Malaysia: The 2004 UMNO General Assembly


Dr William Case

In years in which party elections for top offices are held, the annual general assembly of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) can be lively, marked by leadership struggles, factional intrigues, and hot flows of patronage. But elections for this year’s assembly, held 17-21 June, had been rescheduled for 2004. Thus, the main functions this time round were first to farewell the prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad who retires in October, and second, to provide an early measure of the support enjoyed in the party by his anointed successor, Abdullah Badawi.

Both aims, however, were only partly met. In his opening address, Mahathir came close to his trademark weeping, prompting many women delegates in attendance to complete his emotional outpouring. But his central message - warning of the need for unity if UMNO is to protect the Malays from the twin evils of neo-imperialism perpetuated by the ‘European race’ and a ‘distorted’ Islamism propagated by the opposition PAS (Pan-Malayan Islamic Party) - left local analysts to opine that ‘something was missing’. Likewise, as many delegates trooped to the rostrum to ‘debate’ the motion of thanks for Mahathir’s speech, they dutifully read out prepared eulogies that again were adjudged by analysts as an ‘anticlimax’, mostly conveying ‘what their leaders wanted to hear’. Indeed, not only has the critical undercurrent of rebelliousness, even impertinence, that historically characterised the assembly’s oratory, now vanished from its repertoire, so too has much of the folk humour and clever turns of Malay phrasing that once delighted audiences. It has now been supplanted by booming declarations of loyalty, alongside tender references to Mahathir as ‘YDK’ (Yang DiKasih, ‘the beloved’).

Abdullah Badawi, in his own address, warned likewise of the need for unity, lamenting that the air of rural innocence and politeness that once prevailed in the UMNO had dissolved in worldly ambitiousness, made manifest in fierce contests during election years for high-level posts in the party. Such competitiveness, he warned, had destroyed powerful single-party systems like those that had been operated by the Congress Party of India, Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan. He remained silent, however, about the corrosive effects of Malaysia’s wavering economic performance and export markets. Instead, he intoned, it was politics that mattered most, evoking the need to avoid any challenge to his leadership after taking over from Mahathir - or to the new deputy that he will soon afterward name.

Abdullah had good reasons for warning against challenges: appointed by Mahathir, he remains untested, never having defended his deputy leadership. Thus, even as he ascends to the topmost position, the extent of his support is uncertain. To be sure, when making their speeches, delegates duly echoed Abdullah’s calls for loyalty, even demanding that any challengers in next year’s elections be branded as ‘liars’, and then be sacked from the party. In turn, those most likely to mount such challenges, namely, the three vice-presidents who make up the party’s second echelon, declared their commitments to Abdullah and the deputy he chooses.

But the fact that the delegates were so utterly preoccupied with party unity and support for Abdullah may be interpreted as a sign of the precariousness of his position. With his ‘Mr Clean’ image, he displays little understanding of the patronage upon which the UMNO’s machinery turns. Further, with his formative career years having been spent deep in the Ministry of Youth and Culture, he demonstrates no knowledge of the economic fundamentals or business dealings that have distinguished Malaysia’s progress. Nor does he seem to possess the charisma with which to galvanise wider followings over time. In these conditions, the UMNO’s general assembly in 2004 - a well-attended, but dull affair - revealed only that it remains too early for any of those who contemplate challenging Abdullah or his deputy to tip their hand.

WATCHPOINT: Abdullah Badawi will name his deputy after taking over from Mahathir in October. We will then be better able to gauge the extent of discontents within UMNO and the likelihood of a challenge in the next assembly election, scheduled for 2004.


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