Reforming UMNO is a futile exercise

Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

My late grandfather used to explain the meaning of our flag, Jalur Gemilang, to me when I was a child. He would remark it reflected Malaysians’ oneness, regardless of race or religion. He described what it was like to see the flag flying high for the first time in Dataran Merdeka. It represented hope, independence, and pride.

In one respect, my grandfather was correct: we should be proud of our country. Nobody should be able to tell us how to manage our country. Our flag is the epitome of our nation; it represents our independence and our home. I am pleased to be a Malaysian, and I have always hoped for the day when we will be able to stand as one people. He, too, was a founding member of UMNO.

When he saw the strength of communalism, he joined the movement. In those days, the Malays were weak; poverty, a lack of education, and a severe lack of job left them poor and unorganised. He was a straightforward individual. He couldn’t afford to send his children to university, but he knew they deserved a brighter future than he did. UMNO was the future.

Despite this, he remained optimistic that the Malays could join with the other ethnicities to establish a greater Malaysia. He knew it would be difficult; Chinese, Indians, and other races had long dominated the country, and the Malays were scared of losing their identity. The British colonials were content to maintain the status quo.

But now things were different. The British had finally left, and the ideal of a better Malaysia, free of colonial shackles, had come true. The British had promised that their departure would usher in a new era for Malaysia. They stated that new elections will be held to determine who would be the country’s ruler. But that was not to be.

It took a lengthy war, spearheaded by UMNO, but in the end Malaya was liberated from British domination. Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first prime minister, was motivated to bring the nation into a new era during a liberal rule. No more colonialism was to exist. There will be no more oppression of one race by another. There will be no more oppression.

However, this was not to be. Tunku was not even free from the colonial mentality. Maybe the British left, but their thoughts lingered.

The concept of a single national Malaysian race did not exist. A Malay nation would be condemned to failure like any other. As a result, the seeds of ethnic conflict were planted. These tensions eventually spilled into bloodshed. On May 1, 1969, a race riot jolted the nation out of its hope for a better future. Soon after, Tunku realised that Malaysia was doomed as previously. The party is at a fork in the road. It could either go back to its old ways or welcome change.

As a result, the period of chauvinistic and bigoted Malay nationalism dawned. The Islamists’ influence expanded, and with it, their influence on the government. The great infidel was no longer the British, but Chinese and Indians from our own backyards.

At the moment, UMNO rules the roost in Malaysia. It has won ten consecutive Malaysian elections, having won every single one from its beginning until its demise in the 14th General Election. It has become much more ingrained in Malay tradition and history.

The objective of this piece is thus to call into question the basic essence and raison d’être of the party’s existence. The debate is whether or not UMNO needs to be reformed in order to survive.

The first question that should be explored is why reform is necessary at all.

Today, there are numerous members within the party, such as Khairy Jamaluddin and Shahril Hamdan, who are committed to reforming and updating the party in order for it to thrive in this day and age. Their pleas for reform are not new, but rather a reoccurring topic that appears every now and then.

These calls for reform can be traced all the way back to Tun Hussein Onn, who asked for the party to welcome non-Malays into the party, to Anwar Ibrahim (then a member of UMNO), who called for democratisation. There are numerous causes that can be recognised as the source of this reoccurring motif.

The first is that public opinion occasionally leans toward liberalism. This can be attributed mostly to the influence of other cultures and societies, as well as the growing popularity of foreign news websites and social media websites (particularly Facebook and Twitter), which expose the younger generation to a broader range of views and viewpoints. When the New Economic Policy was established, there were no smartphones or the internet, so unhappiness was mostly limited to closed circles. Because of increasing access to knowledge, the younger generation is more likely to challenge and criticise the status quo.

The second reason is that, as new generations come and go, there will always be some who rebel against the political and social order. This is seen in industrialised civilizations where revolt is largely extinct but still exists in the form of fringe elements. In the case of UMNO, the younger generation of party members, such as Khairy Jamaluddin and Shahril Hamdan, is more liberal than the Old Guards.

These are the two most typical causes for calls for reform or renewal, yet they are also the reasons why these appeals go unheeded. When the popular sentiment turns toward liberalism, those in power will be ready to join on board in order to maintain their position. Those in power, however, will revert to a more ‘nationalistic’ position as soon as the mood turns back. This is why reform calls tend to come in waves. It’s also the reason it never lasts.

This brings us to the third and most essential reason: the privileged have no genuine motivation to change. Power, money, respect, and influence are all available to the Old Guards. Why should they give up any of it, let alone everything? Moreover, the whole party itself has become a vast bureaucratic mechanism to keep the status quo in place. Every branch and member of the party will be vehemently opposed to any attempt at reform. They will argue that the race comes first, and that any attempt at reform would jeopardise national security. But, if you have everything, is it worth risking it all?

Any attempt at reform will be pointless when the current system is so entrenched. As a result, efforts for reform are doomed to fail. In the end, no matter how religious or enlightened a monarch is, he or she must work within the constraints of the system, which in this country is one of communal politics.

The question that needs to be raised is why there is community politics at all. Why do we have racial political parties? The reason is simple: because it has worked and continues to work for the rulers. While the people of this country may be dissatisfied with the current quo, they are too terrified of what might happen if something radical changes. They, like the Old Guard, have everything to lose and little to gain.

