9 Dec 2015
COMMENT Today the Umno general assembly begins – an event that has been stage-managed to deliver another show of support for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. These sorts of activities have become commonplace since the July revelation of the RM2.6 million ‘donation’ that continues to be inadequately explained and embarrasses Malaysia.
The meeting provides an opportunity to take stock – not only of the PM but of the state of the party that has governed Malaysia since independence. By whatever measure, Malaysia’s leadership is facing serious challenges ahead.
Najib wielding control
In Umno, Najib does not directly manage the party’s affairs. This has been traditionally the domain of the deputy and other loyalists around the premier, including the party secretary-general. The PM does set the tone however of engagement and the political culture in the party as president.
Since GE2013, Najib has been fighting disgruntlement and opposition within Umno. To manage discontent, he has expanded his repertoire from persuasion to patronage and from promises of rewards to potential purges.
As he has done in the national arena, Najib has used the prerogatives of the office of the presidency of Umno to maintain control, with the most notable measure postponing the party elections until after he can select candidates for GE2018 and place more of his loyalists in political positions. Delaying the party polls has prevented mobilisation around an alternative leader – at least for now.
What has been happening in Umno over the last six months has not been pretty. Much of the attention has focused on how Najib has handled the removal of his deputy and criticism from former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad – the man who had the most influence over Umno historically.
Scant mention has been made of what has occurred within the ranks of the party, as members who openly criticise Najib’s leadership have either been paid off or are being pushed out. Many dissenters now facing a challenger for their party position that has financial and/or central organisational support, or, in some cases, have been sacked.
Yet others have quit in disgust. In recent months, the battlefield has moved from divisions to branches, where a culling process has begun to silence critics and squash dissent. Investigations have been launched and ‘enemies’ identified – investigations that appear to have more bite than those surrounding 1MDB.
These measures have created a climate of fear, as intimidation has become common in the not-so-subtle efforts to make everyone to toe the Najib line. Spectacles such as Anina Saadudin and Hamidah Osman – both women – have been made, along with the arrests of sacked Khairuddin Abu Hassan and Matthias Chang – to show the consequences of dissent.
For party leaders at the local level this has been impactful, as they rely on the patronage for their livelihood. Scripts have been written, with clear instructions on what can (and cannot) be said at the upcoming meeting – with orders on who can speak (and can’t). What has been telling that even in this full-on press for party control, the dissent has continued.
A growing divide
Umno is deeply split. While Najib holds the presidency and command the majority support (largely through winning over elites in the party through patronage), the process of wielding control has divided the party. History has shown that a divided Umno loses elections, breeds racialised politics and adopts greater use of authoritarian tools by the executive.
The introduction (and quick passage) of the National Security Council bill – Najib’s insecurity crutch – was not justified to the public but in part comes out of the ongoing struggle inside Umno, as worrying measures have been introduced for legal impunity and to reduce checks on the power of the executive. Few have asked what could be the potential consequences of centralising power.
The opposition within Umno has been led by Mahathir and former deputy prime minister and deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin. They have emphasised the need to build credibility and accountability in the party, opting to focus their efforts primarily within the party rather than reach out across the political divide.
Their ‘save Umno’ campaign has mobilised a core, mostly their close associates and older members, but failed to win over the party majority who appear more interested in securing their own position than the party’s standing.
There has been a growing divide between the old guard in the party and those who see their future – political and economic – around Najib. Not only is the leadership in the party shifting, with older leaders losing authority, but the financial allies and relationships in the political economy between Umno and its elites are changing as well.
The issues in this contest are not just about the party’s leadership and the distribution of the spoils, but Umno’s future trajectory.
At play are some difficult questions: Should Umno leaders be accountable and to whom? Should there be democratic checks of the party president? Should criticism and open debate be allowed in Umno? Should Umno leaders be retained if they are political liabilities nationally? How much of party assets should be under individual control? Should the individual or the party’s interests be paramount? How should the party and elections be funded?
These questions go to the heart of whether Umno respects democratic processes or whether it will take an authoritarian path. For now, it appears to be the latter, a direction that will hamper the party’s development, regeneration and legitimacy – and importantly, negatively impact its public outreach, weaken its already low public standing and foster continued internal division and anger.
Rather than address the concerns of Najib’s Umno critics, the mode has been to marginalise dissent, to push it to the fringe and ultimately to potentially push it out of the party. The most watched dynamic in the Umno general assembly will be the actions directed towards key Najib critics, especially Mahathir and Muhyiddin.
There are already efforts at work to shame and humiliate these leaders – with calls to heckle and gag orders – with little attention to how these actions reflect on Umno itself or its leaders. These tactics may seem effective short-term, as the arrest of former deputy president Anwar Ibrahim did in 1998, but they can backfire and ultimate humiliate and shame those engaging in these actions.
It is important not to judge the anger within Umno by those speaking out and to assume the rally around the president is genuine. An important question that has to be asked is whether the support is for Najib, or respect for the office he holds.
Serious damage being done
Short-term reactions have dominated Malaysian politics since the July 1MDB revelations. Blinded by insecurity, there is minimal recognition of the serious damage being done.
The trajectories for Umno are negative as the party moves to back an unpopular leader that cannot expand public support at the polls, a leader that has to deal with multiple external investigations involving questions that have not been adequately explained and a leader that continues to grapple with a trust deficit and legitimacy crisis in a contracting economy.
Despite the collective rallies and shows of support, Umno will likely come out of the general assembly weakened, with the divisions inside as polarised as they were before the meeting and main issues largely unresolved. As a result, the main issues from this general assembly are likely to emerge after the meeting.
They will stem from how the main critics were treated and whether they will continue to fight inside Umno or opt for alternatives. In this sense, this week’s general assembly may be decisive in that it will not only set the direction for the Umno, but for the broader political opposition in Malaysia.
BRIDGET WELSH is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asian Democracy at National Taiwan University, an Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University, and a Professor at Ipek University.