Amidst all the debate about the rights and wrongs of last week’s war of words between the Palace and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration, one thing is flying under the radar: the role of Malaysia’s largest and oldest party, Umno, in the entire affair. Political analyst BRIDGET WELSH examines how Umno stands to gain from the ongoing tumult.
It’s been an eventful week for Malaysian politics.
The battle for democracy has opened up on many fronts – in a constitutional crisis where there are disagreements about the power to different actors to revoke the emergency; in a legitimacy crisis where Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government has been seen to insult the king who was pivotal in allowing Muhyiddin’s then not-proven majority government to take office; in a debasement of parliament that witnessed the Speaker of the House Azhar Harun thwart decency and dignity in his handling of debate and sexist silencing of women; and in the streets and hallways where Malaysia’s youth stood up for fairness in three different protests – #konvoilawan, #hartaldoctors and #lawan.
Democracy is being attacked, but democrats are fighting back.
Amidst these nation-defining struggles, there is one taking place that is seen but not fully discussed – Umno’s attempts to return to power and the consequences of these attempts. At 75, the grand old party remains determined to reclaim top spot by hook or by crook, and the events this week were pivotally shaped by this dynamic.
As the latest constitutional crisis evolved, Umno leaders made conflicting calls. The first statement, by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – who wants to retain his position – called for the resignation of Muhyiddin and his government.
A second statement by Umno Vice-President and Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri – claimed full support for the PN administration.
A third position articulated by former prime minister Najib Razak on Facebook called for Muhyiddin to resign.
Divided, Umno stands
The various ‘all-none-one resign’ public positions showcase the different interests of the actors involved. These interests are personal and instrumental – tied to securing a ‘get out of jail card’ and/or getting or maintaining positions.
Subsequent reports of possible interim government negotiations led by Umno, and a persistent offer of leadership by party veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah highlight the diversity of contenders for national leadership from Umno, and within Umno itself.
While the party’s leadership divisions have become clear to see, this week’s events suggest a common purpose —To return to a position of power, dominance and privilege.
Their arguments rest on three dimensions:
1) An appeal to Malay rulers based on their view that Umno represents the Malay community and these institutions. This week’s events caused both PAS and Bersatu leaders perceived to be insulting the king. Despite holding important positions in the PN government, UMNO – with the most seats in the current parliament – is painting itself as the alternative, the ‘loyal’ Malay party.
2) Closely connected to the above, Umno is arguing for a return to the past. It’s an argument coloured by amnesia and a dismissal of the harm caused to Malaysia from the 1MDB scandal, weakening of institutions and deepening of racialised politics, and their role in current pandemic policies. Rather, their edited portrayal focuses on stability, performance in the economy and comparatively greater competency than what’s currently on offer.
3) Finally, Umno is reaffirming to its traditional allies that they will have the party’s protection. Umno believes it has the confidence of the business community and with it, Umno’s political base will have access to the coffers that have facilitated the construction of a patronage machine, supposedly to protect the Malays as a whole but in actuality to primarily protect a handful of Malay elites.
These pro-Umno arguments are being made at a time when the party is divided, weak, poorly led by leaders focused on themselves, and facing competition from Malay-based parties in government and in opposition.
How Muhyiddin’s politics benefits Umno
Umno is trying to use the constitutional crisis as an opportunity. The fiasco in handling the revocation of the emergency ordinances was provoked by fear of a vote against Perikatan Nasional, a vote that would have in all likelihood shown that PN did not hold the majority.
It’s part and parcel of the tactical survivalist politics that have characterised Muhyiddin’s government. The strong response to criticism by Bersatu and PAS – both tainted by charges of misleading parliament and failing to follow expected procedures respecting the role of the monarchs – extend a pattern to survivalist politics to include a challenge from within.
No matter what the costs are to the country, Muhyiddin’s government will fight on before they turn over power to either opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim or Umno.
Ironically, the decision of placing Ismail Sabri as DPM to survive earlier in July has backfired, creating vulnerability for Bersatu and PAS that a resignation from the top will open the government to an Umno takeover.
PN’s pattern of reactive decisions based on survival mode have repeatedly backfired during Muyhiddin’s tenure – as the handling of the revocation of the emergency and its ordinances show.
A key question, however, is whether the arguments made by Umno — tied to an old pattern of race-based politics and notions of a dominant supremacy — will gain traction. At issue is not just the fate of a party and its leaders, but the fate of a nation and the quality of its democracy.
In the Sheraton Move, those engaged in the power grab framed choices as an ‘all Malay government’ versus one Malay-led but with more multi-ethnic inclusion. The decision to support the Sheraton Move was conservative and reaffirmed race-based politics.
The effect has been a government that does not have the trust of a majority of Malaysians and further erosion of democratic institutions. A similar decision at this juncture, supporting a return to Umno dominance without elections will not allow the process of democracy to move forward.
It will not recognise that most Malaysians, who rejected Umno’s governance in 2018, want a different future.
BRIDGET WELSH is currently an Honorary Research Associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (Unari), based in Kuala Lumpur. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies, and a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Centre. Her writings can be found at bridgetwelsh.com.
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