Malaysia will need UMNO in the new, Mahathir era. It needs a strong opposition to drive it forward. But first, UMNO must transition from incumbent to opposition.
Malaysia needs the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). As the country enters a new era, the country’s former governing party has a central role to play.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) has inherited a Malaysia which has been under UMNO control since 1955. It has the mandate to clean up Malaysia’s government. PH will need to reorganise the electoral system to create freer elections. It needs to rebuild an independent press, dismantle Malay chauvinism, and tackle corruption.
The mantle for cleaning up government falls on the shoulders of Mohamed Mahathir. He is no stranger to holding office, after spending 22 years in office. However, he is also no stranger to corruption.
In 1981, Mahathir’s Attorney General of Malaysia established Maminco Sdn Bhd. The company was supposed to purchase tin contracts and stockpile the commodity. Instead, it syphoned around 1 billion ringgit (US$250 million) to accounts owned by the Attorney General and Malay business tycoons.
In the 1990s, the Mahathir administration oversaw a wave of privatisation. Directors of state-owned and private enterprises diverted backhand payments into their pockets. Cronyism flourished. Mahathir admitted to the widespread existence of corruption under his leadership. He told Malaysiakini, “there was corruption, for example, but not to the extent that it stops the development of this country.”
…and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This is why Malaysia needs UMNO. A strong opposition will safeguard Malaysia against Mahathir falling back into old habits. Malaysia will benefit from UMNO transforming seamlessly from incumbent government to organised opposition.
In opposition, UMNO can prevent complacency and a sluggish reform campaign. It can hold Mahathir to his election promises. It will drive political innovation from PH. UMNO can also promote the modernisation of Malaysian political institutions. The best way to aid and preserve democracy is through a strong political opposition.
First, UMNO must modernise itself
Before UMNO can offer a coherent opposition, it must reform itself. GE14 showed UMNO’s disconnect with the Malaysian electorate.
Part of the reason for this is that to become deeply involved in the party requires time and money. Ordinary workers are disconnected from the party. Political discussions at meetings will often last until 3 am. Those with full-time jobs cannot commit to these meetings. UMNO Executive Secretary Zaidel Baharuddin said, “it’s very difficult for a professional who works a 9-to-5 job to do well in the party.”
This has left the party dominated by career politicians. It created an echo chamber of opinions, disconnected from those of working Malaysians. UMNO cannot represent ordinary Malaysians because ordinary Malaysians are not in the party.
UMNO needs to reconnect with voters
To re-establish a connection with voters, UMNO must become more accessible. It must reform the registration process to make it easier to court new members. Currently, if a member of the public wants to join the party, they need sponsorship from a local leader. Applications usually take three to five months to process.
For those that bother to jump through the many hoops to become a member, there is currently little reward. Ordinary members cannot table topics for discussion. They cannot vote for the party leader either. UMNO must modify this to promote party engagement among the population. All members should have a say in the party leadership and submit discussion topics.
UMNO can also learn from the lessons of GE14
GE14 showed a rise in support for parties supporting local autonomy. In states like Sabah and Sarawak, locals wanted a fairer share of state resources. They also wanted more local freedom and autonomy.
UMNO could heed these demands and champion devolution and fairer resource distribution. This might make it an attractive alternative to PH, who ruled out further devolution.
Speed is of the essence
UMNO’s rebirth as a viable opposition must happen fast. Pakatan Harapan must convene parliament within 60 days of forming a government. The clock is ticking, and UMNO is still picking up the pieces of the election.
Vice-President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that he will contest the presidency. But so far, he has been markedly silent in his criticism of Mahathir. UMNO must rally around Zahid. He must settle into his role as opposition leader, find his voice, and face up to UMNO’s internal challenges.
Malaysia needs UMNO to embrace its new role in Malaysian politics. The party is no longer steering the ship. It is there to ensure the ship does not go off course.
The party leadership must learn from its GE14 failings. Reconnecting with the Malaysian voters and reforming the party must be a priority. Zahid has a lot of work to do. But if he can foster an atmosphere of support and acceptance to change, he can reinvent UMNO. If he succeeds, GE14 will forever become the turning point. It will be the moment UMNO transitioned from democratic threat to democratic protector.