In the May 2018 general election, UMNO lost power for the first time in history but clawed back into government in March 2020 through defections from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. However, the party is now deeply split. A close examination of the positions of various UMNO leaders demonstrates that not all is well within the party, and its path to recapture Putrajaya is rocky.
The 2020 UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) general assembly was held on 27 and 28 March 2021, after the meeting was postponed several times last year. Adopting a hybrid format, key office holders in the party attended the meeting physically at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, while the rest tuned in virtually. This format was adopted due to the Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the government. Since January this year, Malaysia has been under a state of emergency. The UMNO general assembly is the party’s largest gathering every year; it is also the largest meeting by any political party in the country. After all, UMNO, formed in 1946, is Malaysia’s oldest and largest party with 3.35 million membership cardholders and 21,883 branches throughout the country.
In previous years, the assembly was the stage for UMNO leaders to demonstrate their loyalty to the president, particularly when Mahathir Mohamad and Najib Razak were helming the party between 1981 and 2003, and 2009 and 2018, respectively. Before its 2018 general election defeat, all UMNO presidents were Malaysia’s prime minister, and deputy presidents were deputy prime ministers. Although UMNO had been back in power since the Sheraton Move in February 2020, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is not the prime minister. Its deputy president Mohamad Hassan is not even an MP in the federal parliament. The party is facing several challenges on the communication front, showing a lack of party discipline. Party leaders have been sending different messages on the party’s future before the general assembly and more so after. Examining deeper into the nuances of the delegates’ speeches during the assembly demonstrates that not all is well within the party, and its path to recapture Putrajaya is rocky.
This paper examines the three key decisions made by the party “Working” Supreme Council (MKT) endorsed by the assembly delegates. The MKT is the highest decision-making body in UMNO. The first concerns the future of UMNO’s collaboration with Bersatu (Malaysian United Indigenous Party). Currently, 35 of 38 UMNO MPs support the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. However, UMNO is not a formal member of the PN coalition and has stated that this support will only last until the next election is called. The second decision touches on UMNO’s pact with PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) under the Muafakat Nasional (MN). Like UMNO, PAS is a party in the current PN government. Nevertheless, PAS has also officially joined the PN coalition. UMNO prefers to retain this Malay-unity pact with PAS, while PAS is reluctant to sever ties with Bersatu. The third was whether the party is open to working together with opposition parties PKR and DAP. Some party delegates raised the slogan “No to DAP, No to Anwar!” during the assembly. There were rumours that some UMNO leaders had already begun talks with the opposition to engineering a new political arrangement. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim did not deny that such discussions existed but dismissed collaboration between UMNO and the opposition as premature.
TWO VISIBLE CAMPS IN UMNO
UMNO’s decision to break ties with Bersatu and the PN government happened a month before the March assembly, and the assembly was only meant to formalise it. The MKT made the decision on 19 February during a meeting in Janda Baik, Pahang. There was some confusion regarding the outcome of that Pahang meeting. Earlier, an UMNO spokesperson denied that the MKT decision was final. However, in a letter dated 26 February 2021, Ahmad Zahid informed the prime minister of UMNO’s decision. The Federal Territories Minister, and UMNO leader, Annuar Musa, questioned why the MKT did not inform UMNO grassroots members of its decision earlier if the decision had already been made in February.
The anti-Bersatu camp has been consistent in their rhetoric: they do not want to play second fiddle in government. In their speeches, Ahmad Zahid and Mohammad Hassan emphasised that UMNO should be calling the shots.
