CAN a leopard change its spots? Can Umno truly change?
This question cropped up after Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is facing 87 corruption charges, returned as Umno president after about six months of garden leave. So far, that is the most number of charges faced by an Umno leader.
The party, according to Umno grassroots leader Senator Khairul Azwan Harun, is changing, albeit rather slowly. Umno leaders have now started to talk about issues relevant to the rakyat’s livelihood and Pakatan Harapan’s unfulfilled election promises, he said.
“This is what Umno members want to see, that Umno leaders must be able to carry the torch as the Opposition, meaning we become the credible check and balance to keep the government on its toes, always.
“The more Umno leaders embrace this role of being a check and balance to PH, the more relevant Umno will become,” he said.
Khairul Azwan, who is popularly known as Azwan Bro, said he would like to emphasise that since Umno members and the grassroots have embraced the party’s new role, party leaders – whether it’s the president or supreme council members – taking unreasonable actions could jeopardise the party’s efforts to change.
For James Chin, director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania, the fact that Umno is now in the Opposition has already changed it. “It has never experienced this,” he pointed out.
Another way in which the party, which was formed in 1957, has changed is that it is no longer afraid of “sleeping” with PAS, the academic contended. Previously, he said, Umno was worried that the Islamist party was using it to get into power.
In terms of ideology, Chin said Umno has changed from ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) to ketuanan Melayu Islam (Malay Islam supremacy).
“Umno is all about Malay communalism and PAS is about abusing Islam,” the Prime Minister’s media adviser Datuk A. Kadir Jasin said in a message he sent to me via WhatsApp recently after reading my article on Umno secretary-general Tan Sri Annuar Musa asserting that the party was reinventing itself (“While Pakatan Harapan fights within, Umno rebuilds”, Sunday Star, June 30; available online at bit.ly/star_umno).
“Umno/PAS combine will eventually Talibanise the country because already PAS is prevailing over Umno in the villages. PAS is organising the Umno/PAS Raya open houses because they don’t need money,” said Kadir, a Bersatu supreme council member.
“They are driven by jihad against PH by demonising the DAP. Umno is weak because they don’t have a lot of money now.”
Khairul Azwan said Kadir is playing with “naughty words”.
“I won’t say Umno will be racist. It has never been a racist party. It is seen as racist as we fight for Malay and bumiputra rights. Don’t forget we have a higher stage, which is Barisan Nasional, to unite our multiracial nation and fight for everyone,” he said.
On why Ahmad Zahid is back as party president, Khairul said he thinks that the Bagan Datoh MP felt that the six months leave was enough for his deputy, Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, to lead Umno.
“Maybe Zahid feels that with the mandate he got as president, he has the responsibility to continue in office.
“Probably Zahid doesn’t want to see his position continue to be inactive. And because of that, he thought that he should come back and lead the party again.”
Universiti Utara Malaysia political science lecturer Kamarul Zaman Yusoff said Ahmad Zahid is back as Umno president in anticipation of a big event occurring. Most guesses centre on the transition of power from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as that event, he said.
“In that, going by the closeness of Zahid to Anwar, his return could be to help facilitate Anwar claiming the prime minister’s post, some would say for something else stored for him in return for his help, in the quid pro quo fashion,” he said.
However, Kamarul Zaman said now that Ahmad Zahid is in control, Umno’s good progress seems to have stagnated a little with a few Umno leaders as well as people at the grassroots voicing their dissatisfaction with his return.
“However, he was quick to consolidate his power by appointing five new committee members and two new state chairmen besides putting in the now very popular (Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) as the chief advisor to BN,” he said.
Chin pointed out that Ahmad Zahid had no choice but to make a presidential comeback. The politician, he said, needed a platform to remain relevant otherwise people would ignore him.
“As Umno president, he will have to be involved in party events even if they don’t want him,” Chin said, adding that former Umno president Najib has social media to maintain a high profile while his successor does not.
It has been two weeks since Ahmad Zahid returned as president – what is the difference between his leadership and Mohamad Hasan’s six months of leadership?
The Rantau assemblyman’s six months did not see much progress in terms of party reforms, except for winning three by-elections, noted Khairul Azwan. Probably, he said, Mohamad Hasan had a limited mandate as being an acting president didn’t give him much power.
