Tuesday, December 06, 2011

UMNO Hardliners versus Najib and UMNO

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan

Fellow columnist and UMNO Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin reportedly said that UMNO is "as more progressive and liberal now". If this is truly the new image of UMNO, the party may have changed while nobody was looking.

Nevertheless, I am pleased to see Khairy urging UMNO to be "more progressive and liberal". Even he has a lot of ctaching up to do before he can come to the level of Deputy Minister of Higher Education Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (right), I do hope he succeeds. UMNO needs more progressive leaders.

In the ranks of the UMNO Supreme Council members, Saifuddin has been quite consistent in calling for change in UMNO. He has made some very good suggestions and persisted even when party members went against him. I have lost count of how many times he has become the target of UMNO's cyber troopers.

Some of Saifuddin's remarks, especially of late, have been remarkably forthright. In a recent interview, he said that there are three groups in UMNO. The first always believes in the need for change and does not wait for the Prime Minister to chart the course. The second also wants change but its commitment depends on what the Prime Minister says. The third does not any major change because it is happy with the status quo.

According to the Deputy Minister, the third group is "unfortunately the biggest" in UMNO today. It comprises what he calls the "hardliners". He is right. And these "hardliners" are actually Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's biggest enemies in UMNO.

As an aside, let me suggest that the progressives in UMNO look at the experience of PAS. The PAS progressives have more or less successfully taken over many senior positions and they are now playing a key role in shaping policies in the Islamic party. They started their work almost a decade ago, if not even earlier and the fruits of their labour are ready for the picking only now. Their journey to bring about change was long and arduous with some of them having to face repeated accusations of being disloyal to the "original struggle". To follow in PAS's footsteps, the progressives in UMNO must ensure that they have the required stamina and commitment.

Coming back to UMNO, Najib has been making the right moves since the beginning of his premiership (April, 2009). The 1Malaysia slogan was, and is, a good idea.I wish the country did not need to be reminded that this land belongs to every Malaysian regardless of his race or religion. But since some people are so adept at stirring divisive sentiments, the slogan is a much-needed reminder.

The ideas in the New Economic Model, especially those in the first part that Najib launched in March 2010, were refreshing. After decades of massive state intervention in the economy with numerous unintended consequences having a Prime Minister who talks about liberalisation brings a breath of fresh air.

Similarly, after decades of living under repressive laws, many civil liberties activists were excited to hear Najib announcing major reforms on the eve of Malaysia Day (June 15) this year. They had been campaigning against laws like the Internal Security Act(ISA) and curbs on our freedom for so long that the historic speech by Najib brought on euphoric response. But UMNO hardliners seem bent on defeating these moves. Or, at least, the "hardliner mentality" is certainly putting major obstacles in his path towards transformation.

While the Prime Minister and UMNO President talked about national unity, some top UMNO leaders continued to play the race and religion cards in the run up to and during the recent UMNO General Assembly. The usual scare stories were repeated, accusing non-Malays, particularly those in DAP, of wanting to remove our constitutional monarchy, destroy Islam and wreck the Malay language. All were clearly designed to create a "them versus us" environment in the country.

While Najib talked about making Malaysia a competitive and liberal economy, groups of vocal UMNO members joined forces under the guise of various NGOs to derail his plans.

Perhaps their biggest success was in forcing Najib to create institutions that were not stated in his original economic transformation agenda. Two examples come to mind--Teraju and the bumiputera unit in MRT Corp--both of which further entrench illiberal affirmative action in our economy.

And even though Najib sounded quite radical when announcing his plan for legal reform, the radicalism clearly did not trickle down to his party machinery. The country is now hearing many UMNO leaders defending unnecessary restrictions o our fundamental liberties in the Peaceful Assembly Bill passed by Dewan Rakyat last week.

It appears that there is now a big gap between Najib and UMNO. He may be articulating some progressive ideas, but UMNO as a party is refusing to follow his lead. Najib and UMNO are becoming two distinct contesting parties. The contest between Najib and UMNO is an exciting one to observe and I certainly hope that Najib will win.

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