Umno’s divisions: A party held hostage

In the middle of the worst health and economic crises Malaysia has ever faced, the country is dealing with a political crisis. The political impasse is ongoing and likely not to resolve itself in the near future, as many leaders across the political divide are putting their own interests over that of the nation.

At the core of the crisis is Umno, a party divided but still infected by leaders that misused their power while in office and severely damaged the country’s finances and international reputation. Some of the same leaders are the main source of Malaysia’s current political instability.

These leaders are opting for distasteful political blackmail – for positions, money, deals on their cases, contracts and other selfish calls that are myopically focused on themselves. The saying goes that power corrupts, but today in Malaysia some of the most corrupted are doing everything to regain power.

It is important to recognise that Umno is not a monolith, and within it there are other leaders, especially among the younger generation and women, that are deeply concerned about how the crises are affecting ordinary Malaysians. Recent statements by the aforementioned leaders, effectively ransom demands sweetened by calls for “offers”, do not represent the party as a whole. In fact, Umno continues to be held hostage to the selfishness of some of its leaders, who in the process hold Malaysia and Malaysians hostage.

A party divided

To understand the problems Umno is both causing and facing, we need to better understand the differences within the party itself. After 2018, the party has grappled with the direction and leadership of Umno, with the majority of its members voting for a different leadership in the 2018 party polls in a split vote.

Umno has struggled to move out of the legacies of the past, its “must-follow” political culture, misplaced sense of entitlement, embedded corruption and primacy on loyalty rather than merit in advancement – all legacies that can be tied to the Dr Mahathir Mohamad era and continue to be capitalised on by the party’s current leaders.

Najib (left) with Zahid

While lines remain fluid, broadly there are three groups within Umno at the elite level:

Desperadoes – leaders of the party who hold most of the key positions in the party and have legal cases facing them. This faction is led by Najib Abdul Razak and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. This faction derives power from its resources and control over the levers and institutional positions within Umno.

Pressures from Umno by this faction on Perikatan Nasional have increased as the dates for some of their court cases arrive. In short, “Bossku” has moved into a “BossMoo” mode, pressuring Muhyiddin Yassin. It is this same group that has courted PAS, with visits from the Islamist party to their homes and visa versa, all in the guise that they are working collaboratively when in fact they are using PAS to get into political office and deep down see the Islamist party – and other parties as well – as a means to the end of getting back to power.

The desperadoes argue for a return to Umno hegemony, full dominant control of the government and appeasing their supporters in the party while simultaneously using this logic to serve their own personal ends to escape prosecution. They talk about “Malay unity” when in fact they have single-handedly done more to divide the community than ever before. Their demands for over 70 percent of the seats and positions reflect an unwillingness to compromise in the new reality of coalition politics and to move beyond the mindset that they are “entitled” to hold full hegemonic control.

There is continued, rather delusional, thinking that they are “in charge” and did not lose government in 2018. There is absolutely no sense of empathy for the difficulties ordinary Umno members and the society at large are facing. If they are mentioned, this, too, is a political means to the end of returning to power.

Personal interests are believed to be at the core of their demands. Zahid has denied the link between his cases and the Umno supreme council statement from a body he and his Umno political allies control. At the same time, there are now demands for “forgiveness” by Najib as part of the desperado good-cop-bad-cop negotiation strategy.

The desperation of this group is evident in how they have repositioned themselves over the past few weeks. Some of the desperadoes, it is believed, openly supported opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s bid for power with letters of support as well in recent weeks.

Hishammuddin Hussien


Floaters – this group of leaders within the party is more amorphous. This group has no clear leadership, although many label this faction that “Hisham” faction after Hishamuddin Hussien. This group is diverse and not as cohesive as the desperadoes.

The floaters are concerned about being back in government and holding power, but also are more willing to make compromises as opposed to engaging in outright political blackmail. There is a greater appreciation that Umno cannot return to the past, that it must embrace a new future.

Their main source of dissatisfaction lies with Bersatu’s displacement of Umno, less effective governance on the part of Muhyiddin Yassin and, in many cases, failure to accommodate the party’s and some individual floater’s political interests. Importantly, many floaters would like to move beyond the hold the desperadoes have over their own party. They feel trapped.

There is also uncertainty among floaters on how to navigate out of the present situation. Among this group are many who are dissatisfied with both Muhyiddin and the Umno desperadoes. At the same time, many among them do not trust the leadership of Anwar and prefer Mahathir or Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah or even another younger alternative.

