KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 10 — Umno held its annual general assembly this year with one clear goal in mind — winning the 14th general elections, and winning it big.
Prime Minister and Umno president Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Abdul Razak delivered a fiery policy speech last Thursday, one that outlined in clear terms what he expected of the party machinery, and how he wants them to fight.
But ultimately his speech also provided a window into the Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman’s current mindset: what his worries were and where his confidence is.
If the 2013 polls was “the mother of all elections” for Najib, in his own words, the one to be held soon will be “the father of all elections” simply because the Umno president will have to confront a beefier Opposition alliance, now chaired by the man who had served as prime minister for 22 long years, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Malay Mail explains below the three main key themes driving Umno’s election preparation, and the sentiment prevalent among delegates at the 2017 Umno AGM:
The Umno leadership has gone to great lengths to drill into the minds of Umno’s over three million members that Dr Mahathir is a traitor not only to the party, but to the Malays and its so-called Bumiputera agenda.
Terms like “betrayal”, “treachery” and “traitor” were repeatedly used to depict the former Umno president throughout the four-day assembly by most delegates.
From Najib in his speech, to delegates debating his policy speech across the wings, Dr Mahathir’s defection to the Opposition was raised repeatedly and painted as the ultimate betrayal.
And nobody likes a traitor, more so Malays or Bumiputera from the kampung. For politics in the countryside, personal sentiment always trumps over matters like governance or policies, which they tend to find either complicated or far too “high brow”.
But voting on personal sentiment also meant rural electorates will likely remember many of Dr Mahathir’s contribution as prime minister.
Which is why playing to Malay psyche, like normalising the idea that the Dr Mahathir of Umno is dead, only the traitor lives, will be instrumental in helping Najib contain the threat posed by the former and his newly-found political vehicle, the all-Bumiputera Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).
More than half of the 222 parliamentary seats are rural or semi-urban, so an election is won or lost in the interiors.
A ruling party anywhere in the world is one never short of internal strife and power struggles. Umno is no different.
The Umno leadership made great emphasis on loyalty and unity at this year’s general assembly ostensibly for two reasons:
First and most important, it must show it has recuperated from the internal crisis sparked by the fallout with Dr Mahathir.
Loyalty and unity featured heavily in the speeches of all the leaders from the party’s four movements: from the main body to the wings. Delegates debating Najib’s policy speech repeatedly pledged undivided support to the Umno president and the top leadership with the fervour and passion of recruits.
Flaunting unity may seem redundant to those outside of Umno, but from within, it sends a powerful message that Najib commands total respect, and that any doubt left about his leadership and government is a thing of the past.
This was a fact the Umno president raised very early in his policy speech. Boasting that 30,000 Umno members had turned up for this year’s assembly, Najib said it proved to his foes that he “is not alone”.
Secondly, unity, or at least the idea of it, is crucial to ensure the machinery toes the line and keep the rank-and-file — especially those at the local leadership level — in check.
This was something unexpected. In the immediate aftermath of Election 2013 where support from Malaysia’s minority groups dipped further for the BN, the coalition’s biggest party seemed to adopt a more conservative attitude.
In what was seen as a move to reward the conservative Malay voter base that had helped increase the party’s Dewan Rakyat tally to 88 seats, there was more talk of pro-Bumiputera policies to be implemented.
At the same time the more right wing elements within Umno intensified its political attacks against the minority ethnic Chinese and Christian demographic groups.
The administration was also said to have become more religious in an attempt to mend ties with PAS, agreeing to lend support to the Islamist party’s campaign to implement stricter Shariah criminal laws in Kelantan, which it rules.
Pundits expected the scaremongering to continue and intensify in the run up to the 14th general elections, which must be called by August next year.
But none of the race or faith-baiting rhetoric, a standard feature in past congresses, showed during this year’s assembly. Instead, leaders and delegates stressed on moderation, and made almost no mention of PAS or any of the Islamic catchphrases like “Shariah” or “Muslim unity” that were so favoured by delegates in the previous meeting.
Najib stressed this in his policy speech, saying Umno was not an anti-Chinese or a racist party and accentuated on conciliatory words like “inclusive”, “co-operation” and “harmony”.
Like their president, delegates echoed the tone not only in their debates, but also in the manner of speech; most were civil and polite, a far cry from the truculent attitudes prevalent in past assemblies.
This suggests that Umno may not have abandoned efforts to reach out to the minorities and the urban Malays.