Shifting Alliances in the Corridors of Power

September 21, 2018


Shifting Alliances in the Corridors of Power


The Pathetic Inheritors of the Corrupt UMNO Najib Legacy

COMMENT | Former minister Nazri Abdul Aziz is now brazenly saying out in the open that UMNO’s best-case scenario for future prospects is to support and team up with Anwar Ibrahim.

More than any party here by far, UMNO is a collection of fat cats.They reached their heights of obesity and opulence by sitting in the free-ride comforts of a government they never imagined losing control of.

Quite simply, almost all UMNO leaders have absolutely none of the integrity, experience, gumption, skill, drive, motivation, diligence, intelligence, passion, know-how, fibre, endurance (you get the idea) or interest really, required for being an effective or successful politician outside of the federal government.

All the UMNO fat cats really want is a shortcut that will take them from the cold rain, in which they now shiver and starve, back into the warm government mansion they grew up in, to purr and preen in comfort amidst their never-ending gravy train.

The path Nazri seems to be advocating offers exactly that, and all they apparently have to do is to create enough friction between Bersatu and PKR, and make sure that Anwar becomes the prime minister.

As detailed in Part 1 of this article, Anwar could conceivably then dump Bersatu in favour of UMNO – especially if he starts to feel that Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed may renege on his promise to hand over power.

Mahathir could of course react by calling for early elections. Perhaps it was in anticipation of such a scenario that Anwar started courting good relationships with the Malay rulers very early on, as a refusal by the palace to dissolve Parliament could complicate matters.

Mahathir taking pre-emptive measures?

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Needless to say, Mahathir is far too intelligent to let such an outflanking manoeuvre happen without a response, and calling for early elections is likely a last resort rather than the first line of defence.

I think this is the context of UMNO’s recent resignations – the post-Port Dickson timing of which could be no coincidence at all.

Not every UMNO person buys Nazri’s plan. Indeed, while most of the party members do favour the fat-cat shortcut back to power, there appears to be considerable differences of opinion as to which shortcut in particular is best.

The three main schools of thought seem to be: through PKR, through PAS, or through Bersatu.

Nazri is probably correct in pointing out that going through PAS makes pretty much no numerical or ideological sense whatsoever.

Image result for Musthapha Mohamad and Anifah Aman

Perhaps the likes of Mustapa Mohamed and Anifah Aman(pic, above) are leaning towards the Bersatu route.

This is an interesting response. If there is a sufficiently large migration from UMNO to Bersatu, this could basically make Bersatu the new UMNO in terms of their position in the coalition – a big, Malay party that everyone agrees will nominate the PM.

Splitting UMNO could also neutralise any effort by Anwar to use UMNO as a threat against Bersatu.

If large numbers of UMNO MPs join Bersatu, then the UMNO support may no longer be the same bargaining chip it currently is.

Then again, for all an outsider like me knows, Mustapa and Anifah could be the ones looking to join PKR.

Either way, those who have left clearly do not have faith in UMNO as a bloc, and appear to be seeking their futures elsewhere.

Two out of three

In summary, in this bizarre love triangle between Bersatu, PKR, and UMNO, almost any two-out-of-three combination essentially produces a workable win.

There are a number of other factors, and/or radical possibilities.

DAP will obviously play a big role, while PAS, PBB, Amanah, and Warisan will play slightly smaller ones. Then there is the Azmin Ali factor.

Only while writing this article did the scenario occur to me: Especially if Azmin loses the PKR Deputy President’s race, what’s to stop him from defecting over to Bersatu?

This solves a number of different problems for both Bersatu and Azmin.

If the PKR elections go on in its current trajectory, the bad blood between team Azmin and team Anwar may be irreconcilable, and Azmin’s position within PKR may no longer be tenable.

Azmin moving to Bersatu would give the party a more viable succession plan with regards to subsequent PMs (a Goh Chok Tong to Mukhriz Mahathir’s Lee Hsien Loong perhaps?), and the numbers that could follow Azmin would also, again, help with Bersatu’s low-in-parliamentary-seats problem.

An exodus from PKR to Bersatu would be even bigger if Bersatu goes multiracial – further reducing the role or need for a party like PKR.

These battle lines are perhaps already visible in the copious amount of columns, blog posts, and viral Whatsapp messages that are either very strongly pro- or anti-Anwar, suggesting a consolidated and coordinated effort.

The race factor

Needless to say, all of this is speculation – and a somewhat sensationalist one at that.

For all I know, we could see a smooth transition to Anwar becoming the next PM, a stable rota system put in place to determine future prime ministers, and Harapan continuing just the way it is, happy as a clam.

