KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 28 — At 65, Umno is old, older even than Malaysia, and worryingly for the party now, its current leaders are not much younger.
As the anchor of Barisan Nasional (BN), it is the oldest and longest ruling party in the world, having governed the country since 1957. The country has need of transformation and Umno, according to its leaders, is also in dire need of reform and “rejuvenation”.
Umno knows it must ring in the new, but to ring out the old is where it is finding strong resistance. Leading up to the ongoing Umno General Assembly, party leaders have sent clearer and clearer hints, all but opening the exit door and ushering out those whom they think should leave.
The transformation is not solely about internal renewal. Umno’s top leaders have conveyed that the stakes are the party’s continued survival and, by extension, the continuity of the only ruling government that Malaysia has ever known.
In the next general election no more than four years away, there will be an estimated four million youths who will qualify as new voters, adding to the 17.8 million who may cast ballots if they all register as voters.
Magnifying the sense of urgency is the belief that Umno is progressively losing support from the rural Malays ― traditionally its core power base ― due to increasing migration to urban areas.
Despite the potentially bleak outlook for Umno, however, is the party willing and able to heed president Datuk Seri Najib Razak's call to “reinvigorate” their ranks as an “investment” for the future?
“The party won't (change), but that's the whole responsibility of the leadership. You are the captain. If the ship is heading in the wrong direction, you should steer the ship back on course,” Umno's Pulai MP, Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
Nur Jazlan, considered a party maverick who has no qualms going against the grain, argued that Najib has been talking about youth engagement and party renewal for years without any tangible results.
He noted that until the party president acts on his “threats” to push aside the tired methods perpetuated by the old guard, which have cost the Umno its support, in favour of “radical” approaches championed by the young, the youth agenda is unlikely to find traction.
But Najib at least has one vocal supporter, Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, who on Wednesday sought to rally his wing to “stand up” to party seniors who stand in the way of the renewal.
Speaking at the Youth wing’s assembly, Khairy pointed out that Umno was losing to its rivals in the contest for young talent, a far cry from the days when youthful leaders were commonplace within the party.
“This may be so 50 years ago, but the world and its ways have changed. And if we refuse to change, it is our place which will change through the young voters’ ballots,” he said then.
Political analyst Prof Dr Jayum A. Jawan agreed that it requires a large dose of courage from Umno’s senior leadership to forge ahead with the reform agenda, one that is certain to rile up the so-called warlords in a party that is acutely familiar with sabotage and infighting.
The Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) academic stressed that Najib, his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and the rest of the Umno supreme council must be firm, however, with the party warlords if they are serious about addressing the decline in support.
“Najib, Muhyiddin and (party) leaders must really take bold steps to rejuvenate (the party), to reach out to more educated Malays. They have to forgo these warlords and bring in new people and get new ideas from those who have been with Umno all this while,” he said.
Just letting youngsters join Umno — if they are so inclined — is only the beginning of Umno’s difficult reforms, one analyst noted. The more arduous task is to figure out how to engage and move them further up the party’s rungs.
“At the same time, they face challenges not only in rebranding. They also need to change how they work, the structures in the party to allow young people to rise up and be heard,” Ibrahim Suffian, who heads independent pollster Merdeka Center, told Malay Mail Online.
“That is the challenge, allowing young people to go in... as was seen in the past GE, a lot of the old guard didn't want to give way because everyone wanted their turn at senior leadership,” he said.
During his speech at the Umno Youth assembly, Khairy pointed out the same issue after highlighting how he is the only party leader under 40 — and barely, at that — with a senior government position.
“This is not something that I want, and I cannot be the only person to have pulled through – even that was just recently,” said Khairy, who is youth and sports minister.
Despite the arguments against entrenched obstacles to Umno’s push for youth, Wangsa Maju division chief Datuk Shafei Abdullah noted that it is exactly this hierarchical culture that will help develop future leaders worthy of taking over the mantle of leadership in the party.
Citing his rise through the party ranks, from his beginnings as a student activist, he said often youths join the party expecting to be treated like kings despite being political novices yet to prove themselves.
Shafei stressed that it falls on the current leaders to groom their new charges to understand that Umno politics is one of service to the people and not a career path that can be pursued like what they are accustomed to as professionals.
“Even if they are CEOs in a company, when they join Umno with no position, they must act like they have no position. They can give ideas but they cannot direct people, instruct people like they are used to doing... at the end of the day politics is a game of numbers and votes,” he said.
But Shafei conceded that party's warlords have no choice but to accept the fact that “youngsters” will determine whether or not Umno will remain relevant in future, making it all the more necessary for them to fall in line with Najib's call to “reinvigorate” the party.
“We are getting older. Say school leavers in Form Five, in four years time they can already vote. If we reject them now, of course they will go for the opposition.”