On Umno’s anniversary, a painful lesson of hubris

As Malaysians celebrate the outcome of May 9 and embark on the long weekend, with not a little trepidation amidst the euphoria, few will spare a thought for the wreck that is Umno today, ruined on the eve of the anniversary of its birth on May 11, 1946.

Overcome by hubris, its reputation hangs in tatters around its neck after Wednesday night’s astonishing general election results.

The deep significance of May 10 in Malaysian history will go unrecognised by many present-day Malaysians.

It was on this day in 1969 that Umno first came a cropper at a general election that ruined the facade of invincibility: a popular movement of the largely urban disaffected turfed out the Umno-led Alliance party in Penang, very nearly in Perak and Selangor, and broke its dominance in Parliament.

Three days later, on May 13, race riots broke out, leading to the suspension of Parliament, Emergency rule by decree under Tun Abdul Razak and eventually to the creation of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which has ruled Malaysia since.

For many of that generation, Umno was to be blamed for the events of May 13 which they viewed partly as a show of strength to re-establish its hold on power.

If Umno was humbled before at the polls in 1969, it was humbled again in 2008 when history repeated itself, again in 2013, and once more today.

No one will feel it more than Razak’s son, Najib, the current head of the coalition that had been crafted to heal the wounds of a nation riven by communal fears.

It must be noted that he attempted to rebuild BN from the shattering defeats of 2013, and that he stood up today, humbled, to graciously accept the verdict of the people.

If there had been significance in his choice of date for this 14th general election – 48 years after 1969 – there was no less significance in the choice of celebratory public holidays.

Had BN won this election, there would have been a holiday on May 14-15, allowing Umno to celebrate its birth and gloss over the painful memories of 1969 that still linger among a large proportion of Malaysians.

But Dr Mahathir Mohamad would have it otherwise, declaring May 10-11 as celebratory holidays to mark his triumph at the head of Pakatan Harapan, the triumph of a man who broke Umno once in 1987-88, who left Umno three times, who once declared that Umno would be vanquished by 2020, and the man who, over the years, would raise the spectre of May 13 again and again at the general elections he conducted.

If there is some solace for the wounded generation of 1969 and their children, it might lie in that the man they once vilified as virulently anti-Chinese, an “anti-national”, has now led a new coalition of the urban disaffected, melded with the power of hitherto conservative rural Malay communities, to triumph on that very same weekend in an echo of 1969.

For Malaysians and particularly for Umno, it is a stark and poignant reminder of the perils of race politics and of the redemptive power of inclusiveness.

For BN and Umno, there is no harsher lesson than the hubris of racial might turned back upon itself.

While race might have been the source of its past strength, Umno must seek to find new purpose. Perhaps the way ahead is to rise above its past, above the warlordism and factionalism that had ridden and fed upon the gravy train of its success.

Najib Razak failed while attempting to rebuild upon his father’s legacy for a more inclusive Malaysia.

Whether Umno will rise again will very much depend on whether Najib or his successors fully acknowledge that the source of the party’s failures, and that of BN, lie buried deep within Umno’s fabric, and that they were brought down by their own past, by one who knew full well how to exploit it to his own advantage.

Gobind Rudra is consultant editor, FMT.