Malaysia: Change In UMNO's Direction?


James Chin

UMNO, the ruling political party in Malaysia, is in the midst of a major.shift in direction. The accumulation of subtle but highly significant changes since UMNO's defeat in last November's polls suggest that Mahathir has decided to change UMNO's previous policy of challenging its main nemesis, PAS, by being more 'Islamic' than PAS. The glaring failure of this strategy may have pushed UMNO to move back to the middle ground and repackaging itself as the party of modern, secular Malays who project a 'Malaysian' outlook. There appears to be a genuine attempt to turn away from the narrow interpretation of Malay nationalism based on Malay rights and Islam dominance.

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, publicly told the Registrar of Societies to give priority to the setting up of multi-racial organisations rather than single-race based organisations. He said this was to foster better racial and social unity. Previously, the ROS promoted racially based organisations and was reluctant to approve multi-racial organisations.

Second, the government now emphasises the five principles of Rukun Negara in key socialisation organisations such as schools and youth organisations. Schools throughout the nation have been told to establish Rukun Negara clubs, while the Rukun Tetangga will be revived. Previously, the government paid lip service to Rukun Negara and never took it seriously.

Third, single-race based schools are actively being discouraged. Existing single race schools are now being re-organised into ‘Vision’ schools where students and staff are required to interact with students from different racial groups by sharing school facilities such as sports fields.

Fourth, Universiti Malaya has been officially asked to explain why it banned Chinese undergraduates from holding the Lantern Festival. In the past such bans were routine- Chinese or Indian-based student organisations were routinely banned from holding any Chinese or Indian celebrations on campus while the Malay and Islamic organisations were given a free hand.

Fifth, moves are afoot to amend the UMNO constitution, which will likely lead to radical changes in UMNO. Among the proposals are that the election of top party leaders be determined by 30,000 delegates instead of just 2,000 now. Another major proposal being looked into is limiting the tenure of Supreme Council members. If these proposals are adopted, in effect it gives power back to the individual UMNO branches instead of delegates as is the present system.

Sixth, UMNO Johor, the party's most formidable stronghold in the country, has decided to allow its members to criticise its leaders publicly. This is unprecedented: UMNO has usually shut down its internal dissension quickly and brutally.

Seventh, UMNO leaders told UMNO Youth to shut up over the Malaysian Chinese Organisations' Election Appeals Committee (Suqiu) issue. UMNO Youth leader Hishammuddin Hussein has already distanced himself from his deputy who was the main instigator of the demonstration against Suqiu.

Eighth, for the first time the issue of the bumiputera quota and preferential policies were openly criticised and questioned by Malay representatives inside the National Economic Consultative Committee II (NECC). Previously it was the non-Malays who questioned the discriminatory quota system.

WATCHPOINT: UMNO may have finally learnt that it cannot outdo PAS in being more Islamic. Expect UMNO to stress more on being more 'Malaysian' than 'Malayness'. However, the question remains: can Mahathir/UMNO change racial politics that is UMNO's raison d'Ítre?


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