MARCH 23 – The Umno general assembly this week has been painted by the local media as arguably the country’s most important of the year.
Many believe the issues debated – and, more importantly, the people elected to office during the assembly – will point to Malaysia’s future direction.
Because the United Malays National Organisation has played such a dominant role in the country’s 52-year rule under the National Front coalition, the thought it might be rendered irrelevant by the next general election due 2013 is an inconceivable notion to its diehard supporters.
But as the March 2008 general election revealed, it is a notion embraced by growing numbers, so disillusioned are they with the antics of the once distinguished party, which decades ago led by placing the interests of the people and nation before individual interests.
Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister and the man who will assume the presidency of Umno (and, by tradition, the prime ministership) at the conclusion of the general assembly following a leadership transition brokered after last year’s unexpected drubbing at the polls, has repeatedly cautioned members that, “if we are not brave enough to change, we will be changed by the people”.
Because it is the only uncontested position, he is already assured the presidency of Umno.
Competition for the remaining positions has been ferocious, mainly because of the “spoils” that come with power and position.
Because the assembly was postponed, the months-long campaigning has been a huge distraction for the country, coming at a time of desperately needed economic leadership, given the global recession and increasing unemployment.
In recent days, Mr Najib has stressed his preference for a team made up of people of integrity, a team that can help him institute the tough measures required of the party and country to bring about the reforms needed to win back lost ground.
Last week’s suspension of Malacca Chief Minister Ali Rustam – the leading candidate for Umno deputy president – for breaching party rules (seen as a euphemism for money politics) was perceived by many as selective prosecution, given the widespread impression that such practices are common to all candidates.
Many believe his suspension by the party”s disciplinary committee was to pave the way for Muhyiddin Yassin to clinch the deputy presidency, the international trade minister seen as less tainted and a more credible deputy prime minister.
Accused of bias, disciplinary committee chief Ahmad Rithauddeen Ismail observed: “The saddest thing about Malaysian politics is its cynicism.”
He is not far off the mark, pessimism being its twin – such is the scepticism with which many Malaysians view domestic politics.
In the early 1980s when Mahathir Mohamad came to power, he raised expectations with his slogan of “clean, efficient and fair” government.
The physical development over 22 years under him cannot be denied. But money politics and corruption in Umno and the country also gained a firm foothold under his watch.
His handpicked successor and now outgoing prime minister Abdullah Badawi won his own mandate with a landslide victory in 2004 after assuring he would be a leader for all. He exhorted Malaysians to work with him, not for him, but his departure next month leaves him the country”s shortest-serving prime minister.
Already, Mr Najib has espoused a fairer deal for all Malaysians. “In our fight for the poor, we must look at all the races” was a recent comment on the country’s New Economic Policy and increasing demands that the nearly 40-year-old affirmative action policy which favours Malays be reviewed so that it is more needs- based rather than race-based.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr Najib will not be accorded a honeymoon period.
But he has had 30-odd years of patient waiting for a shot at the ultimate prize in politics. That is ample time in which to consider the reforms needed for party and country, and how he plans to institute these – if indeed he has the political will to walk the talk.
Source : Business Times Singapore