Winning by popularity: Can Umno rely on the prime minister’s personal standing?

— Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
Jan 13, 2013

JAN 13 — “BN needs to milk Najib’s popularity harder, say analysts” reads a recent headline (The Malaysian Insider, 12 January 2013).

Sorry, but this is just delusional.

A strategy that seeks to use Najib’s supposed popularity to save Umno/BN, to pull its chestnuts from the fire at the last moment, will fail miserably.

Umno has been around, and in charge (though in recent times unconvincingly), for over half a century.

Najib has been PM for less than five years.

So, with reason, he is less unpopular than his now increasingly unpopular party.

He has not had a sufficient chance yet to make himself as unpopular as Umno itself, by its own doing over recent years, has become.

And because he is widely seen as weak and vacillating, many people tend to be indifferent to him, unmoved by him, rather than to hate him.

They just don’t feel strongly about him in any way: love, admire, sympathise or hate.

He does not inspire political passions of any kind.

Rather, he comes across politically as simply a “cold fish.”

Nothing blood-stirring there about him.

And when he tries, such as at the conclusion of Umno General Assemblies, to display political passion, it tends to fall flat, embarrassingly.

That lack of powerful personal feeling or emotional “valence”, positive or negative, towards the prime minister shows up in the polls as “popularity.”

Where what you are being measured against — here a suddenly and surprisingly quite unpopular party — is a negative, mere indifference comes over as a plus, a positive.

Or that is how some people see things, how many people feel about what the government is now offering.

But any notion that PM Najib’s supposed personal popularity can possibly rescue Umno/BN is just fantasy.

How might Umno/BN win the election?

It’s pretty late in the day now to try to work out a compelling strategy.

But it would have to go beyond personalities, including Najib’s.

All else aside, that is the only way to neutralize the “negative” side of popular feelings about Najib.

It would require Umno/BN to devise and promote a positive, coherent and principled agenda.


Principled in the sense that it was unifying, that it united people and massed popular support from all directions.

By practising the politics of convergence, and seeking to draw in its supporters and allies on all sides, from all quarters.

Not a strategy, in other words, that divided, that sought to prevail at the polls by building up a numerical majority amassed from one side of the field only.

Not a strategy that seeks “traction” by appealing to, by driving and even frightening together in an anxious and fearful huddle, the majority — or as many of them as can possibly be made to feel beleaguered — against all the various minorities.

Can Umno/BN do that?

Can it rise above the politics — well-known for its tactical popularity among the cattle rustlers in old cowboy Western movies — of the stampede, the politics of unleashing and seeking to control panic?

The politics of seeking to control by means of managed panic?

What panic?

A dual panic.

The panic that Islam is in danger, and that only Malays acting together as Malays can save it.

The panic that Malays and their place in the country are imperilled, and that only by coming and acting together in the name and on the basis of Islam can their stake in the nation be safeguarded.

Can Umno now turn around, change its recent direction, and do that?

I doubt it.

I doubt that Umno any longer has the ability, with all its internal conflicts and the insatiable interests that drive them, to imagine, produce and articulate such a unifying agenda.

And do Umno people any more have the good sense and ability to be able to commit themselves to such an agenda?

And then to promote it, even in the face of internal resistance from the exclusivist “us against them all” voices in the “grand old Malay party”.

That seems unlikely.

But that still seems the only “way forward”.

Otherwise, there are tough times ahead in this land for “the old ruling firm” and its management team.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 10:20 am

    My problem with the analyst recommendation is that I thought they have been doing it already – especially with the Indian votes and its has not worked. If it does not work with the Indians, its going to be a lot less effective with anyone else.

    In 2008, Badawi had the same numbers as Najib and UMNO/BN was doing much better. A more sophisticated electoral and worst numbers of UMNO/BN just spells impending disaster..

    I have yet to find a real scientific analysis to explain Najib’s popularity. If you strip the office of the PM from Najib, where would he stand? Given that its likely Najib will lose his job whether UMNO/BN wins or not, his popularity superficial and no use to anyone else.

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 10:47 am

    Popularity comes and wanes. Leaders should not rely solely on popularity to win votes but accomplish as much as possible what they need to do for the nation as the rakyat will judge them by how much they have contributed to the country at the end of their tenure.

