Umno’s two souls — Clive Kessler

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OCTOBER 25 — Among my friends, including my co-authors in this brave new book, I am often seen, I admit — and on their part pityingly — as some sort of Umno “softie”, an “Umno sentimentalist.”


Because I haven’t yet given up, not entirely, on Umno. Because (silly boy that I still am) I won’t and cannot let myself do so.

I want it to reform itself.

Can it?

Will it?

Does it even want to?

Back to these questions later.

But why?

Why do I want it, and keep imploring it, to reform itself, to change its ways, its manner, its approach?


I want it to reform itself, to “lift its game” and raise its moral “line of sight”, to broaden its horizons, political and human because — no matter how unlikely, and no matter how reluctant Umno may be to do so — I fear what will happen if it does not.

I fear not for it but for all Malaysia.


What is my thinking here? What is my fear?

Let me state my position clearly.

Like so many countries, Malaysia too is in need of change — and there is no shame in saying so.

And in Malaysia — this is the basic political fact — there can be no plausible and enduring change, no change that has any prospect of enjoying broad acceptance and real effect, that is not backed and supported, even promoted, by Umno.

If change is to take hold, succeed, and be generally accepted, then Umno must be part of its driving coalition or base:

If not enthusiastically, even if reluctantly, or at least on the basis of a clear and wise assessment of political realities that — in the absence of any other sustainable long-term option — it must do so.

If Umno is against change, any change, it won’t happen. It cannot.

It simply will not be allowed to.

In other words, as its people know and we all too, Umno has a continuing “veto power” over Malaysian politics and life.

This immensely fateful “veto power” must be seen, above all by Umno’s leaders, as a solemn responsibility: not as an endless opportunity, or a temptation to escalating excess; not as an unending, perpetual right.

Is this how Umno and its leaders now see things?  No. 

So, does Umno need to change? Yes.

Can it? Perhaps.

Will it? I fear not.

Does it even want to?

I doubt it.  Not yet anyway.

The basic questions now face us, and it: “What is to be done?”  What is “the way forward?” Is there one?

If it is to be discerned and identified, Umno must get to know itself better, to know and “own” its own past.

Umno today must see clearly, and accept fully, its origins in “the two Umnos”: The two rival souls that make their home within the one body, dua jiwa dalam satu tubuh badan  —  Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, Umno.

The heroic Umno of 1946: the Umno of Hidup Melayu and now Ketuanan Melayu; and the Umno of 1951, and especially 1955, to 1957: the Umno of constructive inter-ethnic conciliation and compromise, the Umno of modern, inclusive, progressive democratic nation-building.

The Umno that, with its political partners, looked forward to — and sought to create the foundations for — a Malaya and then Malaysia that would be the common, shared and equal inheritance of all its children, no matter by what different converging pathways their parents and forebears had come into membership as citizens of that modern new nation.

That is the Umno of the original Merdeka Constitution and its informing understandings — a charter of shared nationhood, not “Ketuanan Melayu”, which is this nation’s founding “social contract”: the only social contract that this nation has ever had.

(As for Abdullah Ahmad’s “Ketuanan Melayu social contract”, it is the “Piltdown Man” of Malaysian  history and public life.  It is a fraud, a hoax and a monstrous deception.)

These two Umnos — the Umnos of the two social contracts, the one real and the other bogus, the two historic human souls within the Umno body, and the two now divergent political agendas that they promote — are these days hardly even rivals.

They are not, since one of them is totally eclipsed, silenced, scorned and forgotten.

These two Umnos may by now have differing personalities. But there is one thing that they have in common.

Each carries within it, each has “within its bones” from its founding moment — each was born of — a great political realism.

That is the good news.

And that same thing, a clear appreciation of current political realities and their long-term national implications, is what all in Umno, and Umno as a whole, now most need.

Political and historical reality mean, among other things, this:  that the two historical Umnos, each an integral part of the party’s past and evolving historical identity, need to remember and once more to recognise each other.

And to start talking again, honestly and respectfully, to each other.

That is the hard part.

To do it, Umno, and especially the now ascendant “heroic” Umno, needs to understand its own history.

Can it?

Can they?

Does it and do they have the will to do so?

Does it and do they see the emerging, even pressing, need to do so?

If they do, there is an honourable future ahead for Umno.  And a bright and successful future ahead, still, for Malaysia.

And if not?

Many of us know the great 1931 movie Little Caesar starring Edward G. Robinson. We recall its, and its anti-hero Enrico’s, memorable final line, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

If Umno does not see this need — this need for change, to accept and embrace change, to promote change in itself for the general national interest, broadly understood — then we may get to the point where we, and it, will ask, “Is this the end of Umno?”

And it could be the end of a lot more.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney. He delivered these remarks yesterday at the launching of Bridget Welsh (ed.), The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party, SIRD/Gerakbudaya, Petaling Jaya, 2016. Kessler is the author of one chapter in that book.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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