In Malaysian politics, one party remains first among equals

Umno led every governing coalition since independence in 1957 until it lost to the opposition in 2018

Once a beacon of political stability in South-East Asia, Malaysia has now had three prime ministers in 18 months. The latest, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, has the support of 114 out of 220 current members of parliament – a claim that will be tested in a vote when MPs meet early next month. Mr Ismail will probably win that endorsement, but his slim majority is vulnerable to defections, and no one can be sure his government will last until elections are next held, expected to be in the latter part of 2022. This is unprecedented in a country where previously three men had ruled as premier for a combined total of 45 years.

That is one way of looking at the turbulent times since the 2018 general election. The other is to observe that the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), one of the most successful political parties in the world, is back – for Mr Sabri, the new head of government, is a long-term Umno politician and a vice president of the party.

Umno had led every governing coalition since independence in 1957, until it lost to the opposition Pakatan Harapan in 2018. Umno and its allies shed a devastating number of seats. After 15 MPs defected to the new government, the once dominant Malay party was left with only 39 MPs. Some questioned if it could it even survive.

That picture, however, told less than half the story. In many ways, Umno never went away. With well over three million members, its machinery at the grassroots level remained formidable. Bersatu, the vehicle formed for the former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed to lead the opposition into the 2018 election, is essentially an Umno splinter party. When the last prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, resigned, it was noticeable that whatever party they may be in now, every single candidate mentioned as a possible replacement PM either was, or had been, a senior member of Umno.

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All of this points to Umno’s resilience and continued centrality to Malaysian politics

In Malaysia’s racially charged politics, Pakatan Harapan could only win over enough of the majority-Malay voters in 2018 by reassuring them that their top leaders were all former Umno ministers. Mr Muhyiddin – a former Umno deputy prime minister – was the president of Bersatu, and became prime minister in 2020 by leading his party out of the Pakatan Harapan coalition; but his majority was dependent upon Umno’s support. When the party leadership had had enough of being treated as the junior partner, some MPs withdrew that support. And now, after an interregnum of just over three years, Umno has the premiership once again.

Many Pakatan Harapan supporters are deeply unhappy about this. Hadn’t Malaysians demanded the Umno-led administration was ousted in 2018? But the percentage of the vote won by Umno’s coalition combined with that won by the religious party Pas, which have been in an alliance since the election, is over 50 per cent. Add on the votes that went to just Bersatu, and the new government has grounds to claim it represents the majority of the population.

Further, research carried out by Serina Rahman of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Centre in Singapore during and after the election showed that many rural voters had wanted to signal their displeasure at Umno over a raft of issues, but “they never expected the entire government to fall”.

“Regret and despair were immediate,” she wrote. “Even before the dawn of the ‘morning after’, I was privy to comments of: ‘oh no, what have I done.’”

Like it or not – and some will dislike it very much indeed – all of this points to Umno’s resilience and continued centrality to Malaysian politics. It does not seem too much of a stretch to say that nothing game-changing can take place in the country without Umno’s support. Certainly, there can be no major reforms without its lead or acquiescence.

This is a bitter pill for opponents to swallow, but it is proven by the fact that when the avowedly reformist Pakatan government was in power, no drastic alterations took place, for two reasons. Firstly, they were headed by a man – Dr Mahathir – who never believed in the reform agenda. All he wanted to do was deprive the last Umno leader, Najib Razak, of the premiership.

Secondly, they were so afraid of their own shadow – so worried about Malay fears that the coalition’s ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party were really in charge – that they hesitated or even resiled from the mild reforms they did propose, such as signing up to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

It took an ex-Umno prime minister, Mr Muhyiddin, to offer what the Democratic Action Party’s Tony Pua called “real tangible bi-partisan reforms which the country badly needs” in the last days of his time in office this month. It was an Umno prime minister, Mr Najib, who put forward the 1Malaysia concept – possibly the most ambitious attempt to form a new, inclusive identity for Malaysians in the country’s history.

Only Nixon could go to China. And only the leader of a party that exists to represent the mainstream Malay majority has the standing to reach out to the country’s other races and implement policies that hardliners might claim would undermine the constitutionally protected special position of the Malay population.

Mr Ismail announced himself as squarely in this tradition in his first address as prime minister. “We do realise the existence of inter-marriage families with various races and religions, and yet possessing strong family bonds,” he said. "Thus, the concept of ‘Malaysian Family’ is akin to the strength of a nation bound by such values.” He called for unity and invited opposition parties to join the National Recovery Council and to help in the fight against Covid-19.

James Chin of the University of Tasmania recently wrote that the “secret” to the old Umno-led model “was simple: all ethnic and minority groups were encouraged to join… Although everybody was given a seat at the top table, Umno was first among equals.”

I believe that it remains the most workable model for inclusive governance in Malaysia, and I am not alone. I have heard many say they would like the undeniably talented politicians in opposition parties like the Dap to join forces in a new Umno-led coalition. It may be hard to imagine now, and may be unpalatable to older generations of politicians on both sides. Younger leaders, however, have shown they are more open to dialogue.

There is one inescapable fact, though. As an analyst who is no partisan concluded when he told me he wanted more youthful politicians to be given a greater chance to lead: “And they probably need to come from within Umno.”

Published: August 24th 2021, 2:45 PM
Updated: September 15th 2021, 1:14 PM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National