The Umno vice-president has to make sure all the debates at Umno assemblies go as Najib has wished. Since everything is well under control, the heat is remarkably suppressed.

Delegates stay away from sensitive racial and religious issues, a clear departure from during Pak Lah’s time.

Unlike the past few assemblies, Najib is focusing his firepower wholly on Pakatan Harapan this year, with PPBM chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad and DAP right in the bull’s-eye.

Unable to be completely weaned from Malay nationalism and Islam, Umno will continue to bank on Ketuanan Melayu to secure the support of party members as well as Malay society.

Meanwhile, Najib as the prime minister of this country will still try to win the approval of non-Malay communities.

For years the party has been drifting between the two extremes of ethnic-centric ideology and national interests. Najib indeed desires to strike a balance but how far can Umno go will depend on how things go in this year’s general assembly.

Tay Tian Yan writes for Sin Chew Daily.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


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