Umno faces the rise of an unprecedented number of young and more urbanised voters who have little appetite for neither its old-style racial politics nor its ersatz Islamism, writes Johan Saravanamuttu, who witnessed the recent Umno general assembly first-hand.
Racial sentiments ran high, tears flowed, the rhetoric became warlike, 13th May’s ghost was resurrected and even God was invoked during the 66th United Malays National Organisation (Umno)’s convention which wound to its close on the first day of December 2012.
Gearing up for the ‘mother of all elections’ due to be held within months, Umno leaders were striking out a posture of solidarity and rallying the troops. However, belying the pomp, decibels and camaraderie was an undertone of the dominant political party of Malaysia losing much of its ‘mojo’ and somewhat in a survival mode.
Milling around the convention premises and listening to the emotionally charged speeches of delegates, one could not but palpably sense that Umno was a party under siege. Umno, as the political engineer of the unbroken 50-plus-year rule of the Barisan Nasional (BN), may indeed have been responsible for the loss of the ruling coalition’s customary two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament and five state governments in the 2008 general election, its worst electoral outing to date.
The fact that the Umno’s President Najib Razak, who is also the Prime Minister, has held back from calling a general election up until today suggests that Umno and its coalition partners continue to have doubts that their performance in the forthcoming election would be up to par. The window to call the election closes completely on 28 April 2013 by which time the government would have served out its maximum term of five years. The Election Commission would then have the option to hold the election within two months.
Thinkable opposition win?
On the final day of the Assembly, Umno president Najib Razak vowed to win back the two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament but all indications are that the BN will fall short in the upcoming election. Serious political analysts see the BN winning only a simple majority of the 222 parliamentary seats up for contest and unlikely to wrest back all the state governments of Penang, Kedah, Kelantan and Selangor lost in 2008. Moreover, it may stand the chance of losing Perak, which was turned over when three Pakatan Rakyat (People Alliance) law-makers hopped out of the opposition coalition in February 2009.
Umno’s 79 seats constitute about 36 per cent of the total number won by the BN and if its peninsula coalition partners MCA, MIC and Gerakan fail to retain their current hold on 20 seats, this could spell real trouble. Further haemorrhaging could occur in Sabah and Sarawak, where non-Umno coalition parties hold 41 seats for the BN. Indeed, if things turn out much worse than before, the scenario of an Opposition win is not unthinkable.
The argument advanced in this article is that Umno and its partners in BN have lost its “first-mover-advantage” as the ruling coalition in Malaysia for the last five decades or more and now faces decreasing returns on institutional arrangements and processes that it has pioneered, particularly when a new successful player, in this case, the PR, enters the scene. (For an exposition of the notion of increasing returns in path-dependent analysis, see Paul Pierson, “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics,” The American Political Science Review 94, no. 2 (June 2000): 251-267.)
This scenario has been given credence because the PR has been gaining ground in Sarawak and Sabah since 2008, the two solid stronghold states of the BN. In the April 2011 state election in Sarawak, the PR won a total of 15 seats which could well translate into six to eight parliamentary seats in the coming GE 13. In Sabah, two BN MPs, Lajim Ukin of Umno and Wilfred Bumburing of Upko, left their respective parties in July 2012 and have set up a PR-friendly entity. Earlier in 2009, the SAPP, led by former Chief Minister Yong Teck Lee, also weaned itself out of the BN. The BN’s total of 140 seats could well decrease significantly given these developments.
But what about Umno itself, would it able to retain its current share of seats or increase them? Why does the party convention of 2012 evince an unmistakable tinge of defensiveness and insecurity?
To understand Umno’s current predicament, it will be necessary to backtrack to 2008. Umno held a little over half the Malay ground in terms of popular votes and seats in 2008. One estimate put Malay support for the BN at some 58 per cent. The BN itself won just over 50 per cent of the popular vote. It is hard to actually accurately measure the percentage of Malay support for Umno throughout the country but on the basis of Umno’s performance contra that of the Islamic party, Pas, in the Muslim heartland of the East Coast and the northern Malay states of the Peninsula, one could venture some more fine-grain interpretations of the Malay vote.
