The Malay leadership vacuum

If both Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tuan Guru Datuk Seri Hadi Awang remain as the presidents of UMNO and PAS respectively, the sense of being leaderless will continue in the Malay community.

The status quo is therefore not a stable situation, and we are bound to see new contenders coming into the field to fill the painful vacuum. This will open up new possibilities for Malaysian politics.

It would be foolish to assume that UMNO will not stay in power for too long. After all, if it, still led by Najib, with help from certain segments of PAS, still led by Hadi Awang, manages to amend the Constitution to increase the number of seats in ways that will benefit it, then it would be very difficult to defeat.

We must not underestimate the power of incumbency and the incumbent’s use of government machineries to win elections.

But to win convincingly in Malaysian politics, one has to win across ethnic lines, across the South China Sea to Sabah and Sarawak, and across the sizable number of centrist Malay voters, especially the young ones.

Najib threw in everything, dare we say, his dignity included, in the 2013 general election and won 47% of the votes to secure 133 parliamentary seats. Shocked by this, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has rightly pointed out that a two percent swing in the right places would see the end of UMNO’s rule.

Hence Najib is a damaged brand. While Dr. Mahathir recovered from significant loses of votes in the 1990 general election to win the largest vote share in history (65%) in 1995, Najib has done nothing significant since the election two years ago to warrant a resurgent.

The only way for Najib to go seems to be downwards.

Apart from the status quo, the following are some possible outcomes in the next election:

First, if Najib stays on as Prime Minister, denying his role in a series of scandals and letting the country to continue drifting, the fate of India’s Congress Party finally met in that country’s 2014 general elections will be what probably will awaits UMNO. The Congress Party which ruled from 2004 to 2014 lost legitimacy altogether and won only 44 out of 543 lower house seats, and it is not too far-fetched to imagine UMNO losing legitimacy to such an extent. With Najib still at the helm, that seems even probable.

Second, if there is an internal putsch before the next election, and Muhyiddin takes control of UMNO and manages to secure its conservative base while being conciliatory towards the middle ground, a convincing win for the party is possible. I call this the LBJ scenario, after American President Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ was regarded a conservative in most parts of his political career especially as senator but he was able to push through some of the country’s most progressive legislations and policies as president on succeeding the assassinated JFK. A Muhyddin premiership has to win the middle ground especially the young Malays and the non-Malays to win convincingly.

But if a Muhyiddin premiership should act as lackadaisical as Najib’s and continues to allow the hardliners to be loud and to take charge, then an end to UMNO’s hold on power is also probable.

Third, the Sri Lankan election is an interesting reference point. A last minute split in the ruling party, with a minister breaking ranks to contest against the incumbent, manages to provide a viable alternative. And, with support from half of the majority Sinhalese support and a landslide among Tamil and Muslim minorities, this rebel managed to defeat the incumbent.

The idea of another split within UMNO has to be brought into the equation partly because of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s imprisonment and also because of the inability of Hadi Awang and PAS to capture the centrist imagination and provide a credible alternative.

If Fadzil Noor were still around, with his centrist posture, there would be no hesitation for the entire opposition to rally around him as the de facto leader of the opposition the moment Anwar Ibrahim was taken out of action. In contrast, Hadi has diminished into being a factional leader within PAS.

PAS as always had trouble convincing the middle ground of its ability to play on the federal stage, and with Hadi remaining the party head, it will simply continue to drift into its diminishing world.

These are the reasons why I say that if the status quo remains, if both Najib and Hadi remain head of their respective parties, we have to expect new personalities to push themselves onto centre-stage and vie for the future leadership of Malaysia.

Who would these people be? At risk of over-simplification, a first group would be what I would call the “Bangsar” establishment figures like those who are members of G25 and the like. A second group would be the “Bangi” Islamists who have yet to involve themselves in electoral politics.

A third source is harder to define, but it will come from within Malay youth at large. After all, they are the ones with little to lose and everything to gain.

It’s still early days. The fact remains though. There is a leadership vacuum in Malaysia, and this vacuum is felt most strongly among the Malays, especially among Malay youths. Such as situation is not one to bet on to continue.

(Speech delivered at the Australian National University on 8th April 2015)

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