Or, it could all be unrecognisable inside a year. It’s hard to say.

All these seismic shifts are potentially possible in large part because ideology has almost never played a big role in modern Malaysian politics.

The only vital and somewhat ideological question is how much of a factor race should be in Malaysian politics. This may come into play, say if Umno MPs need to decide which new party they want to support.

Perhaps some see maintaining Malay supremacy as the priority, a goal which can only be achieved by supporting Bersatu or PAS, while others may prefer the PKR route.

Other than that, Malaysian politics can likely be said to be dominated more by personality politics than anything else. It often comes down to which feudal lord one likes better.

Transforming incentive structures

Of course, just because this is the way it is, doesn’t mean that this is the way it always needs to be. Changing the incentive structures and the architecture of our political system could largely eliminate the need for many of the conflicts above.

One radical way to drastically cut back on inter-party conflict (such as Bersatu and PKR fighting over long-term stewardship of the PM’s post), is simply for all Harapan parties to merge.

Many would cite mind-boggling logistical difficulties (true, no doubt), and extreme resistance to the idea by conservatives.

If we think about it though, what function does having multiple parties in the coalition actually serve?

The old BN model was simple, for the peninsular at least. We have one party for one race. If you are Malay and have a problem, go see UMNO; Chinese, look for MCA; Indian, MIC.

It was devilishly simple in its concept, but simply devilish in the divided Malaysia it eventually created.

What about the realities of today? Do we want to follow the old formula? Malays see Bersatu, Chinese see DAP, and Indians can see the new Malaysia Advancement Party?

A merged party will still have leaders and elected representatives from every community that voters will likely find approachable.

True, little Napoleons will perhaps find themselves with less power, but wouldn’t that be a good thing?

It’s a bold idea that is unlikely to see the light of day, but regardless, I do hope we keep looking to radical solutions to blaze paths forward and leave behind the endless internal politicking that takes up far too much time and energy of Malaysian politicians.

After all, all the intrigue and speculation is somewhat entertaining, but don’t we have a new Malaysia to govern?

YESTERDAY: Future PMs: Many possibilities within Bersatu, PKR and Umno triangle

NATHANIEL TAN is eager to serve.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Malaysia: Race-based power sharing coalition is here to stay?

July 6, 2018

Malaysia: Race-based power sharing  coalition is here to stay?

By Darshan

“Whether we like it or not, Malaysia’s political fundamentals are anchored in a race-based power sharing ideology, thus race politics will stay and BN is an established structure to effectively serve that purpose. All that BN needs is to adopt a moderate and inclusive approach moving forward.”–Darshan Singh

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A lot has happened since May 9, when Malaysians decided to alter the political landscape of the country, electing a loosely formed coalition called Pakatan Harapan (PH) into government. A devastating blow landed on the once mighty UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition when, for the first time in over 60 years, it lost the mandate to rule.

Never had I thought that this would be possible in my lifetime. I expected BN to lose a couple more seats but to win the election as usual.

While the majority of non-Malays were expected to vote for the PH coalition, what surprised me was the fact that a sizeable percentage of the Malay electorate decided to ditch BN as well. Traditionally, the majority of the Malay population had voted for BN, fearing a loss of political power if they did otherwise. This trend was expected to continue but unfortunately this time, it didn’t. Dr Mahathir Mohamad had successfully provided the necessary comfort in assuring that Malay rights and privileges would continue to be protected even if BN was no longer in power. After all, it was Mahathir who had indoctrinated the concept of supremacy during his previous 22 years as prime minister.

It will be interesting to see if the Malay electorate continues to vote for PH post-Mahathir in GE-15.

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UMNO Baru: More of the same racist politics under Dr. Achmed Zahid Hamidi from Pornorogo–Hidup Melayu

Personally, I think it was the inability of the former Prime Minister to offer any reasonable explanation for his alleged involvement in financial scandals which influenced the end result. It is a little far-fetched that BN did not expect to lose power, and even more amazing that the former Prime Minister was detached from ground realities.

Warning signs were all over that the people were disappointed and angry with the BN brand of politics, which was plagued by alleged corrupt practices and abuse of power and complete disregard for the principles of transparency, accountability and good governance. The only democratic value left was probably holding general elections on time.

True enough, with the seizure of hundreds of millions in cash and belongings from premises linked to the former Prime Minister, public perception on embezzlement is slowly becoming reality.

Since losing power, BN has been in disarray, desperately trying to recover from the shock election defeat. In such a situation, it does not help when one-time allies decide to jump ship and walk away with those who have newly acquired power. Effectively, there are only three parties left in the BN coalition, and at this point in time, it is not even certain if it will stay this way. There are obvious cracks visible even among its surviving members.

