Syawal Hafriz | 18 December 2012
The Malaysian Insider
DEC 18 — I think a party that has been around since 1946 can be considered “grand” and “old”.
This is the party that has led its multi-racial coalition, without fail, in winning all 12 general elections to date.
But things have changed. The party can no longer rely on its coalition partners as much as much as it did in the past. A majority of Chinese and Indian communities are no longer seeing the other coalition partners as being relevant in championing their causes — hence the ruling coalition was punished, and lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Perhaps this could explain the rise of “ultra” elements within the grand old party, namely hardliners who are taking the party to the far right of Malay dominance, who refuse to buy into the multi-racial 1 Malaysia concept put forth by the party leader, the prime minister himself.
They say when you are up against the wall, your true character will show.
A hardliner approach might be the key since Malays represent the majority — roughly 60 per cent of the population and estimated to reach 70 per cent by 2030. The party sought to increase its influence by appealing to the Malay population, given that its other coalition partners can no longer deliver the crucial votes.
However, numbers can be misleading. Face it — with the existence of alternative parties for Malays, taking a far-right approach may not guarantee those much-needed votes.
As we enter into the era of a two-party system, people are progressively freeing themselves from the traditional race and religious voting lines. Universal issues such as corruption and economic performance are becoming increasingly salient, and these are issues which know no political affiliation.
Party identification has also weakened among the youth. They cannot relate to the party’s past struggles as much as the older generation. As such, should the alternative appear to be a more viable choice for them they would not be hesitant to vote for a change in the status quo. The new wave of first-time voters coming in the next general election will play a significant role in deciding its outcome.
It is more important than ever for the grand old party to change in parallel to this fact so that it remains relevant in the political spectrum.
On the bright side, we have witnessed a pragmatic shift in the direction that its youth wing is taking. In the past, the party has been on the right side of the spectrum and its youth wing was on the extreme right.
That is no longer the case today. Instead of shouting for racial supremacy and playing the religion card, it is becoming more centrist in its approach and the discussion has been shaped to revolve around policies and issues concerning Malaysians as a whole. Initiatives such as Youth Lab and Job Fair, with an emphasis on young talent and tapping into their potential, signal a move towards more progressive politics in our country.
Additionally, though the party is beginning to embrace new media in connecting with people, it has to keep in mind that online presence alone is not enough, because the content is what will sway the middle-ground voters. Deploying cyber troopers who go overboard in attacking opposition without any intellectual content will cause more harm than good to the party.
Now, after implementing his socio-economic reforms, the prime minister must lead the efforts in reforming the grand old party. The party must prepare itself to face its toughest election yet. Some of the old guards must make way for new leaders.
The party leader has made it clear at the recent general assembly: “If you do not change, you will be changed.”
As the party is set to embark a new multi-racial approach, it must not lose sight of its struggle to champion the Malay cause. There is nothing wrong with being a Malay party leading a multi-racial coalition. Discussion concerning the fate of Malays can continue, but they should be conducted sensibly with proper decorum.
People want to see a display of intellectual leadership, together with commitment to uphold social justice.
There were many previous instances where the grand old party was predicted to come to an end. The first was in 1951 when its founding father left the party over a disagreement on party membership and formed a new party. It was also the case when there was a split within the party which led to the formation of an Islamist party.
The 1969 racial bloodshed also was said to be the end of the party. The same was also said following the 1987 party elections as well as the notable 1999 general election.
Yet the grand old party has made it through and survived all that. Now, it is entirely up to the party to reverse its declining fortunes and avoid a taste of defeat in the next general election.
It must stop relying on its glorious past, and instead regenerate and present itself as a party that is able to reach across issues of faith, culture and language, hence bridging these deep divisions in society. They must stay true to the tradition of fighting for the people. Only then it would be relevant again in the eyes of the people.
It is now or never, Umno.
Syawal Hafriz is a third-year Government & Economics undergraduate at LSE, and the former chairman of UKEC. He also writes for CEKU at http://www.ceku.org.