THERE used to be a time when you could look to Umno and at least get a handful of progressive politicians. Voices of reason that surfaced during instances of racial and religious tension and gave us hope that Barisan Nasional, for all its historical namesake, could be a beacon of harmony and diversity that was promised since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957.
When Najib Razak was installed as the country’s sixth prime minister in 2009, his inaugural speech suggested openness and a government committed to dialogue. He lifted the ban on two opposition publications, released 13 detainees held under the Internal Security Act (ISA), and vowed to review the archaic law. There was a glimmer of a hopeful start to a new Malaysia.
He even came up with 1Malaysia, a national philosophy to strengthen the country’s bonds of unity and harmony. Compared with Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s futuristic Wawasan 2020, and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s experimental Islam Hadhari, 1Malaysia had an unequivocal message of nationhood. A reflective solution for a nation that had suffered gripping authoritarianism and dramatic industrialisation for the past two decades. Fast forward seven years, 1Malaysia is now a national joke; a postmodern slogan stickered on just about anything to mimic authenticity and a nostalgia long gone. In recent times, Najib’s calls and speeches for unity ring hollow; meaningless and as quickly spent as BR1M handouts.
While it was too much to expect change from the prime minister, there were four known hopefuls within Umno who, at the time, would go against the party grain. Khairy Jamaluddin, Saifuddin Abdullah, Tengku Razaleigh and Nur Jazlan Mohamed were the ones the public and media would turn to for more progressive perspectives and moderate politics. What the public wanted and needed was proof that Umno had everyone’s best interests at heart and not just their own. And these four provided that glimmer of possibility.
Years ago, it would not have been unusual for Khairy to call out his own party, the conservatives, and his own government’s actions. He is an articulate orator, highly respected and regarded as fearless. He was the only politician from Umno who would engage in debates with the opposition and different leaders of the country’s civil societies. Say what you like, but Khairy was one who was ready to prove that Umno was willing to engage and be self-critical. But where has that Khairy gone to? During the heated revelations of the 1MDB scandal, he maintained silence and stayed on his party’s safe side during last year’s internal fissure within Umno. He has since focused on his ministerial duties, attended to his social media image and the occasional criticism of the opposition.
Nuz Jazlan, now deputy home minister, was formerly head of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). During that time, the revival of the auditing and investigative arm of Parliament was regarded as a bold move. He himself knew the responsibility that would come with the role, mentioning in an interview that “it’s a job that you would not wish upon your enemy because it can kill political careers”. He was viewed as moderate and knew as much as anyone that Umno needed change. The timing was no coincidence: he was offered the position of deputy home minister as the PAC’s investigations into 1MDB mounted. Now with his focus elsewhere, the auditing arm of Parliament that once commanded transparency has faded into irrelevance.
Tengku Razaleigh, one of the party’s old guards, has seen Umno evolve over his five decades of membership. His political views often reflect those of the earlier Malaysian years: a nation united and its political members’ duty as statesmen. Despite his challenging political history with Umno, Ku Li, as he is affectionally known, has risen above the murky political landscape. He occasionally (and gently) criticised the government, reminding us of a nation that had hopeful ambitions after achieving Independence. That he was at one point recommended for the position of prime minister in an unsigned statuary declaration is indicative of the support he earned. But like many in the recent year, he has fallen silent and has thrown his support behind Najib – not surprising, considering his difficult history with Dr Mahathir.
Out of the four, Saifuddin Abdullah is the only one with consistent principles but has faded out of the limelight since he left Umno and joined PKR in 2015. The former deputy minister for higher education was a true progressive to his word. At the constituency level, he initiated consultative councils, a form of deliberative democracy where all parties engaged in constructive discussions on issues important to them. He brought this to practice with the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and the tabling of the now-disembodied National Harmony Bill. Saifuddin often expressed his politics with conviction, putting him at odds with the rest of his Umno colleagues. His views are nowadays diluted among the already “generally progressive” opposition party, relegating his voice miles behind the coalition’s frontlines.
Since the heat of the 1MBD revelations and the mass culling of Umno’s dissenting members, the party has maintained its discipline. No one speaks out of order and not without the permission of its leadership. The party’s message is clear to its members: defend Umno, its leadership and what it stands for. Leading up to the 14th General Election, and in the face of growing religious, racial, and political tensions, silence is to be expected from this party that once, a long time ago, championed for all Malaysians.
We cannot now expect a party – that, ironically, during its annual general assemblies, always calls for change – to practice the very thing it preaches. Dr Mahathir’s leadership years may have taught Umno that political survival has its bedrock rooted in an iron fist, subservience and blind solidarity. But the survival, if not progression of a nation, depends on its collective’s ability to criticise, self-reflect and grow. Not especially if the pestilence of silence and the dominance of political fear is breathed into Umno’s progressives, the very voices of the change it so desperately needs.
* Aziff Azuddin is a freelance journalist who enjoys engaging in, documenting and dissecting Malaysian culture. He is currently pursuing a Masters in sociology.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.