What Umno’s pick for party pres­i­dent can tell us about the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - – Paul Mil­lar

Ah­mad Zahid Hamidi has been elected as Umno’s new pres­i­dent af­ter the rul­ing party’s dev­as­tat­ing de­feat in Malaysia’s May na­tional elec­tion. But is this stal­wart of the es­tab­lish­ment the right leader to break decades of deep-seated nepo­tism and pa­tron­age pol­i­tics within the overtly race-based party?


For­mer banker and ex­ec­u­tive Ah­mad Zahid Hamidi first en­tered pub­lic life as po­lit­i­cal sec­re­tary to Na­jib Razak dur­ing the now-dis­graced premier’s ten­ure as youth min­is­ter and then min­is­ter of de­fence over the 80s and 90s. Af­ter win­ning a seat in par­lia­ment in the 1995 gen­eral elec­tions, Zahid was elected youth chief of the United Malays Na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Umno) be­fore ris­ing through the ranks to serve var­i­ously as de­fence min­is­ter, home af­fairs min­is­ter and, fi­nally, the 11th deputy prime min­is­ter of Malaysia.


Fol­low­ing the rul­ing coali­tion’s shock­ing elec­toral de­feat and the pub­lic ar­rest of for­mer prime min­is­ter Na­jib Razak on a slew of cor­rup­tion charges, Zahid was voted in to re­place the ex-premier as Umno’s new pres­i­dent. The for­mer home af­fairs min­is­ter nar­rowly edged out ri­val can­di­date Khairy Ja­malud­din, the for­mer youth and sports min­is­ter long seen as a ris­ing star within Umno’s ranks – and a stri­dent voice for re­form within a party that crit­ics say has long been bogged down in “war­lord”-style pa­tron­age pol­i­tics. Although Zahid has made some com­ments of his own re­ject­ing nepo­tism within the party, his elec­tion ap­pears to be more a main­te­nance of the sta­tus quo than the grass-roots renewal many ob­servers were hop­ing for.


Khoo Ying Hooi, a se­nior lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Malaya’s de­part­ment of in­ter­na­tional and strate­gic stud­ies, said that the de­ci­sion was a dis­ap­point­ing one. “Zahid’s lead­er­ship shown to us that Umno has not learned a les­son de­spite the de­feat,” she said. “Up to now, Umno as a whole is still play­ing the racial and re­li­gious card to woo Malay vot­ers, look­ing at the re­cent de­bates in Malaysian pol­i­tics af­ter the GE14. I ex­pect Umno to con­tinue with the sim­i­lar strat­egy but they should un­der­stand that with the po­lit­i­cal change, if Umno wishes to win back the Malay vot­ers, they should look into new strate­gies of em­pow­er­ing the so­ci­ety and to be more en­gaged in na­tional is­sues by be­ing a strong op­po­si­tion.”


With ten­sions between the Mus­lim Malay ma­jor­ity and Malaysians of Chi­nese and Indian de­scent still un­der­pin­ning much of the na­tional dis­course, Hooi said the new gov­ern­ment had its work cut out for it. “While ev­ery­one speaks about New Malaysia – where I agree, to cer­tain ex­tent, the race­based pol­i­tics has been toned down a lit­tle – many more ef­forts are re­quired to re­build the con­fi­dence of the pub­lic on gov­ern­ment cred­i­bil­ity,” she said. “It is not some­thing that will go away eas­ily, and prob­a­bly un­likely to do away with it to­tally, but what­ever it is, it is cru­cial for the new gov­ern­ment to in­ten­sively re­build the foun­da­tion of Malaysia that is strongly based on racial pol­i­tics.”

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