“But that is beside the point, while you are the acting president you have to find ways to exercise your leadership,” he said.
In the last two weeks, Ahmad Zahid – who is probably more politically strategic in his thinking – made a move that may not be acceptable to some party members and grassroots supporters, but he still did it: He appointed Najib as chairman of the Barisan Nasional advisory council.
“My point is Zahid stamped his mark as the party president. Whether that move was in the right direction is for members to decide.
“As a leader, Zahid will take all the risks based on his beliefs and convictions. He believes that his move will bring good to the party, so he made it. In this case, bringing back Najib as a leader in BN,” Khairul Azwan said.
There was talk when Mohamad Hasan was acting Umno president that he was leaning towards PM and Bersatu chairman Dr Mahathir while Ahmad Zahid leaned towards Prime Minister-in-waiting and PKR president Anwar.
Some political observers speculated that there was a fight for the “soul” of the party between Team Ahmad Zahid and Team Mohamad Hasan.
Khairul Azwan disagreed, saying that when both were elected party leaders, they were from one team.
“I don’t see any problem between Zahid and Mat Hasan. They gel well. They have similar ways of thinking.
“Of course, the difference is Zahid is facing all the possible charges and Mat Hasan is seen as cleaner because he doesn’t have legal charges pending.
“I thought that Zahid sacrificed a lot by allowing Mat Hasan to lead the party,” he said.
Chin agreed, saying the difference between the two leaders is more a matter of style.
“Many Umno people think Zahid is too closely linked with Najib and kleptomania. Mat Hasan looks clean compared with Zahid,” he said.
On the surface, Kamarul Zaman said, things seem to be OK between Team Ahmad Zahid and Team Mohamad Hasan, with Mohamad Hasan pledging his support for Ahmad Zahid.
However, things on the ground are quite different, with people aligned with Mohamad Hasan especially showing uneasiness at Ahmad Zahid’s return, he said.
“It is easy to understand their sentiments because when Zahid left, Umno was in shambles, but now, after Umno has been getting much stronger, with three consecutive wins in by-elections, and with Umno MPs and assemblymen no longer defecting, all of a sudden he returns, leaving Mat Hasan in the cold and putting the limelight back on himself.
“And this even though he is still facing all those charges while Mat Hasan was recently cleared by MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) of graft allegations,” he said.
On whether Ahmad Zahid favoured Anwar and Mohamad Hasan, Dr Mahathir, Khairul Azwan said it is a rumour.
But both leaders, he added, are party men.
“I don’t think Mat Hasan went to Dr Mahathir to look for help or even to negotiate anything. I don’t think Mat Hasan is that type of person.
“Zahid, it could be due to his relationship with Anwar. Maybe there was casual talk in Parliament.
“But at the end of the day, both – whatever decision they make – will come back to the party to decide collectively as party men,” he said.
(In the late 1990s when Ahmad Zahid was Umno Youth chief, he was in the same team as then Umno deputy president and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar.)
So is Umno pro-Dr Mahathir or Anwar?
Among Umno leaders, Khairul Azwan perceives some are leaning towards Dr Mahathir while some look to Anwar.
But of late, he said, Umno leaders have indicated that they will put the party’s interests first.
“We need to get back on track, especially with our cooperation with PAS. When he goes down to the ground and meets grassroots leaders and members, they want Umno to remain on the path of political collaboration with PAS.
“For the past two or three months, generally, Umno members have shown positive endorsement of this cooperation. Now they look forward to more progress on the cooperation.
“The biggest challenge is to produce a result and best outcome from the cooperation, particularly in the allocation of electoral seats,” he said.
Chin believes that Umno would prefer Anwar because the PKR president supposedly has many “scandals” the party could exploit, whereas Dr Mahathir has a strong Malay nationalist brand.
“Tun’s brand is strong in rural Malay areas,” said Chin, adding that rural Malays are still suspicious about the sodomy allegations Anwar faced before. Anwar is also seen as being too close to DAP and non-Malay interests, he said.
The leopard called Umno, according to Khairul Azwan, wants to be the best Opposition in the country and continue to reform the party.
It is also not too bothered about the struggle for the Prime Minister’s post, as it is confident it will be the government after GE15.
The leopard will roar again.