In 2008, Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its supermajority after a huge swath of the population voted opposition. That particular general election marked a major pivot in the country’s political narrative.
The following elections was even more damning for the ruling bloc but despite this shift, one BN party was able to hold its own: Umno.
Malaysia’s ruling party has existed long enough to evoke either inspiration or disgust and regardless which way you swing, Umno is a resilient animal: it’s still in power despite economic downturns, political strife, and scandals.
But as efforts to win the coming elections next year go into high gear, how does Umno stack up in luring the millennials, a generation known for its lack of political zeal?
Making the pitch for his party is Shahril Hamdan. He is Umno Youth exco and, well, a millennial. In a wide-ranging interview he talks about the party’s relevance and drives home the message that ultimately Umno, together with Barisan Nasional, is the way forward.
Our conversation, edited for brevity, follows.
I’ll start off with the recent Umno general assembly. In his speech, youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin said the candidates for the general election should reflect the future of the party. But at the same time you have divisional warlords in the party.
So, how is the party going to realise this because on one hand you have aspirations to meet future demands, but on the other hand, there’s this traditional system that has been going on for years?
First things first, it's not accurate to point out that Umno has always been about divisional warlords. There have been many cases, even in the recent past, where younger candidates who did not hold a high position in the division were fielded as candidates, someone like Irmohizam Ibrahim in Kuala Selangor.
If you put age aside, you have other seats in the past such as Lembah Pantai where we are speaking in now, Shahrizat Jalil isn’t even from Lembah Pantai as she is a member of Umno in Kepong. So, there are examples of where the party is flexible about who gets fielded where.
But it also important to understand that any party especially a grassroots- and mass-based party like Umno has its structures from top to bottom that we are actually very proud of.
And it’s hard to speak about this pride without referring somewhat unfavourably to other parties like Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) whom we know now are having difficulties with the Registrar of Societies (RoS) because they didn’t even follow their own perlembagaan or constitution, which by the way they clearly copy-pasted from Umno.
Which stipulates among other things that you need to have branch meetings, divisional meetings, and then only you go on to your general assembly or whatever. They didn’t do the first two, and they didn’t do the first two probably because they didn’t have the party discipline and structure to do that.
The reason you are proud of this structure then it means that when you say you are a grassroots party, it means something because you actually have party activists that operate within branch and division levels, not just national figures that float around and speak to a broadcast-type of crowd.
Umno has a different way of looking at things, each level has its own purpose and own operations, often independent of one another.
Of course then the flipside is, when you contest that division, and a parliamentary seat or state seat is a division, it stands to reason that people within the division will have a lot of say and, notionally, with good reason because they’re the ones who are operating there, they are the ones who meet with the voters on a daily basis.
Hence that logic on its own is quite sound: the division should have a big say because they know what is best and what is most suited on the ground.
To answer your original question, how do we make sure it is not just people with strong influence who will get there but also young people, I think the challenge is to ensure that the young people themselves need to have division.
So you need to be anchored in your kawasan (area) and again and this is something that has put Umno apart from the other parties. Maybe minus PAS because they also have this structure. PKR to a lesser extent, the others really don’t. DAP, I’m pretty sure they don’t and Bersatu definitely doesn’t.
You need to be anchored in a division and trust that your abilities, if they shine at the national level, should also shine at the division level. If more and more young people are able to do that – this doesn’t mean you have to be division chief and it’s not easy being division chief – then this conflict which is often drawn between divisional warlords versus “Young Turks” becomes less and less true. So that's one big lever towards changing that.
That’s why a lot of young people in Umno as much as we want to go on TV and want to be national figures, we also spend a lot of time to make sure we become good enough and valuable enough within our divisions, because that’s how Umno operates and we are quite proud of that. It is an indication that this is a very mature party.
Many are billing the upcoming GE to be a status quo. Now, in the event Umno wins, and this is hypothetical, do you think the party will have the capacity to match a reinvigorated opposition? Because they don’t have these structures and they could easily field fresh faces and more vibrant leaders.
