Facebook Page of Zahid Hamidi at https://www.facebook.com/zahidhamidi.fanpage. Accessed 20 July 2023.

Long Reads

From the Fringes of Defeat: How UMNO President Zahid Hamidi Transformed His Vulnerability into Invincibility


This Long Read examines the structural moves UMNO President Zahid Hamidi took to consolidate power within the party. It argues that these decisions are likely to disincentivise reforms, rejuvenation and change within UMNO, which may exacerbate its decline in electoral popularity.


Throughout its unbroken 61-year rule, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was regarded as one of the most successful political parties in the world. The party’s presidency was the most watched position and its sweeping power was the ‘most striking feature of UMNO’s organisational structure’. Much of this was owed to the fact that the presidency and prime ministership were seen as one, where the former was held together ‘through a system of patronage and disguised coercion’.

The first Prime Minister cum UMNO President, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, deployed a highly personalised style of leadership; he held meetings of the Supreme Council at his residence, selecting election candidates, state premiers and leaders without resistance. His successor, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, reorganised the party structure to be even more intimately tied to the government by creating full-time ministry-like bureaus in UMNO and implementing policies following ‘the wishes and desires of UMNO’. The party’s longest-serving President, Mahathir Mohamad, turned the centralisation process up a notch by maximally using the party-state apparatus for packing (placing loyalists in top party and government posts), rigging (manipulating procedures to curb the opposition), and circumventing (channelling government resources to loyalists), thus ensuring UMNO’s dominance against all odds.

On 30 June 2018, Zahid Hamidi became the first UMNO President to run the party without holding the highest executive office of Prime Minister, within what used to be the ‘matrix of autocracy’. Two days earlier, the anti-corruption agency had frozen UMNO headquarters’ bank accounts, regarded as a critical lifeline for the oldest and largest party, after it had just suffered its worst electoral defeat in the 14th general election that year. The party would go on to experience by-election defeats, high-profile defections, external pressures for dissolution, and criminal charges being filed against its top leaders.

Half a decade later, despite his party holding only 26 seats in Parliament—its lowest in history—Zahid Hamidi was able to reverse its party’s fortunes by acquiring executive power through securing the second-highest position, that of Deputy Prime Minister, for himself, besides securing five other ministerial and six deputy ministerial positions for the party. Within UMNO, Zahid Hamidi’s control as President is now the strongest it has ever been; he has entrenched his loyalists widely and deeply, from the highest leadership council to the lowest party branches.

Regarded as a shrewd political operator, Zahid Hamidi’s ability to ‘snatch victory from the fringes of defeat’ is remarkable. He used his time as the first non-Prime Minister UMNO President to centralise power further in the hands of the presidency. This article will analyse the three decisions he made as UMNO President that were most consequential to the party structure:

a) Constitutional change to postpone party elections, effectively lengthening the maximum term from 3 years to 5 years permanently;

b) Passing a motion of no-contest for the top 2 posts;

c) High-profile sacking and suspensions of rebel party members.

In each section, the background and implications of the given ‘reform’ will be considered before concluding with an overall outlook for UMNO.

Before Zahid Hamidi came to power, UMNO was already a highly centralised organisation. As the party’s supreme leader (“pemimpin utama”), the President carries the prerogatives of selection. An UMNO President can appoint dozens of leaders at the highest decision-making council besides holding the final say on disciplinary matters and choosing candidates for the party to contest in general and state elections. Through the years, such incumbency advantages have also grown. In 1971, the Liaison Committee replaced the State Liaison Committee (and its earlier form, State Executive Committee) to limit state-level power in favour of the President and his council. Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003) lengthened the presidency by an optional 18 months, and created barriers to challenges to the presidency by modifying rules and procedures. This resulted in the presidency staying unchallenged for decades.

Notwithstanding, Zahid Hamidi’s presidency started at a point of weakness. He was forced to compete and debate against two candidates—the first time since 1988. Although he won by a reasonable margin, substantial opposition within UMNO forced him to take an unprecedented garden leave, amidst an unceasing call for him to step down. To add to his travails, Zahid Hamidi was charged with 87 criminal counts relating to corruption—the highest in the country—adding urgency for him to exercise any leverage he could to avoid final defeat.

Studying Zahid’s comeback from vulnerability to invincibility, therefore, is also a study of the awesome tools at the UMNO President’s disposal. The structural changes that Zahid undertook were merely the final steps of consolidation started long ago by his predecessors.

Regarded as a shrewd political operator, Zahid Hamidi’s ability to ‘snatch victory from the fringes of defeat’ is remarkable.

