Can Umno change? Only if delegates don’t get RM4,000 for coffee

Years ago, one of my friends from Kedah, a delegate to the Umno general assembly, was put up in a luxury hotel – all expenses paid – in Kuala Lumpur.

Around midnight, just after he and his roommate returned from the hotel coffee house, they heard a knock on the door.

My friend opened the door to find a man smiling from ear to ear. Stepping in, he said ‘salam’ and asked if they were comfortable and if everything was fine. They replied yes. He looked around, smiled and stepped out, but not before pushing some notes into their shirt pockets, saying: “Tan Sri kata minum kopi” (Tan Sri said use this for coffee).

When I met him a few days later, the teacher excitedly related the incident, keeping me in suspense till the end, when he said they each found RM4,000 in their bulging pockets.

In an incredulous tone, he kept saying: “Ini pertama kali saya dapat RM4,000 untuk minum kopi – untuk minum kopi!” (First time I’ve received RM4,000 for coffee).

I was reminded of this after hearing the pontifications of those vying for the Umno presidency and other posts about the need to eradicate money politics and other ills to bring about change in Umno.

Five people are in the race for the post of Umno president: acting head Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, former Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Mohamad Iqbal Maricair and Mohd Yusof Musa.

The fight is seen as between the first three contenders.

All three acknowledge the need for Umno to change, especially Khairy who is presenting himself as the best agent of change for the party with calls for Umno to shed its “arrogance” and “gangster-like” image.

But many Umno members, and non-Umno members, are still wondering why he went, with others, to persuade Tengku Razaleigh to run for president only to later throw his hat into the ring.

Khairy has been very vocal about the need to get rid of warlords and to get away from the “exclusive living culture, money politics and making statements that hurt the people”.

Not to be outdone, Zahid has called for the eradication of warlords and money politics, too.

But I fail to understand his thinking when he says he will remain with the party even if he loses. No general going into battle will tell his men: even if I lose this battle, I will remain in this army. Moreover, as acting deputy party president and now acting president, he has an advantage.

And people are left wondering whether he said what he said he’d said with regards to meeting Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg.

Zahid claimed he was invited to meet Mahathir, but Mahathir ally Khairuddin Abu Hassan said Zahid had begged him to arrange that meeting. Mahathir said Zahid had asked his advice on how to run Umno. Zahid’s denial of this came days after Mahathir’s claim.

Zahid said he met Abang Johari and gave his blessings for the Sarawak BN parties to leave the BN after the disastrous results of the 14th general election. Abang Johari denies meeting Zahid or discussing the matter with him.

Of course, many Malaysians will recall that Zahid is the only person in the country to have said he had actually met the wonderfully generous Arab “king and prince” who had donated RM2.6 billion to Najib.

Unlike Zahid and Khairy, Tengku Razaleigh, or Ku Li, is not tainted by association with Najib,

Razaleigh, too, has highlighted the corrosive power of money politics and how it has brought Umno to heel. He said even Umno division chiefs and lower-ranking members did not feel it was wrong to receive money. It was as if they felt there was nothing immoral about money politics, he noted.

As he was not part of Najib’s team, he was able to have a clearer picture of the situation in the nation, not just Umno. In a letter to all Members of Parliament in 2015, Razaleigh warned that the nation was moving in the wrong direction and listed down the problems and some suggestions.

This included many of the very issues that buried the BN: corruption, wastage, 1MDB debt defaults, the rising cost of living, political mark-up on contract costs, patronage politics, restrictions on the media and skewed wealth distribution.

Najib didn’t listen, of course. Neither, apparently, did Zahid and Khairy.

This is the Kelantan prince’s second attempt at the presidency. He stood against, and lost, to Mahathir for the Umno presidency in 1987, partly because Najib and his Umno Youth supporters decided to back Mahathir, some say, at the last minute.

The Umno president today must have the courage, capacity and craftiness to be an effective opposition leader. He has to be able to take on Mahathir and the PH which has dozens of more capable and intelligent leaders than Umno.

Mahathir will swallow Zahid. Khairy may employ his debating skills but the 42-year-old will be outmanoeuvred by the 92-year old. Of the three, Tengku Razaliegh is the only one who can take on Mahathir with any chance of success.

But even if Razaleigh wins, I doubt if he will be able to change Umno.

Take money politics that all of them are certain was one of the reasons for Umno’s downfall: Umno has known about this since the mid-eighties.

At the 1996 Umno general assembly, for example, this was the main topic of debate. Umno leaders, including then president Mahathir, and almost all delegates, spoke at length about its evils and called for action to slay the slithering, venomous practice.

One of the speakers, Jerlun Umno Youth division chief Ismail Tayib, saying money politics had become a “tired subject” often discussed but not acted upon, added: “We have been talking about masyarakat madani (civil society) but it looks like we are turning into a masyarakat mau money (money hungry society).”

Kijal assemblyman Ahmad Said, who later became Terengganu menteri besar, openly said: “Money politics is practiced by those who are sitting on the stage.”

Kuala Selangor Wanita representative Norliza Yusof, said: “Some of the delegates and candidates were shamelessly soliciting money. The money demanded is not little – not 100 times but 200 times more than wang hantaran (dowry).”

It is interesting to note that money politics got a foothold in Umno during Mahathir’s term as president.

And if even the indomitable Mahathir failed to curb, not to mention eradicate, money politics, can Razaleigh or anyone else succeed? And if Umno cannot get rid of money politics, can it get rid of its other ills? Can it change to become a party liked by Malaysian, not just Malay, voters? Are Umno members willing to change?

A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.