In the medium and long term, assuming this election goes well for us, we need to look at the image of the party and we will need to better reflect this shift towards younger faces.
And I stand by what I said earlier, a lot of this can be solved if there is a meeting between the two generations. So young people need to step up and be anchored in divisions, and not just play atas angin, which I think a lot of the opposition young faces do.
If you ask any of these opposition guys which division do you belong to, do you really go down to the ground in a particular division and really understand the problems of those people in that division, the voters over there, and tackling in a direct way, their problems and their aspirations, I would hazard they don’t have anywhere near good an answer as their Umno counterparts would, because they don’t think that way.
They think in terms of blogs, and Instagram and Facebook and not a targeted, narrow-casting focus. That’s maybe because of their structure.
But in the long term, I think Umno also needs to figure out the way in which we retain this unique brand and structure of ours but also find creative ways to highlight individuals and groups who are more in tune with the millennial generation.
And highlighting this voice, this progressive voice within Umno, the younger voice, doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of candidacy.
And if we are talking in a situation that happens after GE, it’s other things, like how do we coach some of these young guys to be even better at what they do, maybe its public speaking, putting them in front of the camera, making them more polished spokespeople on the party for policy issues, training them to be good enough to meet any other opposition counterpart.
Some of them I know think things through very carefully. Just to give one example, if they were asked to write a policy paper on a number of things, I’m sure there will be quite a few who would be able to do so.
So things like that, opening up a path for younger ones to be put forward as part of the face of Umno to the public, and that's something we need to think about, if not immediately because we are focused on winning this GE, but immediately after.
Do you think Umno should review its ties with its coalition partners? I’m specifically looking at Gerakan, MCA, MIC. In the previous GE, they were decimated by the opposition. So is a review in order or should the status quo be kept?
It should be kept.
I don’t know if the word status quo applies here, but the model of the coalition is still absolutely important to me. One way to read the trend of the past couple of elections is, Umno is getting stronger because we are adding more seats and our non-Malay component parties are losing seats.
The other way to read it, which I think is a more accurate way, is not for Umno to pat ourselves on the back, but it is actually a reflection of how ethnically split the electorate is.
That's the problem: it's not about whether Umno is stronger, MIC is weaker. It is on the surface but what is driving that is an ethnic split, which is not healthy for Malaysia.
So I think the solution to that fundamental problem is not about whether MCA or MIC are relevant anymore. It is more of how do we get non-Malays to get excited about Barisan again. That's the crux of the problem.
Because if, say, Umno were to contest in seats that MCA or MIC lost, I am not one of those who would say we would have won. For example, Seputeh. You put an Umno guy there, you think we would win?
That's something I always remind my Umno colleagues: that we shouldn’t be tooting our own horn. It’s a Malaysian issue and it’s how do we maintain our base vote which is our Malay vote, but also to get people who are not Malays to be about voting us again, BN again.
But how does an ethnic party like Umno champion the multiracial cause? How does that work?
Barisan as a brand needs to be put front and centre and I am anticipating that this will happen over the next few months. But in the longer term, say, after GE14, we need to seriously relook at Barisan as an entity and as a brand that you forward to voters.
Something that ought to be front and centre of people's minds for five years and not for five months. For the long term survival of this country and for BN, therefore Umno, we need to put a more Barisan face forward.
And that takes the form of tangible things like how many Barisan programmes do we do at national, state or at division level?
For example, division level, most programmes are done by irrespective parties. Umno, MCA, and MIC will have their own programmes at any given division. Very rarely these three or other component parties come together and do a joint programme, and many of these programme aren’t ostensibly party-centric.
Okay fine, if we do a yasin recital programme then it has to be Umno. But more often than not we are doing back-to-school programmes, sports programmes, none of which ought to be a race-based thing.
