The ruling party’s general meeting starts today. But don’t expect fireworks or any change — the move from authoritarian towards totalitarian UMNO rule cannot be halted.
The UMNO party general meeting starting in Kuala Lumpur today is expected to throw up a humdinger battle of wits and power and other stunning surprises, according to Malaysian analysts.
They are dreaming.
Some UMNO insiders think Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also UMNO president, will be voted out by delegates. They are anxious for him to leave following a series of ineffaceable scandals from even before he became leader of the party and of Malaysia in 2009. These scandals directly impinge on his character — personal and ‘professional’.
My non-starter point of view is that this UMNO general assembly will be as predictable as all the previous ones. For starters, there are not enough delegates from the over 20,000 UMNO branches to rain cats and dogs on Najib’s party. The 30 or so branches that, apparently, have formed the anti-Najib coalition of sorts in UMNO represent a meager 0.15 per cent of total party branches. That’s hardly going to ripple the water.
Besides, part of the 2.6 billion ringgit ‘donation’ that was placed into Najib’s personal bank accounts — brazenly in Malaysia and, claims the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, money ‘donated’ by an unidentified rich Arab — may well have been used this time, as it probably was in the 2013 elections, to buy ‘loyalty’ and, what is more, at a premium.
Unless all the deputy presidents of UMNO suddenly turn on Najib — and all have pledged and re-pledged their unsurprising backing for their patron — nothing startling or stunning is expected to happen during the assembly.
No splits that will rip UMNO apart. No major fireworks, including the expected open slander and vilification of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities for the populist sake of UMNO’s die-hard Malay constituents. And no explanations from UMNO, let alone Najib, for the debt-scarred 1MDB sovereign wealth fund and Najib’s stunning stash of billions of increasingly worthless ringgit in his personal bank accounts.
So, if the proverbial mountain does not come to Muhammad, will Muhammad go to the mountain?
That depends on who Muhammad is.
Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been invited to attend his party’s meeting — an invitation UMNO’s hierarchy says Mahathir has accepted. It comes after UMNO’s feudal lords had threatened to ban him, even sack him, for his ongoing petulance and invective against Najib — and not UMNO, the party, per se.
This is an important difference.
In the open-season skirmish between Mahathir and Najib thus far, Mahathir wants to be seen among Malays as always the party man first. The party is bigger than him. But not individuals. Nobody in Malaysia is or can be bigger or greater than he. In this interstice rises the Mahathir of old — the party’s traditionalist patron extraordinaire, despite his lineage, and the godsend — maker of ‘modern’, industrial, capitalist Malaysia.
Yet he is effectively gagged from speaking at the UMNO meeting. His sound bites will be reduced to the media scrum, who cannot seem to get enough of his rants. Some of his diatribe is thoroughly hypocritical, an art up-skilled in his early Che Det years and culminated in his deeply racialist policy-reversal book that became UMNO’s chestnut, The Malay Dilemma.
Gagging Mahathir means he cannot get his message out to those who will matter the greatest vis-├а-vis Malay populism, votes and delineating, however crudely, the inherent ideological contest between Najib and him. The same problem faces the other ‘Muhammad’ — former deputy prime minister and education minister, Muhyiddin Yassin.
Najib unceremoniously dumped Muhyiddin from his inner circle and kitchen cabinet. Muhyiddin, who retains the deputy party president position in UMNO, is livid. This rage has less to do with his ministerial sacking and more over how it was done — in full public glare and in the most personally humiliating way that grates upon his Malayness, rubbing a mountain of salt into a river-wide wound. Muhyiddin is playing on Malay sentiment, and sympathy.
Since his ouster, Muyhiddin, like Mahathir, has been promising to take the fight right up to Najib. But Najib has shifted the goalposts and, like Mahathir, Muhyiddin has been kicking his irritability into a netless goal.
On the eve of the UMNO general meeting, he spoke to his supporters outside UMNO headquarters, and in Kampung Baru, the historical Malay stronghold suburb, to a crowd of not more than 600 people. But it is here that he hoped to meet a few of Najib’s faceless UMNO critics, to persuade them to knock Najib off his pedestal — but not the UMNO ‘government’.