A. Postponing party elections to 6 months after general elections

Ironically, the most consequential structural decision for UMNO was also the easiest to pass. At the extraordinary general meeting held on 15 May 2022, attended by 2,586 delegates, the party passed a constitutional amendment that allowed party elections to be postponed to six months after general elections.

Before the amendment, party elections had to be held every 3 years, with an option of an 18-month delay. Any postponement beyond this would attract investigations from the Registrar of Societies (RoS), that carry the prerogative of suspension and deregistration.

The main reason for postponement was tactical: for the party to focus its strength on the next general election without a party election for fear that the latter would threaten party unity. There was also a procedural reason, and this regarded UMNO’s future requests for postponement and the fear that these risked being rejected, now that the Home Ministry was no longer controlled by the party.

At that time, UMNO SC members were keen to retain their positions, especially as the window for the next general elections being held was closing. Zahid Hamidi’s faction’s success in painting his opponents as ‘traitors’, or a fifth column, also disincentivised many from objecting to the postponement or challenging for the highest leadership positions.

While a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds approval by eligible attendees of the Special General Assembly, achieving that was not really difficult in practice. In fact, constitutional amendments are occasionally passed in large batches, mixed with substantive and procedural changes, typically reflecting the desires of the President.

The implications of this amendment were severely underestimated. Running out the clock under the amended provision now enables elected officers to stay for a maximum of 66 months—nearly doubling the default term limit of 36 months—as seen in Table 1. The maximum term period under the pre-amended provision was 54 months, which was still a whole year less than the maximum term period post-amendment.

Table 1: Before-and-after comparison of the maximum term period for UMNO office bearers after the passing of the 2021 constitutional amendment

 Default term limitOptional period of extensionMaximum term period
Pre-2022 amendment36 months18 months54 months
Post-2022 amendment60 months6 months66 months

Significant term period amendments had only happened twice in UMNO’s history. In 1971, UMNO under the presidency of Tun Razak amended the constitution to extend the term period for Supreme Council positions from one year to three years. Mahathir Mohamad, in December 1998, passed an amendment to allow an 18-month extension, a provision that was retained at an extraordinary general assembly in 2000. Be that as it may, Zahid Hamidi’s latest update to the term period stands as one of the most consequential in UMNO history.

The most important effect is that it entrenches incumbency advantage by guaranteeing general and state election candidate selection powers for the President. With the amendment, an UMNO President does not need to prove himself in a party election between general elections like before. In other words, if Zahid Hamidi is the President for the 2023-2028 term, he shall also be guaranteed the candidate selection rights, precluding any possibility for an alternative person to take his place in a party election and subsume that right. This situation now significantly curtails dissent against the President and his team, jeopardising any dissident’s candidacy in the upcoming election.

Chances for a large-scale dissent movement similar to that led by Khairy Jamaluddin in 2021 calling for early party elections to determine the leadership going into the next general election are miniscule now. Dropping local warlords not aligned with the President, like Annuar Musa, Shahidan Kassim, Tajuddin Rahman, and Zahidi Abidin, prior to the 2022 general elections proved that dissent within UMNO can be politically costly. The amendment significantly increases the political cost for dissent. The ‘feelers and soundings’ of grassroots that guided early UMNO Presidents will matter less now.

Even if party dissent happens after the general elections, it is highly unlikely to succeed. The short six-month window between the general election (“GE”) and the party election is insufficient to mobilise dissenters to overthrow the leadership, save for a severe violation on the President’s part. A President who fills the candidacy list with his loyalists in a general election will likely return with more capital if they become part of government or the legislative body, making a post-GE overthrow harder. The pre-GE candidate selection process can be used as an anticipatory tool to stamp out potential future threats in the party long before the party election is held.

To a smaller degree, the amendment also disincentivises reform and performance by elected party officers who enjoy the security of tenure. In a virtually guaranteed 5-year term, elected members are likely to take it easy and only pick up on their work when party election approaches. Rejuvenation, reforms and course correction are less likely now since the party has severed midterm party elections which would have continued to serve as a vital feedback loop.

Although the 60-month term remains optional and the previous default 36-month term remains on paper, the option will likely be exercised. The provision can always be interpreted in line with the President’s desire for maximum time in power. Moreover, ever since the first 18-month delay was allowed under Mahathir, all UMNO Presidents have used it, even reforming Presidents like Abdullah Badawi and Najib Abdul Razak.

On a balance of probabilities, it can be argued that the effective term period for UMNO office bearers have now been extended to 66 months; it is this that will deter performance and reform efforts.