Also the statements we make need to be more streamlined so voters don’t get mixed messages. Occasionally, of course, you disagree with different entities and different parties, but people need to feel that you are part of a bigger family and this family exists for five years and not five months.
Now, I am going to single out Jamal Yunos here. How do you think non-Malay folk would react to someone like him? Wouldn’t he turn off the non-Malays and therefore hamper your efforts?
It depends. He is not everyone’s cup of tea, just like I’m not everyone's cup of tea either. You would assume that maybe non-Malays would prefer a different kind of politician but at the same time you have to accept someone like Jamal.
He is playing a crucial role in highlighting some of the failings of the Selangor state government. His methods, again, not everyone's cup of tea, but the ends he is trying to achieve, I think he is getting somewhere with that.
And being such a big party like BN and Umno, I guess we have to tell people, you have different characters within the party, there is no one person who typifies the party beyond say someone like the prime minister.
In Umno's case, you have to expect one person to be the standard-bearer and the head is Najib Razak, and you have people like Zahid Hamidi, Hishammuddin Hussein, Khairy, the three wing heads of the party, these five to seven people you would expect to be the standard-bearers of the party.
But everyone else has their own role and we have to find a way to convince voters to be understanding of how a big party of three million people will always have characters who'd use methods that maybe they are not so keen on, yet can still vote BN because of the larger picture of what we do and the standard-bearers that represent a more nuanced and accurate view of the what the coalition is.
Now, in 2014, you wrote In Defence of Progressive Umno and talked about furthering the centrist agenda. How can you be progressive and Umno at the same time?
Because there's people like Khairy. It's clear you can. You got people like me and those of my ilk who would call themselves progressive. Umno's such a big party, so it doesn’t define itself ideologically in the same way that, say, parties in the West do.
It defines itself as a Malay-based party to fight for the cause of the Malays. That on its own can be interpreted a million ways. So, if you accept that the ideology of the party is conceptually very wide, then you should also accept that there would be different interpretations of how we get there.
My interpretation is a progressive one; it is one where Malays ought to be given the opportunity to prove themselves in an increasingly merit-based society, it ought to be a community that takes leadership of the whole country in a way that's magnanimous, that's fair for others, and that doesn’t turn people off.
It's an interpretation that doesn’t have to be racist. It doesn’t have to be this-is-my-land-and-not-yours type of deal. It’s never something that I would ever say or ever feel and I feel very strongly that this is as much the country of the Chinese, the Indians, the Ibans and the Kadazans as it is the Malays.
We just have a unique relationship because of our history and, of course, there are certain things we ask supremacy on, things like Islam and the sultans, which I think the non-Malays are quite happy to accept.
And it is an interpretation where I think affirmative action needs to be targeted, it needs to be in a way that encourages Malays to be more competitive, as opposed to being in a straightjacket in terms of their economic competitiveness.
That's the philosophy I subscribe to which I would argue is a progressive one, within the remit of “memperjuangkan orang Melayu” (championing the Malays).
But is your ilk a minority though?
I haven't done a headcount but it's one of many. The problem is, Emmanuel, people like me don’t get the highlight because the media likes to portray in binary terms, right?
So if you already assume that Pakatan parties are the progressive parties – PKR et al –you then assume that's the progressive voice. The temptation is to caricature Umno as one of the right-wing voices.
For that and many other reasons, it is not always clear to the rest of the public that Umno is not so one dimensional. There are many interpretations of that ideology – that very broad ideology – and maybe for whatever reason, it is more fun to caricaturise the right-wing interpretation.
I don’t know if I’m minority or majority with this kind of interpretation, but I’m not the only one who holds on to it.
So what is it? Is it a matter of PR that these views are not out there in the media?
Let's put it this way, if you are being realistic in how parties are portrayed in the press or in the media, you never go beyond 10 to 15 people, I imagine.
So, there will always be 10 to 15 individuals within Umno that every couple of months who will say something and that will come out in the part. Similarly, for the other side (opposition), maybe it’s 20 of them.
