KUALA LUMPUR, March 23 – After a year of bitter squabbling, Umno will go to its general assembly tomorrow to elect new leaders and begin a new era under the leadership of Deputy Premier Najib Razak.
The five-day show will be one of Malaysia’s most-watched events.
The assembly will give a glimpse into how Umno views its future path, and its prospects for long-term survival, after its trouncing at last year’s general election.
All eyes will be on the party elections and Datuk Seri Najib’s speeches.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will make the opening address, in which he is expected to confirm when he will hand the reins to Mr Najib.
The media has already announced that Mr Najib will be sworn in on April 3.
Mr Najib’s speeches will be the ones most closely listened to.
He will make his first address tomorrow night at the joint opening of the meetings of the youth, women’s and young women’s wings.
He is expected to lay out what qualities the ideal team should have to lead the party and country, providing direction to the 2,500 delegates who will vote on Wednesday and Thursday.
His closing speech on Saturday is expected to outline reforms for Umno.
In his interview with Mingguan Malaysia yesterday, he noted that his team should be committed to the struggles of Umno, open to and ready for reform, and good leaders in the eyes of the people.
He said: “I hope they (the delegates) will choose leaders who have the qualities that I want. After this, we must undertake reforms in party and government.”
He acknowledged some lower-ranking party members had been “too much”.
He did not elaborate, but was clearly referring to the racist rhetoric that has sullied relations with non-Malay communities.
Mr Najib said they had caused people to lose trust in Umno.
Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian said the need for reform is clear and steps had been taken, but “sustained effort and political will” are needed.
Umno has much to do to revamp its image among Malaysians, who see it as having become insular and disconnected from the people.
“I don’t think the core direction of Umno will change very much,” said sceptical political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.
He said events in the past two months had not been positive. The toppling of the opposition-held Perak government last month and the prosecutions for sedition that followed had been badly received.
To him, it will take a lot more than speeches to convince Malaysians of Umno’s sincerity. The first test will be the party elections – will the delegates elect leaders acceptable to all Malaysians?
The spotlight is on the deputy presidency – being contested by International Trade and Industry Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Rural and Regional Development Minister Muhammad Muhammad Taib.
A Merdeka Centre survey indicated Mr Muhyiddin is the people’s choice. Traditionally, Umno’s deputy president is also Malaysia’s deputy premier.
Eyes are glued to the Umno Youth chief’s post as well – a race between Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, Mr Abdullah’s son-in-law; Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, former premier Mahathir Mohammad’s son; and former Selangor chief minister Khir Toyo.
The proxy battle between the premier and his nemesis, through Mr Khairy and Mr Mukhriz, is too fascinating to ignore, but even on its own, the youth chief’s position is significant.
It is the first step on the Umno advancement ladder and usually comes with a Cabinet post.
The women’s wing should see a bitter battle between former international trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz and former women and family development minister Shahrizat Jalil.
All in all, there are more than 260 candidates in the contest. They include Mr Najib’s cousin, Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who has a shot at a vice-presidency. That would put him in the running for top posts later.
Many eagerly await Mr Hishammuddin’s final speech as Umno Youth president.
Will he once again brandish the keris (traditional Malay dagger) before the assembly – the act that earned him so much flak? To many, the keris has since become a symbol of Umno’s inability to be a leader to all Malaysians.
This week’s assembly will shed some light on how Umno plans to moderate its hardline Malay stance.
Source : The Straits Times