Umno needs to press the reset button

Various speeches by the candidates in the Umno leadership race give some insight on how the party has been faring since the disastrous rout by the opposition in GE14. Still drunk on Kool-Aid, Umno acting president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi says he expects the “shaky” Pakatan Harapan government to fall before GE15.

Gone are the days when an MP at the Umno general assembly could state that Najib Razak is the chosen one by Allah. Gone are the days when Najib could say with confidence that Umno would continue to rule the nation for another 1,000 years. Umno needs to wake up to the fact that Najib is no longer the chosen one and has become a mere mortal like the rest of us.

Reality has set in. With a loud thud, Umno came crashing to the ground in GE14. A former Umno deputy minister said the party’s defeat in the election was perhaps God’s way of punishing it for its past arrogance. It would be good to remind the Umno politician that man proposes and God disposes.

Veteran Umno leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who is contesting the party presidency, says the party must give priority to changing its leadership style as Umno leaders have been labelled by the people as arrogant and elitist. Many Umno leaders have also admitted that the culture of warlords and money politics still exists, and could be the biggest stumbling block to reforms.

Zahid has said that Barisan Nasional lost the election because of the relentless attack on Najib and the opposition’s use of a common logo. Such statements indicate that Umno has yet to accept the real reasons for its demise. It wasn’t just about Najib or a simple logo – the people were tired of a corrupt regime that was feeding on them.

If 1MDB is just a fairytale made up by Western powers, why doesn’t Najib sue the US Department of Justice? Why turn against your own people and persecute them for trying to bring the truth to the surface?

Perhaps the best illustration of Umno’s twisted mentality can be seen in the case of former menteri besar and former Umno vice-president Mohd Isa Samad. In 2005, he was suspended from the party for six years after its disciplinary board found him guilty of money politics. In 2010, he was appointed as Felda chairman, following which a string of controversies and alleged corruption brought Felda into disrepute.

After several investigations, Isa “voluntarily” agreed to relinquish his position as FGV chairman. Soon after stepping down from Felda, Isa was appointed as acting SPAD chairman – according to Najib, in appreciation of the role he had played.

Here is a man tainted by his past involvement in money politics who was involved in further controversy at Felda and escaped with just a slap on the wrist.

Khairy Jamaluddin, Umno’s Youth leader, summed it up very well when he said: “What happened was we became delusional; we got drunk on our own Kool-Aid and we got carried away.”

In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, he said: “We didn’t want to bell the cat. Nobody, after Muhyiddin was purged, after Shafie was purged… Nobody wanted to acknowledge we have a problem. That was a terrible mistake on our part.”

The question for Umno, which says the culture of money politics and warlords is still intact, is: would any Umno member bell the cat if similar incidents occurred?

The biggest problem with Umno is that it tends to rely on the old warlords and fails to bring younger leaders to the forefront. Tengku Razaleigh may be nearly the same age as Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but he is not Mahathir. Tengku Razaleigh has always played it safe and is not a risk taker like Mahathir. Zahid meanwhile is seen as too close to Najib, and has a trust deficit.

Khairy is probably the best candidate for renewal in Umno. Despite his missteps, he has the youth and the brains to play an important role as the opposition leader in Malaysia’s democratic process.

Umno is down but not out. It’s still a rich party with a lot of assets. At one of the police raids of residences linked to Najib, RM120 million worth of cash in various currencies was discovered and seized. The Umno strategic communications unit said the funds were originally obtained from donations for GE14, and were also meant for Umno’s management. With such a huge war chest, Umno can survive for the next five years if it can provide proof of ownership.

But Umno can no longer rely on God or blame Him for its fall. Politics is about man. Umno needs to press the reset button.

The question now is whether Umno, with its long history of being in power, has the ability to come out, reinvent itself and be a winner again.

Joe Samad is an FMT columnist.

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