Party conferences are seldom thrilling but this week’s gathering of over 2,500 ruling-party faithful in Kuala Lumpur has the eyes of the nation upon it. For, as Umno goes, so goes the country.
Since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957, Umno’s chosen leader has always become the country’s leader. This year the torch is passing from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the prime minister, to Datuk Seri Najib Razak, his deputy, who is standing uncontested as Umno leader and due to be sworn in as Malaysia’s sixth prime minister next week.
But his ascension to the top has its difficulties. A resurgent opposition is riding a wave of discontent as the country slides into recession. Some types of old-fashioned repression, like the decision to suspend two opposition newspapers, no longer work in a digital age. The party is widely seen as corrupt and self-serving. Its record on economic growth and maintaining order still attracts support from older Malaysians but counts for much less with younger voters. Everyone in Umno agrees that trouble lies ahead. Can it be averted?
Najib talks of “massive changes”. But Malaysians have heard it all before, most recently in March 2008, after Umno’s dreadful showing in a parliamentary election. The spasm of introspection soon turned into a blame game and Abdullah was forced to say he would resign. The ensuing scramble for positions in Umno has done little to change a widespread view that the party has been in power too long. The only person willing to stand against Najib, the consummate insider,was Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a veteran outsider. Such a contest might have produced a debate about the party’s direction. Instead, Tengku Razaleigh’s candidacy was quashed by party chiefs.
The underlying problem — for Umno and Malaysia — is, to use the favoured euphemism, “money politics”, meaning backhanders paid for public-sector contracts or, where Umno is concerned, seats at the high table. On March 17 the party’s disciplinary board said it had found 15 members guilty of money politics. They included Datuk Ali Rustam, chief minister of Malacca, who was campaigning to become deputy party leader. He was duly disqualified. Ali did not, however, step down as chief minister, nor is he facing criminal charges. Such episodes make talk of reform ring hollow. For all his fumbling, Abdullah seemed to recognise this. It is unclear whether anyone in the new ruling circle does.