Umno’s slippage in retaining Malay support has been evident over the years with the concomitant rising presence of Pas. An additional element is the PKR presence in the more urban Malay areas. The table below shows the percentage of votes won by parliamentary candidates of the Opposition (mainly Pas and PKR) in Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu from 1995-2008. (Extracted from table in Johan Saravanamuttu, “Twin Coalition Politics in Malaysia since 2008: A Path Dependent Framing and Analysis” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2012, p.105.)
Perlis has remained an Umno stronghold but even so there has been a slippage of 3.6 per cent of votes. The slippage in Kedah was particularly evident and this saw the government change for the first time to the PR. In terms of popular votes in Terengganu, the margin of change in the last election was low after a surge in 1999. The chances are that in the 13th GE, Kelantan will remain firmly in Pas’ grip and unless there is a reverse swing of votes in Kedah, it will remain under Pas leadership as well. There would be a distinct possibility for Terengganu to be back in the embrace of Pas.
After an unprecedented 16 by-elections held after the 2008 GE, it has been ‘even stevens’ between BN and the PR. This suggests that BN-PR strengths have largely remained unchanged and that the two-coalition system has continued to track.
One particular by-election illustrating the weakness of Umno vis-à-vis Pas was the contest over Bukit Gantang, a parliamentary constituency with an electorate of 55,471 voters lying on the outskirts of Taiping town. A former stronghold of Umno, it passed into Pas’ hands at the 2008 election, the Islamic party capturing a credible majority of 1,566 votes. The death of the Pas assemblyman forced the 7 April 2009 by-election which saw the charismatic Nizar Jamaluddin take on Umno’s Ismail Safian.
In the event Nizar, the deposed Menteri Besar of Perak, won the seat with an increased majority of 2,789. An analysis by Pas showed that Nizar may have won only 43 per cent of the Malay votes. The results showed that the more rural areas of Trong gave Umno a majority of votes while the more urban regions around Sepang, Bukit Gantang proper and Kuala Sepetang gave Nizar sizeable majorities. Nizar won the seat by capturing a sizable portion of the Malay votes, but in Malaysian politics today, this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. Nizar had to win the non-Malay votes by a good margin and he did.
Thus, in particular constituencies, non-Malay voters have become kingmakers whenever the Malay vote is split down the middle. It was clear that Nizar swept the non-Malay, mostly Chinese votes, sometimes to the tune of 80 per cent. A field trip to Kuala Sepatang (formerly Port Weld), provided the author with the distinct impression that the Chinese fishing community seemed totally supportive of Nizar, who in his short tenure as Chief Minister had legalised Temporary Operating Licence (TOL) land to Chinese farmers and other tenants.
For a comparison, let us now turn to the Tenang by-election in Johor held on 30 January 2011. This 14th by-election witnessed a resurgence of voter support for Umno, but fell short of the 5,000 vote majority that it had expected. Umno took the seat by a majority of 3,707, some 1,200 more than what it gained during 2008 with a voter turnout of 9,833, which is only 67 per cent of the electorate. Widespread flooding in the constituency during voting day accounted for the low voter turnout.
Tenang practically exhibits the peninsular template of Malay-Chinese-Indian distribution (49-38-12, and 1 per cent “others”) and its result was seen by some as a barometer of the state of play in Malaysian electoral politics. The Umno candidate Azahar Ibrahim may have swept more than 80 per cent of the Malay vote. The Pas challenger, Normala Sudirman, evidently won the Chinese vote, but the numbers may have shrunk somewhat since 2008. This was thought to be because of the low voter turnout among the Chinese. She was able only to win a majority in the 95 per cent Chinese polling area of Labis Tengah but lost in Labis Timor and in Labis Station, which had lower Chinese percentages.