Conflicting statements issued by UMNO leaders in public demonstrate that the party is fragmented, and two camps are visible: one led by UMNO ministers in the Muhyiddin Cabinet, who believed that there are merits with the UMNO-Bersatu collaboration; and the other led by MPs outside the Cabinet. The latter includes those with ongoing court cases, such as Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, secretary-general Ahmad Mazlan, former prime minister Najib Razak, and MKT members Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim and Bung Moktar Radin. However, it is also inaccurate to label this group as UMNO mahkamah (the “court” faction)—which is how the group is described—for there are others without ongoing court cases but supporting the decision for UMNO to leave Bersatu. They include Nazri Aziz, Ahmad Jazlan Yaacob, and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Moreover, they may not necessarily support Ahmad Zahid and Najib. In 2019, Nazri criticised Najib for accepting the role of advisor to BN. After the assembly, Nazri slammed Ahmad Zahid as a weak leader, unable to influence the ministers camp. A more accurate term to describe this group is “anti-Bersatu” camp”. In fact, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was one of the first UMNO members to withdraw support for Muhyiddin, and he did not support the government budget when it was passed in December 2020. After Razaleigh decided to withdraw, he held a press conference with former prime minister turned opposition MP Mahathir Mohamad. In quick succession, Ahmad Jazlan and Nazri also withdrew support for PN. If not for the Emergency declaration, which suspended parliamentary sitting, PN’s majority in parliament would have been tested. In March, two defections from PKR made up for the PN’s majority shortfall.
Moreover, it is unclear if the anti-Bersatu camp has a clear strategy for the party in the next election. First, they did not name their prime minister candidate. Tengku Razaleigh also has the ambition to lead the party. Months after UMNO’s electoral defeat in the 2018 general election, Tengku Razaleigh ran for the UMNO presidency in a three-cornered contest against Ahmad Zahid and Khairy Jamaluddin. Second, they are unclear about engaging the minister camp. During the general assembly, Ahmad Zahid labelled an unnamed Minister a “parasite” and challenged him to resign from the Cabinet. One would think that Ahmad Zahid was referring to Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa, and the minister indeed replied by calling Ahmad Zahid’s demand “inappropriate.” Nonetheless, Ahmad Zahid did not ask the other ministers to do the same, signalling they can wait until the general election is called. It was Tengku Razaleigh who went a step further, calling all UMNO ministers to resign immediately.
The anti-Bersatu camp has been consistent in their rhetoric: they do not want to play second fiddle in government. In their speeches, Ahmad Zahid and Mohammad Hassan emphasised that UMNO should be calling the shots. Ultimately, the anti-Bersatu camp was upset UMNO leaders were not given key positions in the government even though it has the highest number of seats. While Muhyiddin did not name a deputy prime minister but four senior ministers instead, the UMNO representative is not the first among equals. Instead, Azmin Ali from Bersatu is named as the most senior, ahead of the UMNO representative.
The ministers camp is more united compared to the anti-Bersatu one. The leaders of this camp include senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob, who is also one of three UMNO vice-presidents. The other ministers who form part of this group include Hishammuddin Hussein, Khairy Jamaluddin, and Annuar Musa. The split between this camp and the earlier group reached its climax when Annuar Musa was removed as secretary-general of Barisan Nasional (or BN, a multiethnic coalition in which UMNO leads with Chinese and Indian parties). Annuar was replaced by Ahmad Mazlan from the anti-Bersatu camp and had an ongoing court case. Ever since, Annuar has been issuing statements that are seen as damaging to the other camp, including revealing a secret pact between UMNO leaders with the opposition.
Despite the rivalry between the anti-Bersatu and ministers camps, the latter had to accept UMNO grassroots’ decision of favouring the former. Out of 190 UMNO divisions nationwide, 124 voted for UMNO to go it alone in the next elections. Ahmad Zahid and UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hassan reaffirmed this grassroots sentiment in their speeches. And since the matter was discussed and agreed upon by the MKT, there was little room for the ministers camp to manoeuvre during the general assembly. Unsurprisingly, the ministers remained muted throughout the meeting and did not go against the UMNO grassroots. They began to speak only after the assembly was over. First, a number of UMNO ministers met with the prime minister after the assembly ended. All decided to stay on as ministers. Second, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin called for party elections to be held before the general election to determine the party’s future. Due to the strong rejection of Bersatu by UMNO grassroots, many are left guessing on which side UMNO leaders not in either camp stand. An example would be the likes of Khaled Nordin and Zamry Abdul Kader, former chief ministers of Johor and Perak, respectively.