In reality, this election defeat should be viewed positively as an opportunity for BN to review its structure and ideology, correcting the mistakes of the past and emerging stronger. Being in the opposition can be useful to test the newly laid foundation which can be continuously improved until the next general election is called. People will surely appreciate an opposition which roars responsibly in Parliament.

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UMNO Baru’s Malay First President

Whether we like it or not, Malaysia’s political fundamentals are anchored in a race-based power sharing ideology, thus race politics will stay and BN is an established structure to effectively serve that purpose. All that BN needs is to adopt a moderate and inclusive approach moving forward.

The majority will continue to claim rights and privileges while the minority will scream racism. This will not change even if the odds are tilted in any other way as we are a selfish and racist society.

Darshan Singh is a FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


UMNO new Leadership Devoid of Honour and Integrity

July 5, 2018

UMNO new Leadership Devoid of Honour and Integrity

By Dennis Ignatius

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Any hopes that UMNO would somehow be able transform itself into a viable political party in keeping with the hopes and aspirations of the people evaporated last Sunday after Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and some of the worst, least credible leaders of the former government were elected to helm the party in the post-GE14 era.

While polls suggested that the wider Malay polity favoured more open-minded and reformist leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin, party bosses went with the status quo. Money politics was also apparently at work once again.

Without principle or honour

What we now have as the face of UMNO are the same people who were Najib Razak’s principal cheerleaders and collaborators, his proxies in effect.

To see the very people who were complicit in all that went wrong during Najib’s administration now strutting around talking about democracy, professing their respect for the Rule of Law and complaining about money politics, is simply revolting. And to watch them pretend that the massive corruption and abuse of power that attended their long years in office was somehow a minor detail, or that they lost the election merely because of the “non-conventional approach” taken by Pakatan Harapan (to quote Zahid) is to witness monumental self-deception first-hand.

The fact is, the kind of massive corruption and abuse of power that went on during the last couple of decades was not just the work of one man – it was a team effort in every sense of the word. Every last one of them aided or abetted Najib by commission or omission. They lied or remained mute witnesses when they should have spoken up. They obfuscated the truth and consciously misled the public to the very end, and continue to do so even now.

How many of them now trying to refurbish their image would even dare declare their assets?

Zahid himself, now under investigation on a number of issues, deceived the public when he claimed to have met the mysterious Saudi who supposedly donated RM2.6 billion to Najib. And now, in response to allegations that some RM800,000 in personal credit card bills were charged to his foundation, he says it was all an honest mistake. Perhaps, but what people want to know is how does a politician rack up RM800,000 in credit card bills in the first place, and then pay it off without so much as a second thought?

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And then there was the shocking re-election of Jamal Yunos (pic above), a racist demagogue given to empty-headed gestures and a fugitive from justice to boot, as division chief. What does it say of UMNO if such obnoxious people can find favour within its ranks?

What we have then, for the most part, are leaders without principle or honour, and without an iota of remorse for all the wrong they did. They betrayed the trust of the people and their obligation to protect and defend the constitution.

Entrusting the leadership of the party to the same bunch of unprincipled and opportunistic leaders that were rejected by the voters on May 9 only suggests that Umno members still do not appreciate the full measure of the disdain in which many ordinary Malaysians hold their party.

Discredited ‘bangsat’ policies

In the hands of such men, nothing more can be expected from the party than the racism, bigotry and dishonesty of the past. In a harbinger of things to come, Najib, their mentor, disgraced and rejected as he is, is claiming that the PH government is neglecting the Malay agenda, sidelining the national language, and undermining the position of the Malay rulers.

And this despite the fact that nobody, absolutely nobody, has done more to damage the interests of the Malays than he and his party. They pretended to be defenders of the faith but defrauded the faithful; they claimed to champion their race but massively cheated their own people.

What Najib and UMNO cannot and will not see is that PH’s election victory was in fact a victory for the Malays by the Malays. Finally, the Malays have rid themselves of the “bangsats” that entrapped and impoverished them in the dead-end politics of race and religion while laughing all the way to the bank. Under more progressive Malay leaders, the Malays themselves are now free to soar like never before. And the higher they soar, the more irrelevant Umno will become.

History catching up

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The final chapter in UMNO’s sordid saga is now being written by the investigators looking into all the allegations of its corruption and abuse of power. When it comes to full fan, many more UMNO leaders will be joining Najib in infamy, and the insidious nature of UNMO will be laid bare for all to see with devastating consequences.– Amb (rtd)Dennis Ignatius

History, it is said, has a way of catching up with the follies of men. The moment party leaders rejected Onn Jaafar’s proposal to make UMNO an inclusive big tent party fighting for the rights of all Malaysians, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. While many pretended for years that there was something noble in its struggle, there was, in fact, nothing redeeming about its racist approach to nation-building.