  3. #3 by Winston on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 12:58 pm

    What popularity?
    In fact, they have been banking on his so-called “popularity” for so long!!
    This shows that they are indeed grasping at straws!
    Or even something more tenuous!!
    Just one question: How can anyone, just anyone, with mega tons of baggage be popular?
    Is it just because he handed out taxpayers’ hard-earned like so much confetti?
    That makes him popular?
    Or is it the corruption practiced during his watch?
    That makes him so popular?
    Or some other malfeasance?
    You just name it and it can be hanged onto him!!!!
    If such things can make one popular, then he is the most popular person around!

  4. #4 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 2:19 pm

    Najib says:
    4 years aint enough! I want some more; begging like Oliver Twist.

    BN had 55 years. Every PM begged for 4 more years. Every PM scr**ewed up especially Tun M, Pak Lah and Najib. Now, enuf is enuf.

    Pakatan Rakyat must be allowed their first 4 years to try.

    Vote PR.

  5. #5 by drngsc on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 3:18 pm

    Hi Clive, who cares how popular Ah Cheap Gor is. Is Santa Claus popular?
    We are all awaiting from the popular talker / briber, bur poor doer to have the courage to call GE 13. Let us go for it and see how popular and how his popularity will benefit him. I hope he does not lose.

    We were all there at / near Merdeka Stadium yesterday. Enough of talk. Lets go for it.

    We must change the tenant at Putrajaya. KL112 is over. GE 13 is coming. Please continue to work very very hard while fickle Ah Jib Gor dilly dally.

    Change we must. Change we can. Change we will.

  6. #6 by john on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 4:56 pm

    Aiyah, still trying to HOODWINK like what Mad’tir did, then. Same modus operandi is to first come out with a (shameful) complete false statement then to back it up all the way thro’ their MSM and pre-assigned mouthpieces.
    It won’t work now with INTERNET ACCESS globally that enables the public to be aware of UMNO-bn/ Mad’tir/Bodowi/unelected ‘PM’ past and present so,so, many wrongdoings.
    Eg.Both cases; first, till now not a word regarding Deepak latest revelations (C4 case,etc.) and second, Mad’tir also seems to go dumb suddenly on Wikipedia posting of amassed wealth of RM135Billions ! -by his smarta*se look think must be MORE ! All these and more, we were being kept fully awared mainly through INTERNET ACCESS and not at all from local MSM.

  7. #7 by chengho on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 5:36 pm

    If Najib sustain 90 % Malay votes , he win , isn’t

  8. #8 by hiro on Sunday, 13 January 2013 - 7:39 pm

    I think Merdeka Survey could be sabotaging Najib in the same way they sabotaged Badawi – let popularity get to their heads. The only relevance for the PM is in Raub Pahang. This is not a US Presidential election where everyone votes between the few candidates, usually dominated by Republican Party or Democratic Party. This is Westminster Parliamentary democracy. Even if PM wins, he wins one seat in Parliament. If his picks lose, he will have a hard time convening a Parliament and Cabinet in the form that he wants- and he will continue to be overrun by UMNO warlords who knows no other economic philosophy except feudal patronage. If he loses, he won’t become PM. Malaysians from Perlis to Sabah should ensure that he, Muhyiddin, Rais Yatim, Hishammuddin, Nazri and the other old guards don’t win. Per chance that BN still wins, at least we have a bit of a change. But that’s half a bet. The better bet is to ensure BN don’t win, period.

    The arithmetic, and risk-benefit ratio is really a no brainer. If you can get rid of a corrupt government after 55 years of entrenched power, it’s easy to get rid of a non-performing Pakatan that’s barely beginning to walk the federal corridors of power in 5 years – should they fail to live up to their promises. I say give Pakatan a chance. Anyone is better than a repeat of the last 5 years of BN misrule. Malaysians have been warped by 55 years that sometimes you don’t know the difference between right and wrong anymore, where bad things are a norm. People shouldn’t have to bribe the traffic police – if it’s your first time offence, and it is minor, the police ought to just let you go. People shouldn’t need to join political parties to get contracts. It should all be on competitive basis. Rich people shouldn’t enjoy taxpayer sponsored scholarships, or get automatic discounts on houses. Malaysians shouldn’t have to beg for the police, judge, MACC to be neutral. People shouldn’t need to express anger about biased media which in developed democracies are the 4th estate – it should be a matter of fact that the media is relatively objective – and if you’re not – you should come out and declare so, and the government should not impede the growth of other mainstream media. The list goes on. The point is – change at this juncture is overwhelmingly necessary if Malaysia is to have the hope of recovering from our fiscal deficit, plummeting international competitiveness and culture in crisis.

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