Also, we've also had people who were in Umno but sort of manifested these kind of progressive views, some of them still are in Umno, but some of them have left.
Someone like Saifuddin Abdullah, for example, would have been portrayed as a progressive within Umno. And quite a while back Zaid Ibrahim.
Someone like Rahman Dahlan, I would argue is a progressive. Someone like Tok Pa (Mustapa Mohamed) who doesn’t really make the news for anything other than trade, but he ought to for me because the stuff that he says is the right kind of progressive within Umno and, obviously, someone like Khairy.
Then there is this other problem: the public always assume that the people who leave Umno, they do so because they were always progressive, when in fact it is often something more personal or unique to that particular situation.
The popular narrative, for example, about Saifuddin is, “Look at him. He was progressive and he lost in Umno,” because he didn’t retain his division deputy chief post, right?
But people forget he also lost the general election. To lose Temerloh, that's not Umno's fault. The voters must have rejected him for whatever reason, maybe he wasn’t a good MP, maybe he didn’t go down enough. These have ostensibly nothing to do with his thinking or his statements.
So those things start to popularise the view that progressives are not accepted within Umno, but actually in fact there are many of us who still fight the good fight and unapologetically progressive.
Curious, how has Umno tackled cronyism and patronage since Mahathir Mohamad’s time?
I grew up during Mahathir's time and that term was also something synonymous with him. This term cronyism, nepotism, was spoken a lot in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
How we have tackled it? I think institutions have improved a lot. The most clear one is MACC, and I think even the most ardent government critics would accept that MACC is not about to choose which side they arrest or investigate, so quite clearly, independent in the sense that they operate without fear or favour.
That changes the culture of making sure it's more honest, so there's less motivation or freedom to do any hanky panky, and I know it’s not directly related to cronyism but people are more careful about procurement, about doing things properly.
Also because of social media and how open society is now, you can’t hide. Anything people find out will be on Twitter or Facebook, so there's some automatic self-regulation that happens partly because of work done by Abdullah Badawi and Najib, but also partly because of the way the world is.
But are there any internal checks and balances within the party though? We were just talking about MACC where some recent cases involved Umno politicians, such as Annuar Musa and Isa Samad. On a separate note, there's Najib and the 1MDB scandal. And it seems that those who have voiced out have been sacked from the party. For example, Muhyiddin Yassin. So is there any accountability internally?
This is above my paygrade but I think structurally the way it works is the supreme council is the highest decision making body.
So I imagine – and I have never been in one –all serious issues relating to the party, to the party's image, to the party's chances in the general election, or any public issue that is happening, they get discussed in the supreme council.
I guess that's your highest decision making body and that's your check and balance. It's just like in government, under our system, it is collective responsibility within cabinet.
But how does Umno work towards integrity? Because if it’s going to be a top-down reform, that’s definitely going to undermine patronage and power. Actually, is integrity even an issue?
It’s an ideal, not an issue. It's something that all political parties want to be known for and it's not like you've arrived at a destination and you’re done. It's something you always improve on.
So how that affects patronage and all the mechanisations within any political party… that's just the way politics is. You have to strive for that ideal even if that means certain traditions or dynamics change over time and I think they are going to change over time.
What's important is how do we get the whole party and its members, three million of the them, to understand and to also strive for the same ideal in their personal lives and their dealings in politics because first, it’s the right thing to do.
Second, even if you have to be completely pragmatic about it, I think ultimately the people are not going to support you if they feel you are not a party of integrity.
So for both reasons we always have to educate ourselves and remind ourselves that this is important.
And the party has been educating members on these ideals?
Yes. Within Umno Youth we have Akademi Kepimpinan Kapten Hussein (Akhi), that's our think tank. So in classes and sessions, we do this kind of training.
And it's something that we always highlight, whether in our ways or in our party structure. It's something that we always promote.
Moving forward, and we are looking at life after GE, what are some of the key things the party should work on immediately?