The final chapter in UMNO’s sordid saga is now being written by the investigators looking into all the allegations of its corruption and abuse of power. When it comes to full fan, many more UMNO leaders will be joining Najib in infamy, and the insidious nature of UNMO will be laid bare for all to see with devastating consequences.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Thwarted Revolt –A Weakened UMNO brewing

July 2, 2018

Thwarted Revolt –A Weakened UMNO brewing

   A Najib Proxy wins UMNO Presidential Elections

COMMENT | The results of the UMNO polls are in and the internal pressures for meaningful reform have been thwarted.

It would appear that the election of Najib Razak’s proxy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as President has prevented the party from bringing about needed changes from within. A closer look at the election campaign and results, however, shows that UMNO is seriously divided, and there is in fact an ongoing revolt within the party that is far from over.

Najib pity party

The struggle between “old” politics – money, warlord pressure, insularity, entitlement, racial rhetoric and unquestioned loyalty to the leader – and “new” politics – ideas and policies, more national and substantive engagement on issues and with communities, and greater empowerment of the grassroots – played itself out in the party campaign. The dominant narrative of the party election was one of reform.

History was made with a televised public debate, brought about by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s challenge to his competitors, and there was an unprecedented level of competition for leadership positions. Unlike the hotly-contested 1987 party election, the 2018 UMNO election provided clearer choices for the direction of the party, as opposed to primarily supporting different personalities and camps.

The outcome of the election revealed the control of vested “old” interests in the party with the election of Zahid and many in his camp, notably Vice-Presidents Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Mahdzir Khalid and Wanita Chief Noraini Ahmad.

Over half of the incumbent division chiefs and deputies were returned, with 37 percent of them unopposed. The share of Wanita incumbents returned was even higher, with over half of these 56 percent contested. At the supreme council, the results show a predominance of incumbents as well. The forces for status quo held onto power.

They did so largely by using money and pressure politics – “instructing” delegates how to vote. “Duit raya”, or rather more aptly “duit rakyat”, was used to buy delegates, with some envelope payouts allegedly reaching over RM1,000 per delegate. These tactics were combined with the feeding of the view on the need to defend the party against “enemies” and the mistaken delusion that it was a matter of time before UMNO would get back to power through alliances with new partners and divisions within the ruling Pakatan Harapan.

The main proponent of this defensive and denial politics is Najib, who used his influence to assure that his proxy(ies) won so that he can continue to feed on sympathy within the party and secure a (mistaken belief in a) safe landing for himself. Many of the warlords and division chiefs, who were responsible for keeping Najib in power after the 1MDB scandal was revealed, joined the ‘Najib pity party’ out of self-interest and self-preservation, and pressured the delegates to toe the line.

The revolt

Many of the delegates rejected these pressures, some outrightly in a revolt and an embrace of “new” politics, while others through more indirect resistance. The results show that while “old” forces won pluralities, they did not win consistent majorities. The number of branches that favoured reform candidates – Razaleigh and Khairy Jamaluddin – outnumbered those that favoured Zahid, 53,054 to 39,197, and votes within an overwhelming majority of branches were sharply divided.

The fact that the reform camp was divided, split between Razaleigh and Khairy, undercut its success. Yet the “winner take all” electoral college system of the election also weakened the vote for reform, as those incumbents holding position had more sway in the final outcome as they comprised the bulk of the 160,000 delegates.

If UMNO had a more democratic electoral system with all of its grassroots being able to vote, the outcome would have revealed that the majority of the party members want change. They are trapped in an undemocratic electoral system that disempowers members and advantages incumbents.

The results show that despite this imbalance, the revolt in UMNO is strong. The supreme council contains many of those closely linked to the Khairy camp, notably Zambry Abdul Kadir, Abdul Rahman Dahlan and Reezal Merican Naina Merican, among others.

Annuar Musa’s defeat is perhaps the most obvious sign of this discontent. He was perceived as the candidate closest to the Najib-Zahid camp and most actively reportedly engaged in vote buying. In a head-to-head contest, he lost to Mohamad (Mat) Hassan, Khairy’s cousin and seen as more aligned with reformers.


Khaled Nordin’s (photo) victory as Vice-President is also illustrative, as he was most openly aligned to the Razaleigh camp and advocated for change in the party campaign, most obviously by repudiating money politics.