B. No-contest motion for top 2 posts in UMNO

Despite Zahid Hamidi’s apparent willingness to open up the top two posts—President and Deputy President—for contest before 2023, a delegate motion of no-contest for these posts was passed on 14 January 2023. This was the first time a no-contest was passed through a delegate motion at the General Assembly (or “PAU”). Before that, no-contests were secured as an SC advice or resolution, and/or through structural engineering, such as using the innovative bonus and quota system. While the top two posts were rarely contested in the past—the last two presidential contests were 31 years apart, in 1987 and 2018—they were still a technical possibility. This delegate motion shuts that out, creating a ‘disguised autocracy’ by limiting the voters’ freedom of choice.

At that time, Zahid Hamidi did not follow the practice of bringing the no-contest motion to the SC and announcing an advice or resolution after; this was because there was no guarantee he would succeed in barring contests. If he failed, there was no guarantee that he would win the contests since opposition was building up following UMNO’s worst-ever electoral performance two months earlier. Resorting to an unprecedented method of deploying a delegate-led no-contest motion, while ‘sneaky’, was the surest way of closing off contests.

Generally, no-contest at the top gives a ‘false sense of security and popularity’ to the leaders. Leaving open a technical possibility of contests is important in a Malay party because it could be used as a signal to the leaders to step down from their positions if they had overstayed their usefulness.

Former prime minister and UMNO Vice President Ismail Sabri argued that the no-contest motion was invalid because it had violated Article 9.3 of the UMNO Constitution (UC) which states that the top leadership positions ‘shall’ be elected every three years. In other words, even if the motion was tabled as an SC motion at PAU after discussions and debates, it would not be valid since the UC demands that contests must be a technical possibility. Past court cases relating to the interpretation of ‘shall’ and ‘may’ showed that the overall intention and consequences of the interpretation matters more than the exact wording. Since UMNO is set up as a party with a democratic process of elections, it could only be interpreted that an election ‘shall’ be had for the highest posts.

In fact, a leaked official letter showed that the RoS found the no-contest motion in violation of Article 9.3 which necessitates corrective measures. Subsequently, the Home Minister on 7 March 2023 exempted UMNO from the effects of Section 13 of the Societies Act 1966 which governs the cancellation and suspension of societies. Curiously, this decision referenced Section 70 of the same Act, which stipulates the Minister’s discretion to exempt compliance with the same Act. These unusual interventions underscore the case that UMNO’s no-contest motion amounted to a legal infraction.

It is likely that the Home Ministry’s exemption is a one-off matter, and is unlikely to be made a practice in future UMNO party elections. However, the upshot remains the same, that is UMNO as a party has reverted back to its norm of not opening up the top two positions for contests. A delegate motion was a last resort to limit brewing dissent. Now with a loyalist-dominated SC, future no-contest advice or resolutions will likely pass, and the backing of the candidate selection powers from the party election postponement should secure the no-contest by default.

As no-contests persist as a norm, the status quo will likely remain. While contesting lower positions is still possible, the top two no-contest practice creates a chilling effect for members to fall in line.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamid at the Madani Unity Tour programme in Kupang, Baling on August 4, 2023. (Photo: Zahid Hamid / Facebook)

C. High-profile sacking and suspensions of party members

Almost two weeks after the no-contest motion was passed, UMNO announced that a few high-profile party leaders, including Khairy Jamaluddin, Hishammuddin Hussein and Shahril Hamdan, were being sacked and suspended respectively from the party, shown in Table 2.

Table 2: List of high-profile sackings and suspensions on 27 January 2023.

No.Member NameLast held party leadership positionDisciplinary outcome
1Khairy JamaluddinUMNO Youth ChiefSacked
2Noh OmarSupreme Council memberSacked
3Hishammuddin HusseinVice PresidentSuspended for 6 years
4Shahril Sufian HamdanUMNO Information Chief and Deputy Youth ChiefSuspended for 6 years
5Maulizan BujangJohor State Executive Committee member and Tebrau Division ChiefSuspended for 6 years
6Mohd Salim Mohd ShariffJempol Division ChiefSuspended for 6 years

NB: Other than Khairy and Noh Omar, 42 other members were also sacked.

According to Article 20.4 of the UC, the Disciplinary Board (or Lembaga Disiplin, “LD”) must listen to and be satisfied with the presence of a violation before deciding on the punishment(s) to be meted, if any. Article 20.5 of the UC also states that every layer of the party must report to their respective disciplinary units before submitting the case to the LD. The proper due process requires that the LD then make a recommendation to the management meeting before the SC ultimately decides. On a balance of probabilities, there was no disciplinary report or investigations on these members before the final decision was made.