Many of us are not thinking much beyond GE because everyone's in election mood, but I mentioned somethings earlier, such as we need to put a Barisan foot forward and fielding fresher faces as part of the party’s face.
But beyond that, I’d like Umno to act as a party of government straightaway because after GE is done, in the ostensible sense, politics is over, at least for the first three years.
So let’s govern and start talking business, start talking policy, and I’d like Umno to be more active in that role.
Oftentimes, we use the general assembly to be the platform to which policy ideas get through and pushed forward and recommended.
But I think we have to find some other ways for Umno and its grassroots to feel that they can be part of discussions around policy.
And this is important for the public to see, because if they see Umno, they don’t just see a party that demonstrates or a party that only talks about its own internal issues or a party that hits out on the opposition all the time.
Yes, we will continue to do that because that's the political game, but I want the public to see that Umno can contribute policy ideas whether it is on big issues such as inequality or housing. These are things that not just ministers or non-party public ought to be speaking about, but also Umno can speak from its own voice.
I'd like more of that because in the end you want power to do good things, right? If you want power to do good things and you want to retain power, you start doing the good things.
So, if you are within Umno, how do you contribute to better policies that help Malays and Malaysians? I would say in the broad sense, that's what I'd like to start doing immediately, and then maybe then start thinking also of Umno's survival in the long term.
We win this election, and then think about it in the long term. What's our brand? What's Umno's brand? I have intimated the brand that I'd like it to be is one that's progressive.
So there needs to be some deep thinking about what kind of Umno we want to be in 2050. TN50 is a public initiative, but within Umno, there's nothing wrong with us thinking about Umno TN50.
What is Umno in TN50? Do we have the same structures? How do we envisage our ideology or rhetoric in 2050?
That conversation hasn’t happened yet because we got to think about winning now, but after that, those big questions around policy and around our own survival in 30 years is something I like to see happen straightaway.
Okay, given that no party is perfect, what is your pitch to young Malays and non-Malays to support BN-Umno?
For young voters, regardless of ethnicity or religion, support BN because that’s the one on the ticket not Umno. That’s the one in the ballot box we are asking you to cross.
Young people have to understand, and I hope they understand, that Malaysia is at the point where we have achieved so much but the next step is not an easy one to take.
Some people characterise it as a middle-income trap, while other economists say it doesn’t exist. Whatever you call it, we have been in a bit of a lull, and a lot of that has to do with external factors.
But we've sort of achieved this close-to-high-income-nation status. Now, if we want to be a premier league country, which is what TN50 is about, which the prime minister wants us to be, then we have to be very deliberate about the kind of policies we want to put in place.
I know BN is not the sexiest brand at this point, so I’m quite happy for young people to call me out on that – that's true.
That happens when you've already been in power for the entire period of the nation, and even before, so you are never going to be this sexy new thing. But if you remember and if I asked young people to vote, please vote on this thought: that we need really sound policy decisions now, so that we can achieve this premier league status in 20, 30 years.
Then I think the choice becomes extremely clear, because the other side simply does not have the credibility. They don’t seem to have a strong grasp of economic knowledge, or if they do, that seems to take a backseat to their constant, daily sniping.
You know, I had a debate with the Bersatu youth chief a couple of months ago, and he couldn’t even tell the difference between current account and fiscal account, or balance of payments and fiscal account. Fine, that's one guy.
Then you have Rafizi Ramli wrongly calling out Raslan Dahlan and I am sort of picking examples here, but that's an indication – they don’t have the credibility to make all these tough decisions.
So I say give us another shot, put us on notice, for the next five to 10 years that we need to become more exciting, to reflect these in a more millennial way. But, for now, you got to vote the group that have proven to be the one that has the long-term vision for our country's economy and society.
And there's only one party that's doing that, and for that reason and for nothing else, you got to vote BN.
On that note, if you fail to deliver, is it fair for Malaysians to vote otherwise?
Well, you speak to me in five years' time and I'll give you another pitch.