Muyhiddin’s plans will falter. In the long lead-up to the UMNO meeting, the most important ‘deals’ will have been brokered and stitched up. Allegiances will have been renewed and cemented. Tons of money will have changed hands. Positions will have been promised. Cronyistic business contracts will have been renewed or recalibrated for even bigger pay-days to come.
All that is left to do is minor bartering of patronage between UMNO patrons and their smaller clients to ensure regime maintenance and that the Pied Piper still leads the rat-pack.
Beyond that, Muhyiddin will not be able to get his message out to the bulk of Malay masses who will not be attending the summit. They will home watching the party’s usual fire-and-brimstone speeches on television and listening to radio telecasts. The first speeches, and among the most crucial for cementing support for the ruling UMNO hierarchy, begins today, with UMNO wings.
Meanwhile the Malay mass media in particular, and the UMNO-BN controlled mass media in general — the likes of The New Straits Times, The Star and other ethnic party-owned sycophants — will have been ordered not to give any of their air time and space to Mahathir and Muhyiddin. Apart from the “alternative” online media, they face a large-scale ‘blackout’.
This move is designed to ensure Najib is protected from challenges within his party as well as from outside it during the conference. Questions to Najib will be tailor-made to show him off rather than show him up. Any questions on the 1MDB fiasco and Najib’s R2.6 billion ‘bintang’ (stars) will be buttered with honey. And Najib has already laid the groundwork for that.
It is also doubtful if either Mahathir or Muhyiddin will be fired from the party. Sacking them will bring the two to form a coalition of has-beens whose power and influence, at any rate, have been withering over recent times. Both men carry enormous political baggage from their UMNO years and from their former cabinet positions. Neither are un-besmirched by scandals and mammoth policy failures.
Gleaning the size of their individual following is not possible. Suffice to say, anecdotally at least, it cannot be as strong or large as is generally thought in Malaysia. Desperation among the largely non-Malay constituency to oust UMNO-BN from power is high, predictably. And even if half of them were to cast support for Mahathir and Muhyiddin, out of their sheer despondency, it will count for very little, if at all.
In the final analysis — given the near-complete absence of the bulk of Malays joining their non-Malay counterparts and leading demands for Najib to “take a rest,” as Mahathir has put it — UMNO’s political hegemony and money politics, and Malaysia’s slide from authoritarian towards totalitarian UMNO rule, cannot be halted.
It will take the country’s progressive-minded social forces team up with, in Theda Skocpol’s terms, a “revolution from below”. I doubt that day will come any time soon.
If by some miracle it does, all of them would do well to also insist that UMNO unwinds itself back to its original 1946 charter. This was when Onn Jaafar — the father of Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third prime minister and the only honorable PM after the first, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and defense minister Hishamuddin Hussein’s grandfather — duly quit UMNO after it had refused to extend its membership to include non-Malays.
Those honorable days are long over, written into history and taken over, rather than overtaken, by new Malay (business crony) nationalists, old feudalists who prey on racial and religious homogeneity and primacy, zero-sum gamers garbed as ‘Asian pragmatists’, despots, and autocrats.
Those honorable days will never return to a country that more aggressively aspires to retain its unhinged candor, image, politics and policymaking unfettered along ethno-tribalistic lines. Today Malaysia a more dangerous place, quite like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Yemen, through the infusion of horribly arcane and extremist Islamic ideology.
And no question the Malay feudal patronage system is alive, well and kicking strongly. The chronic saga of 1MDB and Najib’s vault of MYR2.6bn of a single ‘donation’ spell this out all too clearly. Ending UMNO’s patronage system will almost certainly be the death-knell for UMNO.
It will also bring to the end its makers, Mahathir Mohamad, and its staunch backers like Muhyiddin Yassin — the very two men who now claim to want to change UMNO from within, and without, now that their stars have waned.
Manjit Bhatia is an Australian academic, journalist, writer, and research director of AsiaRisk, an economic and political risk analysis consultancy. He specialises in international economics and politics, with a focus on Asia. He is published in academia and the media, including The Wall Street Journal, The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, and Singapore’s Straits/Business Times.