The DAP claim is that she still picked up the majority of Chinese votes. DAP publicity chief Tony Pua suggested that Umno’s Azahar Ibrahim received 83.3 per cent of Malay votes, up four percentage points from 2008. This was helped by an 81 per cent turn out by Malay voters. The Indian vote also went to BN, but the community had a low 40 per cent turnout. The by-election was marred by massive flooding and many voters had to be ferried to polling stations in police boats.
The Tenang by-election result was already predictable before voting day and only the margin of victory was at issue. As such, the interesting points to be made concern the different styles, tactics and approach to by-elections of Malaysia’s twin coalition system: Umno clearly optimized on a strategy of using its copious resources and electoral machinery with great effect, while Pas floundered under the weight of Umno’s monopoly of state resources.
The by-election outcomes beg the question of what is animating politics on the ground today and here is where we could turn to the recent Umno assembly for some pointers. ( BN went on to win the final two by-elections on 6 March 2011 in Malacca, namely, in the state seats of Merlimau and Kerdau, previously held by Umno. The Electoral Commission ruled in April 2011 that they would be no further by-elections as three years had elapsed since the last election.)
A considerable amount of time and energy was devoted by delegates to pillorying and mocking Pas for its inability of fulfilling its promise of an Islamic state and watering down its agenda to that of a negara berkebajikan (welfare state) because of the objection of its alliance partner DAP. Thus Umno continues to target Pas as its main opponent. The delegate from Perlis, a religious scholar, Fathul Bari, played two video clips of the recent Pas convention, showing PasS spiritual leader Nik Aziz leading a prayer calling for Umno’s destruction and allegedly dubbing Umno members as murtad (apostates). The Umno delegates jeered loudly, evidently scandalised by Tok Guru’s venom for the party.
But herein also lies Umno’s Achilles heel; constituted originally as basically a secularist political party, it has increasingly been forced to meet the challenge of Pas’ Islamist politics and so far it has fared rather poorly. The more religious Muslims who support Pas consider Umno’s attempts to be ersatz.
The contestation of Umno with Pas on the Islamic terrain has to be understood in the context of Pas’ relentless critique of Umno as a corrupt, unethical party and one incapable of implementing Islamic values and policies. Umno’s riposte has been merely to up the ante on its own Islamic credentials. All Umno prime ministers since Mahathir have attempted to implement a host of Islamisation policies, recruited religious scholars and proponents into the party, and have termed Malaysia an “Islamic state”.
Under Najib, the government has introduced the notion of wasatiyyah (moderation) which inter alia accepts the presence of other faiths but without putting them on par with Islam. Najib in speeches before and during this assembly openly rejected the notions of “liberalism” and “religious pluralism”. Delegates during the assembly attacked Pas for supporting LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) rights and pointed to Pas’ support of Bersih chairperson Ambiga Sreenivasan as evidence of this. (Ambiga, also a former Bar Council President, was slotted to chair a session to discuss LGTB rights in the Seksualiti Merdeka Festival in November 2011. The festival was stopped by the government.)
It is of supreme irony that Umno, the erstwhile Malay secularist party now postures itself as an Islamist party while Pas, the putative Islamic party, has begun to take on more progressive agendas and stances on contemporary issues.
A defensive Umno
A defensive Umno has evidently moved beyond its familiar attack of non-Malays – symbolised by the ‘keris rattling’ of Umno Youth – to a more frontal confrontation with its religious foe Pas. Put differently, Umno’s polemical terrain appears to have shifted one remove beyond its preoccupation with the notion of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy).
This said, Malay supremacy still reared its head and remained as an important trope of the latest Umno assembly. It was clearly invoked in the speeches of the women’s chief, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, and deputy youth leader Reezal Merican Nainan Merican. One spun out the familiar threat to non-Malays of the possible recurrence of a May 13 event should Umno lose the Malay vote while the other famously announced that Umno was a party anointed by God.
On a more defensive plane, a young delegate representing the Umno clubs abroad struck a resonance with all and sundry when he started to sing a Biro Tata Negara (BTN) propaganda song lamenting the surrender of indigenous lands and possessions to foreign occupiers. (BTN or the National Civics Bureau organises orientation programmes for Malay students and civil servants.)