Those in power have ingrained the concept of racial conflict in the people’s minds. This is their most potent and effective weapon. Fear of what might happen if they step out of line keeps everyone in line, and this prevents even the most well-intentioned from reforming the system. Those who dare to speak out against it face the consequences of their actions.

It is heartbreaking to watch a people so engulfed in fear and apathy. But why should they be held accountable? People are inherently fearful of change, but change is required if this country is to progress.

Is there any ray of hope for this country? Perhaps. The process may be difficult and unpleasant, but progress toward unity can only begin when people are willing to confront their concerns. The issue with community politics is the lack of togetherness. There was never any, and there will never be any. People are too divided to rally behind a single purpose. If anything, hatred is the only thing that can bring them together.

The UMNO my late grandfather presented to me is dead. However, it is possible that this is not the end, but rather a fresh beginning. The party has strayed from its basic principles and been compelled to compromise its essential values in order to empower the country’s rulers. To right the wrongs of the past, a new political party must be formed that prioritises reform and unity above all else. Malaysia has a new beginning.

This is not an appeal to any one political party. This is a plea to every government official, politician, public servant, and regular citizen in this country: it is time to put aside our differences and work together for the betterment of our country. What has occurred in the last fifty years should never be repeated.

The current administration is inept and does not represent the people. If we do not act now, we risk plunging into even more discord. I implore you to think about this offer; if there is one thing I learned from my late grandfather, it is that we should only look forward.

As regards the UMNO’s ‘reformists,’ I question their reasons for changing a party that has lost its course. Isn’t it easier to launch a new party than to reform an old one that has deteriorated? Will any of the new party’s members be willing to come out about their goals and principles throughout the campaign? No. This is because they do not want to lose their seats as a result of public protest or being unable to properly fulfil their terms as government officials. It’s impossible for me to check their truthfulness, but I don’t see any indications of sincerity. They simply do not want to face the danger of standing out for their beliefs, so they conceal their identities behind a veil of anonymity. It is impossible to appreciate people who lack conviction in their beliefs.

As I see it, reformists might dismiss this by means of rationalisations and justifications, but, in the end, everything boils down to results. And the results are in, and they are unmistakable. The government is tainted. Its ways have not changed. And there is no indication that it will change in the near future. Indeed, it appears to be becoming more entrenched by the day.

And what about our national unity? Gone. Separated by sub-nationality, religion, and even race. All of the things we have struggled to defend are eroding day by day. In this regard, we are no different from any other third-world country.

Our standards are gradually slipping behind those of our neighbours. I wonder if this is what our predecessors fought for. Was the blood poured in the war for independence in vain?

People are enraged. They are disheartened. They are fed up with corruption, deception, and injustice.

I ask once more: Where are your guts, UMNO?
Do you really want to be the leader of this country?
Do you truly want to be the king over a population of 30 million people?
Do you have what it takes to lead a country forward?
Do you even have what it takes to rule for another five years?
Do you even have a right to live?

I ask you, UMNO’s “reformists,” do you have a future?

Khairy, do you have any ‘guts’ at all? Not just in your name or in your title, but in your guts. Do you have the guts to lead the country into the future?

Will you continue to stand by and watch as your own party annihilates itself from inside, Hishamuddin? Or are you going to do anything about it?

I ask you, all of you in UMNO, would you succumb to the temptation to be corrupt? Will you succumb to the urge to cheat and lie?

I ask Malaysians: Will you succumb to the desire to hate?

If these’reformists’ are honest in their efforts to reform UMNO, I commend their bravery. But will they be successful? No.

It is way too late for that at this point. People have come to tolerate corruption and injustice as a way of life. For far too long, it has been a part of their life. The same is true of racial politics. For far too long, it has been a part of our culture.

If’reformists’ want to see change, they must fight for it now. They must battle harder than they have ever fought before, just as our forebears did throughout the American Revolution. For change will not occur if we simply sit back and wait for it to happen.

It is way too late for that at this point.

It’s strange that the’reformists’ desire to eradicate race politics while being divided along racial lines themselves. The precise personification of what they claim to want to eliminate. If they truly want to see change, if they truly want reform, they must put aside their prejudiced feelings and come together as one for the greater good. In a nutshell, they must cease being hypocrites.

However, I have seen no indication that the ‘reformists’ are inclined to do so. I’m becoming increasingly pessimistic about this country’s future.
Recent events have demonstrated to me that we have passed the point of no return. The ‘reformist’ faction inside UMNO has done a lot to try to save the sinking ship that is UMNO, but they have all failed.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’m sick and tired of seeing the ‘reformists’ fail again and time again. All of their reform efforts have resulted in failure.

If they do not put their money where their mouth is, they will continue to fail.

So I question all Malaysians, and especially UMNO members, why vote for a party that promises to bring about change when that same party has proven to be ineffective at doing so? Why squander your vote?

Only time will tell where this nation is heading to. Where is the future of Malaysia headed towards? Where are you headed towards? Are you happy with the future that is awaiting you and your children? What are you going to do to change it?

After all, it’s your future.




Business writer at The Malaysian Reserve. I write other things here too, you know.

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Fayyadh Jaafar

Fayyadh Jaafar

Business writer at The Malaysian Reserve. I write other things here too, you know.

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