PRESERVING THE ALLIANCE WITH PAS
Another outcome of the assembly is that UMNO wants to contest the next general election under the BN banner. The BN has always been UMNO’s vehicle since the 1974 election. In the 2018 election, 13 political parties formed BN, but several Sarawak-based parties left the coalition afterwards. Today, these Sarawak-based parties form a separate coalition called GRS (Sarawak Parties Alliance), which supports PN. Another former BN party that left the coalition is peninsula-based multiracial party Gerakan; in February 2021, it decided to join the PN coalition instead. The BN is currently left with only four parties: UMNO, MCA (Malaysia Chinese Association), MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), and PBRS (United Sabah People’s Party). Outside BN, UMNO had formed an alliance with PAS. Therefore, by declaring that it wishes to campaign under the BN banner, how PAS fits into UMNO’s scheme remains unclear.
PAS has lent its support to Muhyiddin’s PN government and also officially joined the PN coalition. At the assembly, Ahmad Zahid’s message to PAS was unequivocal: PAS should stick with UMNO. Some UMNO party leaders were harsh towards PAS leaders. Before the assembly, Tengku Razaleigh called PAS a “political prostitute” for forging relations with PN and UMNO (through MN) while drawing a strong rebuke from PAS leaders. To be sure, Tengku Razaleigh, an MP from Kelantan, which PAS governs, has a long history of battling the Islamic party.
In the past, MCA and MIC had questioned PAS’ conservative stance, such as the implementation of an Islamic state and implementation of hudud laws; MCA, in particular, quizzed PAS’ proposal to amend ACT 355 to strengthen the powers of the Syariah court. UMNO needs to downplay its Malay and Islam supremacist rhetoric to ease its ties with MCA and MIC, for the two parties have to face their respective traditional voters. Since 2008, there has been a shift of non-Malay support from BN to the DAP (Democratic Action Party) and PKR (People’s Justice Party), the more secular and multiracial parties. Non-Malay support for the opposition is not guaranteed, as the by-election in Tanjong Piai Johor in 2019 demonstrated, and that the Chinese voters can swing back to the BN. Still, it is a long way for MCA and MIC to go before they regain voter support.
NO TO PKR AND DAP
Another clear message from delegates of the general assembly was that UMNO would not collaborate with the opposition before the next polls, echoing the MKT’s decision “No to DAP, no to Anwar Ibrahim.” This statement hit opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim the most. Before the assembly, he had not denied that discussions between him and UMNO leaders existed while claiming that plans for collaboration were premature. Ahmad Zahid, however, denied that such talks ever took place.
Speculation of an UMNO-PH alliance will hit the opposition, too, mainly if the talks are carried out with PKR and do not involve the DAP and Amanah (National Trust Party). Cracks in Amanah showed after some members reportedly joined PKR. Anwar and Mahathir had reignited their rivalry after PH’s fall from power in March 2020. After two decades of rivalry, the two patched up and managed to steer PH to its historic victory in 2018. As it is, Anwar Ibrahim excluded Mahathir from the opposition pact; the latter is now in political oblivion, for his party, Pejuang, has yet to obtain approval from the RoS (Registrar of Societies). Mahathir claims that his party will be the third force in the next election.
Bersatu leaders were also quick to jump on the bandwagon to neutralise UMNO’s desire to go alone. In the unlikely scenario that UMNO allies with PH, Bersatu will likely be pushed to the sidelines for two reasons: it is blamed for PH’s downfall, and former PKR leaders such as Azmin Ali, Saifuddin Abdullah, and Zuraidah Kamaruddin have all burned bridges with Anwar Ibrahim. Muhyiddin, who rarely comments on the political situation since taking over as prime minister, urged UMNO leaders to calm down and focus on battling Covid-19. Bersatu communications chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan also warned that if UMNO goes ahead with the decision to go alone, the party will be engaging in three-cornered fights with Bersatu and PAS (assuming PAS sticks with PN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH). This, according to Wan Saiful, will only benefit Pakatan Harapan, as happened in the 2018 election. The prime minister quickly gathered loyalty from UMNO ministers, who confirmed that they would not resign from the Cabinet as urged by Ahmad Zahid and Tengku Razaleigh.