But the tear-jerking episode conveyed a subliminal message that Umno Malays have lost sight of the multi-racial politics advocated by its traditional leaders such as Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak. Without doubt, the Umno deputy youth leader Reezal Merican took racial politics to a new high when he implied that the Malays were God’s chosen people.
Predictably, the Umno’s president opening address emphasised the crucial character of the 13th GE for the party’s future and its survival and he alluded to the significance of the 2.9m new voters. Again, this suggests that Umno is not at all confident that it has captured the youth vote. Indeed, young people were conspicuous by their low attendance at the Umno assembly. Some 10 or so Umno overseas club members were visible and the Puteri Umno (young women’s wing) were clearly outnumbered by the Umno makciks and pakciks (older folk). Speeches by Puteri representatives were underwhelming and drew little fire.
The president’s speech was devoid of new policies as he trotted out the successes of his policies of economic, political and governmental transformation. There was no mention of how the government has addressed the egregious problems of corruption and crime. He clearly avoided any reference to the cyber rumblings that linked the first family to a land deal involving the Ministry of Defence alleged by one Deepak Jaikishan. Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid also demurred responding to the Deepak allegations. (At the point of writing, Deepak, a businessman and carpet dealer, has sued Selangor Umno women’s leader Raja Ropiaah Abdullah’s company Awan Megah for breach of contract and for allegedly cheating him of millions of ringgit. Awan Megah was awarded a RM100m privatisation project to set up an intelligence centre by the Defence Minister, it was alleged. Deepak had also intimated that he was responsible for the recanting of a statutory declaration by private investigator Balasubramanian which had stated that Najib Razak had a relationship with the murdered Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu (See The Malaysian Insider, 30 November, 2012, and a Free Malaysia Today interview on video below.)
Najib’s 45-minute concluding speech provided hints of the problems afflicting the party. He spoke of finding “winnable candidates”, the problem of “saboteurs” and chose to praise in the same breath both ex-premiers Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi, known to be in different Umno camps. Further cyber noise from former Inspector General of Police Musa Hassan that the Home Minister had interfered in his handling of arrests of persons of standing over criminal activities also failed to draw any strong response from Hishammuddin Hussein, the minister in question. With the goings-on inside and outside the party, there were more than enough suggestions that the party was faction-ridden.
More tellingly, certain personalities appeared likely to be dropped as candidates in the coming GE. It has been common knowledge for a long time that the Umno Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah’s son-in-law, may not be selected to defend his Rembau seat because of alleged blocking by Mahathir, who would like to see his own son Mukhriz rise in the party hierarchy. There have also been incessant rumours circulating that Deputy President Muhyiddin was ‘plotting’ for the president himself to under-perform in the GE, while Najib’s cousin, vice president Hisham-muddin, awaits a leg-up to the next level should Muhyiddin falter.
As the 66th Umno Assembly concluded and the impending 13th General Election looms large, Malaysia’s de facto ruling party may not be able to find the means to check its path-dependent decline. After more than five decades of unparalleled success in helming Malaysia save for a hiccup in 1969, it now faces the prospect of a possible loss of control of the federal government following the disastrous electoral outcome of 2008.
Path-dependent decline has even been more evident in its coalition partners, the MCA and Gerakan, two Chinese-based parties which have lost their historical advantage to the DAP. Leadership problems and haemorrhaging in the MIC has meant a splintering of the Indian vote mostly mopped up by the Opposition front. Other coalition partners in Sabah and Sarawak have fared much better up till now but some decline is evident in last year’s state election in Sarawak and in recent party defections in Sabah.
Umno itself faces the rise of an unprecedented number of young and more urbanised voters who have little appetite for neither its old-style racial politics nor its ersatz Islamism. Furthermore, factionalism within the party leadership despite an outward show of solidarity is bound to affect its effectiveness in securing desired electoral outcomes.