UMNO has for some years functioned as a pervasive safety net that has provided it with a reservoir of goodwill.
It was to the previously ubiquitous Umno wakil rakyat (elected representative) that people turned to in the aftermath of storms, floods and other needs.
Umno, its entire apparatus and webs, has offered relief to many. When the wife of an Alor Star-based reporter was in March 1989 “banished” to Kahang, Johor, for her first posting upon graduation, he went to see the director of the State Road Transport Department, Hashim Awang, who was previously senior private secretary to the Education Minister.
Hashim gave the reporter a letter to be passed on to a young officer at the minister’s office, named Azmin Ali, now a Parti Keadilan Rakyat MP. Two weeks later, the pregnant, tearful wife was transferred to Kuala Perlis. Yes, Umno dished out preferences and embellishments, from securing the mini-tar road project, or grass-cutting tender, to making a former clerk turned politician, a rarefied Datuk.
It is also an unlimited welfare organisation that gives out the kenduri (village feasts) paraphernalia, backs your application for a temporary occupation licence, or, opens doors for those devoid of hope and opportunity.
At a level, it is second mobility-track for the disenfranchised odd-job workers, school drop-outs with stamina for attending meetings, earnestly supporting their immediate leader or “boss”.
They see their role at by-elections as earning Umno and Barisan Nasional renewed mandate to press on with its policies. Umno was certainly attracting the getup-and-go resilient souls.
With the upgrades and advancements, comes the effluent – flaunting of affluence. The Economist magazine described the nature of cars parked at PWTC during the 1993 party elections as a microcosm of a changing Umno, a party that was founded in the heartlands had passed on to the monied operatives.
More stifling was Umno of that era had propagated “voicing your views via the proper channels”.
A party that was intertwined with the people and government policies was straining to lock away its disagreements. The gossip and disinformation that leaked out of this closeted system was pounced upon, spun and repackaged as truths.
Umno personalities offered convoluted views to the Press because being ambitious or opinionated attracted danger, which encouraged a public opinion of Umno as a party that was tormented with intrigues and rewarding mediocrity. Umno and the new middle class it created were heading in differing directions. This was the point when Ketuanan Melayu, an allencompassing justification and antidote, could be dismissed as racialist, unwritten policy. Is this the case? Ketuanan Melayu, in reality, is about empowerment, to have a benign Malay leadership that accommodates all, creates expansive space for the non-Malays.
Top Malay companies are an excellent advertisement for the Ketuanan Melayu tradition for allowing non-Malays to excel, something that certain non-Malay firms have not been able to cope with.
Perhaps because these are their means of accommodating particular ethnicities not well represented in a Malay-centric civil service.
With better pay package this should change. Ketuanan Melayu is about the Malay leadership voluntarily and gradually offering greater concessions as it must. A Johor Umno official: “We shall not cling on to the quotas forever. As more Malays reach the middle classes, this will be eased. It is already happening.” Umno has now embraced more purposefully the universalist traditions of rights and virtues. The traditionalist segments shall remind the party of its duty to the Malays even as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin have coined Ketuanan Rakyat, a dictum that has not been properly articulated. Umno leaders are no longer being convoluted in their utterances, which is refreshing. Next they will have to assuage the non-Malays that it is the Umno-led government that shall secure the future of all Malaysians.
Within the party, professionals should chip in with courses on soft-skills and communication and push for an on-line party registration.
Less of the contractorstereotyping representatives shall debate economic issues at Umno meetings.
More of the Umno types will seek to make more sense in public utterances.
The local kenduris have moved to halls. Political commentary has been taken out of the hands of the local Umno leaders as the Pak Cik gets his political analysis from his son who lives in KL.
Its safety-net functions may dwindle in tandem with the growth of its multiracial outlook, and, to reach out to the Malay middle class.
These two segments may be the future constituencies of Umno. # Rashid Yusuf, on sabbatical from 24-hour journalism, is constantly looking to dredging out a range of arguments and a smattering of ideas, for the public domain.