The challenge in this campaign was that given its brevity, the time to build clear alliances in the reform camp was limited. The reform movement, as a whole, lacked clear candidates as to who the reformers were at the supreme council, divisional and branch levels. These contests were largely about personality and personal loyalties rather than the direction of the party.

As such – despite the revolt within UMNO for change – delegates had little choice in bringing about that change in the lower-level contests of the party to sustain the needed support to offset the institutional advantages and stranglehold of control that the “old” politics of Najib-Zahid maintain.

War within continues

The election, however, was only a battle, for the war inside UMNO continues. There are three trends that are likely to continue.

The first is an exodus from the party. So far, three elected parliamentarians have left to become “independent”. This trend will continue, as Zahid does not have the confidence of large shares of the party. As many as half of the parliamentarians may leave, with even more at the state level.

It remains to be seen whether those leaving will form a different party, but the split inside UMNO is real. Zahid’s victory is a defeat for the party, as it has meant that the party will not hold together. This could come in the form of large numbers leaving, resulting in a split or more gradual attrition and disengagement. Either path points to an erosion of support within the party itself.

Zahid’s victory has made UMNO an even greater political target, as he not only perpetuates responsibility for the scandal of 1MDB in the party leadership, he brings his own scandals and baggage. Zahid is not popular by any measure among the general public. He is currently not able to command the respect of the voters, including a majority of UMNO voters.

Zahid’s poor showing in the UMNO presidential debate did little to bring respect to the party among the public and this trend will continue with Najib continuing to overshadow his proxy. Zahid – and UMNO as large – will face the continued wrath of voters who demand accountability over 1MDB and further scandal revelations will bring even more contempt.

Losers are actually winners

Zahid’s visit to the MACC today will likely not be the first. He will not be alone in having to face questions about the finances and money within the party, as the election of the “old guard” makes the entire leadership more vulnerable. Najib’s claim that 1MDB was used to “help” the party and the cash in his apartment was actually UMNO money – his practice of using the party for his own defence – is now haunting the party as a whole.


Ironically, many of the victors in the UMNO polls are actually losers, with the losers actually winners. Khairy (photo, far left) and Razaleigh have both come out of the contest stronger than when they went in, standing up for change and advocating for a more hopeful alternative future for the party. Sadly, Najib’s continued hold over the party in alliance with many warlords and the debacle of his leadership has rained down further suffering on UMNO.

The third trend is one where there will be efforts to survive the internal divisions and external censure. This will likely follow the same “old” playbook of Najib – denial and defensiveness, cash-and-carry politics, ratcheting up race and religious rhetoric and the use of underhanded undemocratic tactics.

Expect greater outreach to PAS under Zahid’s proxy leadership, with efforts to mobilise more conservative religious and racial forces. The election of non-reform aligned religiously conservative UMNO Youth chief Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki will likely further enhance this trajectory.

Sadly, this sort of approach–old politics with an even deeper conservative religious orientation–will only undermine UMNO further as it cannot attest to any moral high ground with its current leaders. But the denial and insularity of many leaders in the party blind many inside to how destructive this path will be, both for UMNO itself and Malaysia’s social fabric. Offers of defection and disturbing discourse are coming in a climate of desperation as those elected try to hold the party’s debilitation at bay.

Historically, splits in UMNO, legal challenges for the party and defensive responses have been dangerous times in Malaysian politics. This time, however, UMNO is in opposition and the dangers it faces are primarily self-destructive.

This does not mean that there will not be spillovers, creating greater political uncertainty in Malaysia, as new Malaysia still contends with forces of the past who are doing everything in their power to survive and perhaps inflict damage to Malay body politic and Malaysia’s image abroad.

BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled ‘Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore’. She can be reached at

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.            

Tainted Love in UMNO’s Polls

June 19, 2018

Tainted Love in UMNO’s Polls

by Dr. Bridget Welsh

GE-14 sent a clear call for the need for UMNO to change. This month, UMNO delegates are facing another reckoning. Ultimately, the party polls will decide whether the party moves out of Najib’s shadow and works toward becoming the much-needed constructive opposition Malaysia needs, to regain some of its dignity, or whether misplaced loyalties and deep-seated “old” practices will tattoo the taint of past government into the party’s future.–Bridget Welsh


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UMNO General Assembly 2018–No Longer a Laughing Matter

COMMENT | UMNO heads to its party elections at the end of the month. Nominations are in and a real contest is taking shape. This is a contest not just about the future of UMNO but for the future of Malaysia. Despite being decimated in the May 9 elections, UMNO continues to hold onto the support of at least a third of the Malay electorate and its actions in opposition will affect the country’s political direction.