This explains growing support for a “unity” government as it is Umno’s own divisions that have contributed to the rise of different groupings, making the political impasse more complicated. Floaters want change to both Umno and a way forward to a more inclusive national leadership in which they play a role.

Die-hards – this group, smaller in number, emphatically rejects Muhyiddin’s leadership. At the same time, they hold onto the position that Umno should be returned to power, and in a majority position, through elections. While other factions want elections as well, they believe most strongly in this from the onset. They are the most affected by the Covid-19 reality of elections not being viable in Malaysia through the end of the third wave of the virus, which all indicators worryingly suggest is not in the near future.

Die-hards also do not support continued desperado leadership of Umno. They recognise how destructive desperado leadership has been. They want a new leadership for Umno and reforms within the party itself. They look to a different past of the party, when it provided a vision for Malaysia.

Die-hards also have similar trust issues involving Anwar but this is shaped not primarily by personal concerns but attention to how they see Umno, with more attention to Umno’s role as a “protector” for the Malay community and leader for Malaysia as a whole, rather than what it has become under the desperado leadership – a vehicle for power for its leaders.


Importantly, many die-hards are deeply uncomfortable with an alliance with PAS, seeing this as not in the longer-term interests of the party and Malaysia. They hold the current pragmatic ties of Umno with PAS with greater disdain and are more honest in their relationship with the Islamist party than the desperadoes. While they see the growing threat of Bersatu for Umno, they continue to prioritise their deep reservations about the Islamist party.

Additional divisions

These differences are further complicated by two important other divides beyond the elite level. First, is the disengagement of the leadership with the party grassroots. All of the main decisions regarding alliances and deal-making have occurred without meaningful consultation with grassroots, even party leaders at the division levels and below. Women especially, who make up the backbone of the party, have been completely ignored.

These divides between the top, party grassroots leaders and membership has been widening for some time but in the past year widened further. Ordinary members have had no voice, given no choice but to blindly follow as the male desperado-dominant party leadership decides who to and not to support.

A second divide has been inadequate engagement by party elites with its younger (both female and male) party leaders who are openly more frustrated with the party leadership and recognise the changes taking place among the Malay community and Malaysians across races as the hardships of Covid in areas of unemployment, family strain, income loss, anxiety and displacement set in. They understand the growing sentiments against all parties, including Umno. They also feel held hostage by older leaders refusing to let go of power.

Divisions in context

Umno today struggles with the living legacies of both Mahathir and Najib on the party. They are being forced to both deal with the burdens of the past and struggle with facing new political realities while holding onto visions of the past.

Broadly, today’s intra-Umno divisions should be understood to be the product of different outlooks on how the party should position itself, ally itself, and evolve in Malaysia’s changing political environment. The differences in Umno are moving away from traditional feudal personal loyalties to a focus on political survival and pragmatic differences on how the party should position itself in its ally relationships.

The questions being asked are not just about the party but at the individual level as well, with many facing hard questions about their political future. At the same time, many of the personal antagonisms and distrust remain the same, especially among the older generation of leaders, and continue to affect who leaders will or will not work with. Little attention has centred on what the party actually brings to the table to address the health and economic crises the country is facing.

Most outside the party continue to see Umno as all the same. This is understandable. Party leaders and members are shaped by the same entitled sense of position and ideas of Malay leadership. Amidst recent scandals, notably 1MDB, many leaders did not adequately stand up to the kleptocracy taking place at the top, and even some financially benefitted from it.


There is also persistent public anger at how the party has used race and religion to secure their position for decades, as opposed to better governance. The “Anything-but-Umno” sentiment runs deep. It is important to keep in mind that is was the defection of thousands of Umno members that helped to bring about political change in 2018.

No question, the costs of empowering back tainted desperado Umno leaders will be high as the overwhelming majority of Malaysians want new leaders at the helm. There is no remorse for how individuals have held political parties, and in the process, Malaysians hostage in their deal-making and deal-breaking, or recognition of the damage they have done and continue to do to Malaysia’s international standing if deals are seen to undermine the rule of law.

Increasingly in this period of crisis, and with continued concerns with Muhyiddin Yassin’s government in the mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and the soured relationships with its political allies, new alignments are emerging and potentially will further reemerge in this intense time of elite negotiations.

Umno’s intra-party divisions will set the direction for the country, as has occurred so many times in Malaysia’s history. This time, however, it will be whether a new generation of leaders can break free from the desperado leadership and the corrosive legacies of the Mahathir era that have stopped Umno and Malaysia from embracing a new, and less desperate, future.

Taken from