Overall, the 2020 UMNO general assembly went without any tension. Like past general assemblies, UMNO leaders staged a show of unity, with members expressing loyalty to the president. Even the president and vice-president demonstrated a show of unity in their messaging. Yet, there were unequivocally unresolved leadership differences over party direction for the forthcoming general election. The apparent silence of UMNO ministers such as Khairy Jamaluddin, Annuar Musa, and Ismail Sabri, among others, was a sign that they had either been deliberately shut out or that they chose not to use this platform to utter their views. Annuar said that he was pleased with the outcome of the assembly only after Ahmad Zahid affirmed that UMNO would not be cooperating with DAP and PKR. His only rebuttal was against Ahmad Zahid’s challenge for a “parasite” to resign. The ministers camp only aired their views after the meeting was over.
The bigger challenge for UMNO is which party it will ally with for the next election. For sure, MCA and MIC in BN are its likely partners; yet it has to find partners in Sabah and Sarawak as well.
The elephant in the room was UMNO’s pick for the prime minister. Ahmad Zahid seems to be the front runner, but other UMNO leaders may challenge him. In particular, his ongoing corruption trial may cause UMNO members to have second thoughts about nominating him. If he is found guilty, he will not be able to run in the next polls. Similarly, former prime minister Najib Razak may not be eligible to run, having been found guilty of corruption. Ahmad Zahid’s leadership was again questioned by the ministers camp and some from the anti-Bersatu camp after an audio conversation between two persons sounding like Anwar, and Ahmad Zahid was leaked on social media. Anwar and Ahmad Zahid denied any involvement. Annuar Musa was quick to say the recording is genuine and recommended that the two leaders swear at a mosque if the allegation was untrue. On the other hand, while Nazri gave Ahmad Zahid the benefit of the doubt over the audio recording, he insisted that Ahmad Zahid should step aside as the UMNO president.
There are other UMNO leaders who have shown signs of interest in the prime minister’s post. Although Mohamad Hassan’s claim that he was the best candidate for prime minister was intended as a joke, some UMNO members reckon that he is the best man for the job. Many attributed him as the person behind MN’s success when he was the acting UMNO president during Ahmad Zahid’s leave of absence. However, he lacks experience in federal politics, and his highest post was chief minister of Negeri Sembilan. In the same vein, 84-year-old Tengku Razaleigh said that he was the most qualified person to be prime minister in an interview with the media after the assembly. Besides Mohamad Hassan and Tengku Razaleigh, other potential candidates who may be eyeing to lead UMNO are Khairy, Ismail Sabri and Hishamuddin Hussein. Age and cabinet experience favour the three candidates. Khairy has called for party election to be brought forward before the polls. The ROS requires them to take place soon, but the Supreme Council can vote to delay them by 18 months. This will be another battle to watch between the ministers and anti-Bersatu camps and will be played out in the MKT.
The bigger challenge for UMNO is which party it will ally with for the next election. For sure, MCA and MIC in BN are its likely partners; yet it has to find partners in Sabah and Sarawak as well. For Sabah, UMNO won the last state election, but it contested with Bersatu and other Sabah parties. UMNO was, however, not given the chief minister post. Even though UMNO is now part of the Sabah government, it is opposition Warisan (Sabah Heritage Party) that has the highest number of seats. If UMNO fights Bersatu in Sabah, Warisan may be the biggest winner. Thus, there is no certainty that UMNO can win and be dominant in the East Malaysian states. There is also no guarantee that Sarawak-based parties will go with UMNO or Bersatu in the next polls. While not in the PN coalition, Sarawak-based parties support the Muhyiddin Yassin government. This means that Sarawak parties have bigger bargaining power, given the UMNO-Bersatu or BN-PN rivalries.
UMNO leaders may be demanding an election soon. Still, given the current state of affairs and the leaders’ lack of clear strategies, it has a long way to go before it can differentiate friends from foes, within the party and outside the party. A snap poll—which is what UMNO leaders are calling for—may not put the party at any advantage against Bersatu. To be sure, even if it manages to secure key allies, it still has a long way to communicate its strategies, ideology and explain how it has changed after the electoral defeat in 2018.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/52 published on 23 April 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.