While the steps to rebuilding UMNO’s credibility will require significant internal party reform and the adoption of new forms of political legitimacy and public engagement that are likely to take years to take root, the first test for UMNO will be its party polls.

At the core of this test is whether party stalwarts, tainted by close associations to the disgraceful leadership of Najib Razak, will put the love of the party above self-interest and, finally, long overdue, put the interests of the country before its discredited leaders.

‘Old’ versus ‘new’ politics

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Najib Loyalist Faction led by Zahid Hamidi

Few have confidence in UMNO to do the right thing. This is understandable as they watched the party pilfer the national coffers and pander to the turpitude of the Najib government. This said, the competitive contest for UMNO’s leadership shows that there is indeed some recognition of the party’s new reality in opposition, and some appreciation of the factors that have gotten UMNO into the crisis it now faces. Make no bones about it, this is a crisis for the very survival of the party itself.

There are, however, differences on what those factors are and, importantly, interests of those who actively engage in denial to maintain their power and influence in the party. Broadly, the contest is a battle between “old” and “new” politics, with the former engaged mostly in denial and the latter willing to embrace change, albeit at this juncture, of a conservative nature.

While there are many contenders, there are three main teams – the close Najib allies, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Annuar Musa and Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor; those around veteran leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah; and those around the last-minute entrant for the presidency, Khairy Jamaluddin.

In coming days, the composition of the different teams will likely be finalised as sides are chosen. Zahid has the heaviest burden to bear as Najib’s right-hand man and strongest stalwart and is using the issue of loyalty as part of his appeal to the voting leaders.

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Razaleigh distinguishes himself as one of the few MPs who criticised the 1MDB scandal early on and opposed the controversial Goods and Service Tax (GST). He also stands as a contemporary to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in an era where age and experience are more of an asset than in the past.

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Khairy was among the first to call for the acceptance of the GE14 results and publicly urge for party reforms after the UMNO’s defeat. He is capitalising on his youthfulness. His entrance into the presidential race, after opting initially for a vice-presidency, has however potentially made him a spoiler, with calls of ‘treachery’ circulating as a result of his earlier pledge to support Razaleigh’s candidacy.

There are four important issues that differentiate the political camps: 1) role of racial/religious chauvinism, 2) corruption and use of money politics, 3) the calibre of intellect, and 4) the defence of Najib’s tenure.

Those advocating for “old” UMNO politics push for exclusionary politics, justify graft and the use of these funds for personal power, are largely less adept in understanding policy issues and continue to stand by ‘their’ man, a.k.a Najib.

Those advocating for “new” politics have a more open outlook towards non-Malays and, importantly, see Malays as much more than their race and religion, recognise the excesses of the previous regime and the corrosive influence money has played on the party itself, are more capable of engaging on policy matters, and would like greater distance between Najib and the party’s future.

Zahid’s team personifies the “old” UMNO, with Razaleigh and Khairy both embodying more “new” UMNO although in different ways and, as will be developed below, appeal to different constituencies. Add to this mix, there are three important decisions the party will need to face.

The first is whether to ally with PAS, as the Islamist party would like to continue to control the direction of UMNO toward a more religiously conservative direction. This was what Najib put in motion and arguably resulted in UMNO’s loss of the East Coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan.

The second is what will happen when its former, current (and potential) future leaders will face criminal charges for scandals, from 1MDB to MARA. Those holding positions in the Najib government face a greater likelihood of investigation and possible charges and should shoulder more responsibility for allowing the malfeasance.

The third is the potential threat of illegality of the organisation due to the jeopardy that Najib placed on the party by delaying GE-14 to after April and failing to hold the party elections in a timely fashion before the 18-month period ran out. Know that the party polls are only one of many critical tests the party will face in coming months.

Whether “old” or “new” forces win, it will shape the outcomes of alliances, party identity and trials, with those adopting “old” politics more likely to take a more defensive and racialised posture toward its role in opposition politics. With the choices on different sides, delegates will have to decide how tainted they want the future leadership to be.

Institutions versus identity

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The 2018 party contests will be competitive, arguably among the most competitive since 1987 as effectively all the main positions are being contested. This contest has the potential to split UMNO, especially with Khairy’s late entrance into the race. Going into the contest, the incumbents and “old” politics hold the advantage in part due to division among those advocating a “new” UMNO, but the contests are too early to call as events are evolving.

There is a mix of factors shaping the outcome beyond the camp divisions that make this an interesting race to watch.

Money politics will no longer have the same influence as in the past, reducing the incumbent advantage. In fact, many on the ground understand that greed for money is the poison that has gotten the party to where it is, and in fact the same money already reportedly being circulated as “duit raya” is tainted by the misdeeds of the party’s top leadership. Razaleigh has already pledged not to use money, recognising its toxicity, while others, notably in the “old” team, has reportedly already started distributing funds.

