KUALA LUMPUR, April 21 ― Umno’s defeat at the watershed 2018 general election should have been the impetus the party needed to institute reforms. 

But as support returns amid political fatigue, its current information chief Shahril Hamdan admits that the reform spark is fading fast.

Umno won two back-to-back state elections ― Melaka and Johor ― with landslide majorities, spurring confidence that is now translating into a push for snap polls. 

Shahril told Malay Mail in an interview recently that he is hopeful Umno will regain federal power in the 15th general election, rumoured to be planned for the third quarter this year. 

But a big win could have unintended consequences ― the reform drive that followed Umno’s defeat in 2018 will likely take a backseat.

“There was a call for reform (post GE14), there remains a call for reform but the volume may have subsided in recent months because the party has been doing well electorally,” he said.

“(But) we cannot let up on the reform imperative, it would come up again in volume whenever party elections come which we’ve decided will be after the 15th GE. When that happens I think that conversation will begin again.”

Still, whether or not Umno’s grassroots will be keen to have that conversation will very much depend on how the party performs at the national polls, Shahril said. A big win could distract leaders from the reform agenda. 

A poll held by think tank Ilham Centre during the Johor state polls where Umno won two-thirds of the 56 legislative seats showed most voters, including young debutants, cared little about the Opposition’s anti-corruption messaging, or the fact that one of Umno’s key strategists, former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, had been convicted of multiple corruption and power abuse charges.

Instead voters found comfort in Umno’s offer of stability, which according to Ilham Centre’s analysts was made more appealing because of the two-year-old Covid-19 crisis, as well as the political instability that immediately followed the ‘Sheraton Move’ in 2020.

But Shahril still believes that Umno must confront the longstanding problems like corruption that caused it to lose support regardless of the general election’s outcome.

He stressed that the party cannot continue to rely on favourable circumstances to keep on winning, that Umno needs to rethink its politics totally. This includes shedding its communal appeal and inspiring confidence from an audience beyond its core base.

A survey by pollster Merdeka Center released a few years back indicated that Umno’s primary supporters are conservative Malays, and mostly those without tertiary education.

“Secondly... how can Umno believe in Umno and BN as a caliber party that can solve problems and govern well, instead of merely relying on sentiment to appeal,” Shahril said.

“We need to ask ourselves how do we get people to believe in Umno and BN rather than vote purely because the alternative is worse, that’s not the best way to ensure long term survivability,” he added.

“We need a force that brings the country together instead of being a divisive one.”

When asked if he agreed with views that Umno has thrived on divisive politics, Shahril believes the nation has always been divided, and Umno and BN in the “distant past” were more active in trying to glue the county together. 

That agenda appears less important today, he contended.

“I don’t know if we are that excited about doing that at the moment. It seems like you can win elections by pandering to a particular segment and the rest sort of falls in place by default, like how people not turning up to vote works in our favour,” he said.

“We might win that way but I don’t think that’s what the promise Umno and BN should be making.”

Despite dominating the Melaka and Johor elections, Umno won just slightly over 30 per cent of the popular votes on both occasions. Journalists and analysts have interpreted the outcomes as a reflection of the fragmented electorate rather than a return of support for the BN lynchpin.

In March at the party congress, Shahril’s Umno Youth colleagues appeared to have taken the election data as a cautionary sign that party leaders must not ignore. Several delegates at the congress called for more young candidates to be fielded in the 15th general election, citing the sizable number of below 40 voters that will cast their ballots this time around.

Such calls have been made repeatedly in the past but appeared to have gained little traction, a fact underscored by former Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in the aftermath of the party’s defeat in 2018, analysts suggested.

Pundits said the party election results, where then deputy president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi won, was indicative of the party’s unpreparedness to move away from a system that tends to reward feudal loyalty rather than idealism. 

Yet Shahril is still optimistic about the party’s potential to change, only that it would take time. As a young leader in the party, he said he has consistently tried to normalise the discussion around party reform through various platforms, including its annual general assemblies.

“It’s difficult to make that case when we’re doing well electorally, and of course I want us to do well,” he said.

“But when I say difficult I still think it’s very possible... just that it takes time. People need to internalise that message because there’s no immediacy and urgency to do it based on electoral strategic reasons.”