The case of Shahril Hamdan’s suspension is instructive of the overall sacking and suspension process during this period. Unlike Khairy Jamaluddin or Hishammuddin Hussein, whose public statements and manoeuvres could be classified as violations of the broad obligations of members (Article 6 of UC), however tenuous, it was much more difficult to penalise Shahril Hamdan for a disciplinary transgression. Shahril was part of Zahid Hamidi’s apparatus prior to his suspension, having served as the party’s Deputy Youth Chief and Information Chief. Indeed, in the letter that was passed indirectly to Shahril via WhatsApp a few days later, there was only a reference to the UC clause being violated, without specifics on which actions were found to violate those clauses. This was a clear violation of due process, an essential component to natural justice, as ‘no man should be condemned unheard’.

Without a clear delineation of the transgressions, it is impossible to assess if the punishments have been proportionate. Proportionality is an emerging natural justice doctrine in Malaysia, whereby its violation would render the punishment ultra vires (beyond legal authority prescribed). Taken in total, it can be argued that the sackings and suspensions were private decisions made by the President without due process, based on an LD report that was not seen by the leaders or the victims involved, and that might not exist at all.

Rejuvenation, reforms and course correction are less likely now since the party has severed midterm party elections which would have continued to serve as a vital feedback loop.


Deprived of executive premiership, Zahid Hamidi started his UMNO presidency as the most disadvantaged President in the party’s history. He did not have the state largesse to keep his supporters loyal or the executive apparatus to eliminate enemies like his predecessors had had. However, he maximally deployed this disadvantage to elicit party sympathy, filling his speeches and public statements with commissive and self-victimisation claims. He painted himself as a selfless party-first leader (“I do not want any positions in the Cabinet”), drawing attention to his unique absence of power as UMNO President (“Sorry I am only an UMNO President who doesn’t hold power”), and contrasting his loyalty by demonising opponents as self-centred, power-hungry traitors (calling opponents “Seeking Livelihood Cluster” or Kluster Cari Makan, and “Afraid of Losing Power Cluster” or “Kluster Takut Bos Hilang Kuasa”).

This worked well with sympathetic party members, who remembered him for taking responsibility in leading the party when UMNO was at its lowest point, even though they acknowledged the contrary view outsiders share.

As a non-Prime Minister UMNO President, Zahid Hamidi focused on consolidating power within the party and fully exploited every tool he had, creating far-reaching changes to the structure of the party.

Cumulatively, the three major decisions discussed in this paper virtually shut off any reasonable opportunity for dissent. Hypothetically, even if a popular leader with substantial grassroots backing were to stage a democratic overthrow of Zahid, like Khairy Jamaluddin tried to do in 2018, that option is closed now. This is not only because a no-contest for the top two posts is further entrenched in the norm, but also that dissent, however reasonable, is dramatically less likely now given the guaranteed candidate selection powers held by the UMNO President. Even if a hypothetical rebel succeeds in shaking up the party by mobilising widespread dissent, the arbitrary and personal exercise of sacking and suspension by the UMNO President could immediately uproot any challenge. Save for the President’s goodwill, it is highly unlikely for democratic contests to occur organically in UMNO’s new structure.

At the time of writing, two UMNO members, together with a coalition colleague, have filed for a judicial review against UMNO, the Home Minister, RoS, and the Malaysian government for exempting the no-contest motion from compliance. They seek an order to quash the Home Minister’s exemption, besides seeking a declaration that the posts should be open for contest, among others. However, even if the case has merits, there may be procedural challenges that may defeat such suits. First, Article 20.7 of the UC allows the party to terminate a member’s party membership upon bringing any party decision to court, which may result in the UMNO members losing the necessary locus standi to proceed. Second, the judge may not entertain the challenge, considering it non-justiciable for reasons of the UMNO decision being a private law, laches (period lapsed), or requiring the members to exhaust all domestic party-based remedies.

UMNO is expected to become an increasingly reactionary party, as reforms will be less likely to materialise without internal dissent. Each President and his appointee’s tenure will be longer, which makes reforms less urgent, as party office bearers now have reduced accountability to their members. These structural decisions by Zahid Hamidi are also unlikely to be reversed in the medium-term as every President holding the position will likely want to retain the chief benefit of selecting general election candidates and securing a longer tenure. If there are any reforms at all, these will depend on the personalities holding the presidency, and this necessarily makes UMNO a personality-driven party, where the highest successes and failures are an extension of the President.

Since many Malaysian voters, especially youths, have avoided voting for UMNO because of Zahid Hamidi, it is sensible to assume that the decline in electoral power will continue at an accelerated pace.

In the past, experts argued that the UMNO Presidency was strong because of its merger with the role of the Prime Minister. What Zahid Hamidi has shown, however, is that the UMNO presidency on its own is powerful even without the executive power; he has wielded every tool at his disposal and made his position unchallengeable, even by the best opponents. Zahid has been successful in converting his disadvantage into an advantage, but whether he can reverse UMNO’s decline remains to be seen.

This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2023/59 published on 25 July 2023. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.

James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.