Along with money, incumbents holding official positions are using their organisational advantage. From the use of the information chief position to control over the central office and paramilitary groups within the party, Zahid and team have the greater institutional upper hand. Khairy also will have this institutional advantage as the former Youth chief.

What makes this election different is that many of these organisations have been weakened during Najib’s tenure and are arguably weaker post GE-14. UMNO stalwarts no longer can rely on government agencies and departments to win office. This party election is likely to bring to the fore the erosion of support within the party machinery itself and expose how limited it is without the government behind it.

Quite a few leaders at the branch level are opting not to compete this time around, as there is more of an exodus from the party than before. Some of this is about the drying up of the money stream, but for others it is a sense that the party itself has lost its purpose and identity. It is important to acknowledge that many UMNO members, including many branches, voted for Pakatan Harapan in GE-14. If the old forces win, this exodus is likely to continue.

Another factor that has emerged are the calls for reforms within the party. These have been present, but ultimately the desire to stay in power (and reap the benefits of office) overpowered any calls for change. Changes that did happen regularly empowered those in office, as supposed ‘democratising’ drives were in fact used to strengthen the hold of the top leadership.

Now, many members are openly calling for reforms, a movement that underscores key differences as the party heads to elections. More reform-minded delegates are divided on who they would like to lead this effort.

Najib’s Legacy

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Najib’s 1Malaysia Legacy–1MDB, Shattered UMNO and a Tainted Malaysia

Najib very much overshadows these polls. He is seen to be backing his loyalists. Persisting to seemingly attest to no wrongdoing and dismissing the potential of any imprisonment, Najib continues to be active in political life as a leader behind the scenes.

A scenario is supposedly that Najib will assure his loyalists win to defend him, and if need be, stand ready to have him pardoned if ever (and given where UMNO is now, it is a big “if” in the short and medium term) the party returns to power. Najib anchors the tie to the “old” politics. For his allies, defending Najib is defending themselves.

Ironically, however, Najib has put in place an electoral system that offers the potential for change. In the electoral system he introduced, around 146,000 delegates will be able to vote. These delegates are not just the branch and division chiefs, but Youth, Puteri and Women’s wing delegates, along with additional delegates from larger branches.

There are more voices that can determine the outcome, thereby making the competitive contests interesting. While the system works as an electoral college, with votes from branches and divisions tied to the winner, it is a mistake to assume that there is unanimity at the branch level and that races will be determined before the contest begins.

At the same time, it is more difficult to control these individuals than in the past without the hold on power. It is, after all, Najib who spearheaded the party’s defeat. Internal divisions about Najib’s leadership are brewing among the ranks of the delegates, with resentments being directed against many of the stalwarts who seemed to benefit from Najib’s favour.

Many of the traditional warlords are seen within this group and do not hold the same dominance in this era of opposition uncertainty compared to before. There are no real “state blocks” that can be delivered, although alliances from the key states with larger divisions will be impactful, although here too is potentially less cohesively than in earlier elections.

In contrast, there are two groups that were sidelined that will be particularly important. The first is the youth. This election has the potential to be the biggest generational shift. Khairy is capitalising on this sentiment and driving this movement.

The second is the women, both the Wanita and Puteri members, who collectively make up almost a third of the voting delegates. On the frontline during GE-14, UMNO women witnessed the erosion of support for the party and had to directly face the interference of Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor in their organisations. In this election, a stronger slate is competing for leadership of these party organs and collectively, the female delegates will be decisive in the polls outcome.

As the polls approach, there are many who would like UMNO to wallow in their defeat. They would like the party to suffer for its misdeeds and mismanagement, and for its wounds to fester. The politics of division, confrontation and resentment run deep in Malaysian politics, with anger still simmering. Legitimate questions arise on who should be accountable for the party’s poor leadership and how far and in what ways its leaders should face responsibility for their actions.

GE-14 sent a clear call for the need for UMNO to change. This month, UMNO delegates are facing another reckoning. Ultimately, the party polls will decide whether the party moves out of Najib’s shadow and works toward becoming the much-needed constructive opposition Malaysia needs, to regain some of its dignity, or whether misplaced loyalties and deep-seated “old” practices will tattoo the taint of past government into the party’s future.

BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled ‘Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore’. She can be reached at

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Malaysia as a highly centralised polity in practice under Najib Razak (or Mahathir Mohamad) will continue

March 8, 2018

Malaysia as a highly centralised polity in practice under Najib Razak (or Mahathir Mohamad) will continue

by Kai Ostwald, University of British Columbia

Image result for Najib's Centralisation for Control

GE-14 will be a bitter and acrimonious contest between two exponents of a centralised Federalism

As Najib has given no indication of reversing or even slowing the centralisation trend, a fundamental departure from the status quo is unlikely should UMNO and its allies prevail in the 2018 general election. With Mahathir Mohamad — under whom the consolidation of power in the Prime Minister’s Department gained momentum — at the helm of the opposition coalition, it is unclear whether even Malaysia’s first post-independence change in government would precipitate real change on this front.–Kai Oswald

Election season has once again arrived in Malaysia as the country prepares to hold its 14th general election within the first half of 2018. The competitive nature of the last two general elections has fuelled widespread speculation about the possible defeat of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) for the first time in the country’s post-independence history. This has been especially true following the reincarnation of Mahathir Mohamad as the leader of the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition and the unprecedented changes to the country’s party system. The pending election has also renewed focus on contentious political issues like the ongoing re-delineation of electoral districts and the systematic manipulation of the electoral process, which are both certain to impact the election’s outcome.

A clear commonality in these discussions is the overwhelming focus on federal-level politics. To someone unfamiliar with Malaysia’s political history, this may seem surprising in light of the country’s formal institutional structure, which theoretically involves significant decentralisation to state and local levels. The systematically constructed Regional Authority Index, for example, which captures the formal authority of sub-national governments, ranks Malaysia as the most decentralised country in Southeast Asia ahead of countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. Given this, why does the federal level so substantially overshadow sub-national politics in Malaysia?

There is a simple answer to why this has occurred: the UMNO-led government has been systematically hollowing out sub-national government autonomy in Malaysia for decades. While this process has been a consistent feature of the country’s post-independence years, it accelerated during Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure as Prime Minister and has advanced further under Najib Razak. The result is that Malaysia now functions as a highly centralised polity in practice. This has important implications for contemporary politics in the country and its broader development.

The gradual usurping of resources and competencies by the federal government is driven by its efforts to consolidate power in UMNO’s inner core. Undermining sub-national autonomy not only insulates against opposition challengers but also protects the party’s inner core from intra-party challengers.

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Malaysia’s Seat of Federal Power–The Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya

Why does this matter for Malaysia’s contemporary politics? The overwhelming beneficiary of centralisation — especially over the past three decades — has been the Prime Minister’s Department. A variety of new agencies, programs and statutory bodies are housed within the Department and thereby bypass the numerous institutional constraints that faced Malaysia’s early post-independence leadership. These institutions have substantially increased the Prime Minister’s capacity to directly shape Malaysia’s economic, social and political development. With the stakes for the control of the Department perpetually growing, Prime Minister Najib Razak and other UMNO elites have been willing to take greater risks to ensure the continuity of their power.

Despite being constrained by diminishing autonomy and dwindling budgets, sub-national politics has not lost all relevance: securing control of state- and local-level governments has improved the quality of the opposition. The opposition is able to accrue meaningful governing experience rather than being perpetually relegated to observer status, as is the case in most other single party-dominant systems. This has given the opposition an opportunity to demonstrate alternative governance models to the electorate and has expanded the platform for policy experimentation. Independent of the normative value of more pluralistic politics, this nascent form of inter-state policy competition has animated political debates in Malaysia and produced some positive spillovers for governance in general.

Ultimately, much is at stake in the relationship between the federal and sub-national governments. Perceptions of federal overreach have fueled local resentment in some areas, which has in turn spawned identity-based movements that challenge core principles of the contemporary Malaysian identity.

In significant opposition strongholds like Penang and Selangor, federal overreach has deepened the cleavage between the ruling UMNO-led coalition and the population. This hinders political reconciliation and alienates substantial segments of the electorate. Just as importantly, if the theoretical benefits promised by decentralisation are taken seriously, then returning some autonomy to local tiers of government may provide a much-needed boost to help Malaysia escape the middle income trap, which has proven resistant to other efforts.

Image result for Najib Razak-Zahid Hamidi Partnership


As Najib has given no indication of reversing or even slowing the centralisation trend, a fundamental departure from the status quo is unlikely should UMNO and its allies prevail in the 2018 general election. With Mahathir Mohamad — under whom the consolidation of power in the Prime Minister’s Department gained momentum — at the helm of the opposition coalition, it is unclear whether even Malaysia’s first post-independence change in government would precipitate real change on this front.

Kai Ostwald is an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy & Global Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.

This commentary is based on ‘Federalism Without Decentralization: Power Consolidation in Malaysia’, which was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Economies.