This article previously appeared in The Malaysian Insider.
Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri. It is exactly a year since I offered myself for the Umno deputy presidency.
I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting enough nominations to be eligible and it could also be suicidal to my “young” political career. But I thought it was worth the sacrifice to send a signal to the top leadership that Umno’s time in power is over if we don’t change.
Umno president Datuk Seri Mohamed Najib Razak probably got my message when he used the phrase “change or be changed” in the party’s general assembly before taking over as Prime Minister in April.
So six months into Najib’s reign as the country’s sixth prime minister, what does Umno have to show?
Barisan Nasional in particular Umno has lost six by-elections consecutively, some before he took over from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Umno’s attempt to introduce a young lawyer as the candidate in the Permatang Pasir by-election resulted in a good loss to the legal profession into a huge loss for the party — either in the contest or its credibility.
Najib must now break the spiral of a loss of confidence in the party. This is being done as we face the next by-election in Bagan Pinang with former Negri Sembilan mentri besar and party vice-president as our candidate.
The choice of the locally popular politician seen as tainted outside our party, reflects our shallow talent pool that hangs on to our past rather than our future. But a win is better than a loss even if it comes with a high price of excluding the youth.
This dilemma reflects the actual situation in Umno when party elections last March elected in more veterans due to suspicions and distrust for a younger set with ideas to move on from the baggage of the past.
Some say we forget the party struggle but after 52 years of ruling the country, we need more than the struggle as our raison d’être in politics. But Najib’s 1 Malaysia is still struggling to ignite the public’s imagination.
It is in danger of becoming another slogan like Islam Hadhari mainly due to the fact that racial unity must come from the heart and cannot be packaged by public relations consultants. National unity cannot be forced as proven by the limited success of the National Service programme — a hasty reaction to youth issues in the waning years of the Mahathir administration..
It was reported that those who went through the programme have hardly interacted with each other after completing the three-month course.
Can three months overcome years of internal divisions, just as slogans wash away suspicions?
But I hope that the plan to have the one mixed race hostel achieve better results. I am cynical and pessimistic because the government appears to stuck to the habit of throwing money to create new projects instead of building on its strengths.
The latest 1 Malaysia F1 initiative is an example. I shudder at the prospect of spending hundreds of millions more than Petronas’s annual sponsorship with the lofty aim of acquiring technology and experience to improve the ailing Proton national car project.
While the idea sounds good, it doesn’t make sense to use more money to prop up Proton when it does not have exporting capabilities while the AFTA tax-free zone will give an insurmountable advantage to Thailand to become the manufacturing hub for this region.
That is the reality that we have to face. And talk of technology transfer is almost as old as talk of our political struggle. Almost.
The reality is that failure is not an option for Umno. Not anymore. Yet the new set of leaders have not shown urgency to turn back the tide of resentment from the people. They are as impotent as King Canute to order the sea tide back.
We need bold initiatives, not just rousing speeches for a feel good factor, not just good guilt and bad guilt to justify our candidate in a by-election.
With six months to the two-year mark of this government, Umno has a very narrow time frame to deliver promises, reform the party and move forward to make Vision 2020 and a better Malaysia the reality.
It cannot be just about the rights of Malays and non-Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims any more. It has to be about our young and our future in an increasingly competitive and globalised world. You don’t see our neighbours anguishing about race and religion but rather pushing their youth to lead the future.
We were once like that, years ago. Former Umno leaders always took chances with the young. Tunku Abdul Rahman trusted my father, then a young Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat and his schoolmate Tun Musa Hitam, boosting them in the party.
Tun Abdul Razak, who succeeded Tunku, invested in Abdullah, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Rais Yatim to name a few. Tun Hussein Onn himself invested with Najib. while Dr Mahathir brought in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Shafie Apdal
But only Umno presidents can do that within the party. Yet the cabinet has no bloom of youth, of promise, let alone within the Umno supreme council. Here, grey hair is preferable to jet black, reflecting fading promise not wisdom of ages.
.They are just tired ideas, tired minds who sing of Malay supremacy when the rest of the world are nationalistic without care of ethnic walls within their nations. Do the Indians care if their scientists or politicians are Tamil or Punjabi? Do the Han Chinese worry if their economics minister is Hainanese or Tibetan?
But not just within Umno but also within Barisan Nasional, we have to invest in the young within the party and without, not for token reasons. The younger are cleaner and better because of inexperience and new ways of seeing things.
They are savvier with technology and communications strategies to build a loyal political following in the urban areas. This is what Umno did well for decades using the advanced tools available during that time.
The measure of our success would mean less reliance on rural areas and more on urban areas, which would reflect in an overall increase in support for us. Our success has eroded our support because we can’t adapt strategies or keep up with a thinking crowd, those in urban areas with better access to opinions rather than those who are just grateful to be free citizens.
The era of big government is over, Najib said upon becoming prime minister. True. So is the era of papa preaching within the party. There should be less top down leadership but more a genuine cooperation to move together to expand the party’s influence and support. as I saw in a recent party retreat.
The buzzword is collaboration, sharing and partnerships. If we have to respect someone because they are old, have grey hair and have eaten salt before us, sorrylah, as the young set would say.
That person is a candidate for a heart attack and paralysis or death is his next stop.
Just like Umno unless they put the young in now for the future, for tomorrow. We cannot pussy foot with issues and our future anymore.
Especially not today after the annus horribilis we have gone through.
After all, today is the future of a year ago.