A Leader Less Umno

For the world, the imprisonment of former prime minister Najib Razak through a meticulous and thorough legal process reflects Malaysia’s strength. Very few countries put away leaders for their crimes.

For the Umno world, however, the imprisonment of its political godfather and the emotive rally response to his imprisonment reflects the party’s weaknesses. It underlines the fact that too few are willing to put aside Najib for the sake of their country.

From Malays to Martyr

Umno was once a party that derived its legitimacy from strengthening Malaysia and empowering its political base among the Malay community. One can debate and question its effectiveness in doing this, but one cannot dismiss the party’s many accomplishments in government since its first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman declared “Merdeka” and assumed office 65 years ago.

Today, however, Malaysia’s “Grand Old Party” is just old and no longer as grand. And a leader it lauded and protected after the world’s largest kleptocracy scandal of 1MDB was revealed in 2015 is behind bars.

Rather than opt to move on, the current party leadership has decided to make Najib a martyr. His “sacrifice” is now being used to rally the party faithful, with little regard of the costs of feeding the myth about injustice and building a narrative that erodes confidence in Malaysia’s political institutions, especially the judiciary.

Instead of representing all Malays, Umno is now deriving its legitimacy from its efforts to protect one Malay (and his cronies). This is the cost of letting Najib maintain his position and influence in the party after the events of 2015.

Rooted in the first Dr Mahathir Mohamad era, a precedent was set in which the party became synonymous with its leader. Umno has yet to give up this practice, with its leaders consistently holding the party hostage to their personal interests. Current president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi appears to be doing the same thing, hoping that the party will provide him with the same level of personal protection it did Najib and that the martyring of his predecessor will allow Zahid to eventually become prime minister.

Umno dystopia

The Umno world is its own world. Too many in the party continue to live in a self-absorbed universe where they believe they control Malaysian politics, that they control the date of a general election, that their leaders are above the law, that they are entitled to power and the largesse of controlling the levers of power.

There is little appreciation that this is now an imagined fantasy. Umno’s “not so special meeting” last week served to illustrate how far the party is from current reality. And in one short day, it eroded over four years of effort to win over the middle ground of public support. It also reinforced perceptions that Umno is about itself, and triggered older reactions like “anything but Umno (ABU)”.

Essentially, it opted to consolidate its party faithful, not properly recognising that its core political base is much narrower than in the past, and lost yet another opportunity to move on.

One can posit that emotions coloured the response of members. Many in Umno were truly shocked that one of its own, its leader, could be jailed. Many remain so. Yet, this speaks to a different-yet-similar-sounding phenomenon: syiok sendiri.

All OK on the outside

Malaysia is no longer living in an Umno world. While still important, as Umno represents at least a third of the Malays in the country and is among the parties with the largest number of seats in Parliament, what happens in the party doesn’t have the same impact as before. Indeed, after their own reactions to the verdict, Malaysians went about their business.

Unlike in 1998, when public sympathy built among the middle ground after the imprisonment of current opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, this time around, there’s been little momentum of sympathy beyond the hardcore of the party. If there was a dominant reaction this week among the middle ground, it was contempt of the efforts to promote sympathy, the ridiculing of letters from “daddy” and the privilege that was on display.

One traditional Umno makcik visiting KL from Kuala Kangsar for the Merdeka parade, aptly captured sentiments in a conversation, “we’re OK. We survive without him and them. We are tired of the nonsense.”

More Malays also no longer live in an Umno world. Malay political loyalties are divided among a range of options. The jailing of Najib served to heighten political competition for the Malay electorate, as shown with the increased efforts by PAS, Bersatu, Amanah, PKR, Muda and Warisan to garner support from voters.

The feudal mindset of “leader knows best” has eroded, with more attention being paid to the different options on offer. It’s important to remember that despite winning more seats in both the Melaka and Johor elections, Umno did not significantly pick up vote share among Malays. More Malays are looking to the future, and to parties that speak to the future. Umno is sadly still living in its past.

From Bossku to Boss Who?

One area where Umno is moving ahead, however, is in the competition for its leadership. While Najib retains influence, his new role is to be the mascot for perceived “injustice”. His focus will remain on pushing for ways to get out of paying his millions of fines, four outstanding legal cases and, of course, getting pardoned. Selfishness and entitlement persist rather than shame and empathy for abuses of power.

The jailing of Najib has strengthened the possibility that Zahid will be convicted for his litany of charges for corruption. The argument that an Umno leader can do no wrong didn’t hold water for Najib and likely won’t hold for Zahid as well. The court has shown clearly that feeding the interests of those in Umno does not justify crimes.

This is rippling through the party. For Umno leaders whose focus is on finding “safety”, a patron for protection and patronage, the party president, no longer offers this. All eyes will be on the judgment of Zahid.

A battle is on for the next Umno boss. Zahid and Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is also the current prime minister, are openly fighting. There are other contenders for top positions who want to displace both men.

Decisions and Desperation

With Najib’s jailing, deals over party hierarchy and candidate selection agreed earlier in the year have been broken, as trust has eroded, especially trust in Ismail Sabri among Umno leaders. “Betrayer” Ismail Sabri has lost ground among the party faithful but is working to win over the party elites and the public at large.

He has held on. Ismail Sabri’s media profile has (marginally) improved. There is wrestling over the timing of polls, with Umno’s strong-arm tactics failing so far. Election delaying has become synonymous with Ismail Sabri’s power. If he fails to call polls after the tabling of Budget 2023 on Oct 7, the battle inside the party will only intensify.

In the meantime, Zahid has become more desperate, which the meeting last weekend showed. The party will have to face the decision whether to remove him from the presidency if he is convicted. He will likely fight to retain the position, as Najib did, and use the precedent of Najib maintaining a leadership appointment — as part of the Barisan Nasional (BN) advisory board despite his conviction — as grounds to stay.

Personal interests, patronage and a search for protection remain the main drivers for Umno leaders. There is little indication so far that the party will move on from the stranglehold of its tainted leaders who put themselves above the law and above the party’s future.

A leader less Umno has not yet led the party towards a stronger party and national leadership. In fact, with the jailing of Najib, it is Umno that remains imprisoned.


First published on Between the Lines.