12-04-2012 06:54

UMNO in the Driving Seat: The challenges faced by the UMNO party in the lead-up to the 13th General Elections in Malaysia

RSIS Malaysia Update :

April 2012

Pre-election interviews

UMNO in the Driving Seat:

The challenges faced by the UMNO party in the 

lead-up to the 13th General Elections in Malaysia

Discussion with UMNO Deputy Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.


Farish A. Noor





As part of RSIS’s pre-election discussion series, Farish A Noor speaks to some of the up- and-coming politicians of Malaysia. The interview below features the Malaysian Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, who is seen as one of the new rising leaders of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party.

Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah was born in Temerloh, Pahang, on 27 January 1961. He received his first BA degree from University Malaya (UM) before earning a diploma in translation from the Malaysian Translators Association and pursuing further studies at the Harvard Business School, Harvard.

In his youth he served as the President of the Malaysian Youth Council (MYC), and later entered politics by joining UMNO in the mid-1980s.

He contested the General Elections for the first time in March 2008 and won his seat; and now serves in the Malaysian cabinet as the Deputy Minister of Higher Education. He also sits as a member of the Supreme Council of the UMNO party.


Q. If I may, I would like to begin with a statement that was made by former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, who yesterday said that the time has come for UMNO to actively recruit smart and able professionals into UMNO, in the lead-up to the coming General Elections (GE).1 Now as we know, since the 1980s, this has been the approach of UMNO’s competitor the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS. During the time when PAS was led by the late Yusoff Rawa the Islamist party actively sought the support of university-educated professionals, to build what Rawa called ‘the Alliance of Ulama- Professionals’. Has this not been the case for UMNO too, or has UMNO come to realise that it has lost out on the recruitment of bright young Malaysians to its cause? 

A. Let me put it this way: This has been a concern of us (UMNO) for many years now, and in fact the problem goes back a long while. I personally do not think that the UMNO party per se is anti-intellectual or against professionals, but from my own experience in the 1980s I can see that it was difficult for some of the professional classes to get into UMNO even then.

In my case, I had applied to become an UMNO member as soon as I graduated in 1984. In fact, I filled in my application forms twice, at the Temerloh division, and was puzzled as to why I did not get a reply after two years. I was even more surprised when my friends who had applied to join along with me then had their memberships confirmed long before mine was.

Finally I decided that the best thing to do was to apply through my father-in-law’s constituency as he was based in Lembah Pantai, which I did. It was only in 1996 that I managed to transfer my membership back to Temerloh where I am from, and that tells you something about the difficulties that some of us faced when we wanted to join then.

I cannot say that UMNO as a party rejects professionals or intellectuals, but there was a problem of some divisions not welcoming ‘some’ individuals for personal reasons. We came to recognise this, as we kept hearing similar stories; of young and able intellectuals wanting to contribute to the party but made to feel left out.

That is why after the 2008 General Elections UMNO made a radical change to its membership system and the party now allows direct membership, so that anyone can join UMNO as a party, without being tagged to a particular branch or constituency. This was in line with our aim to open up and broaden UMNO’s support base, and by then I was already an UMNO Supreme Council member, and the council felt that this would be good for the party as a whole.


Q. And was this due to increased pressure from the opposition parties that were fielding younger, professional candidates? 

A. In part, yes. Because since the GE of 1999 we noticed that PAS was proudly proclaiming that it was going to field young professionals, with doctorates, etc. Their line-up was more impressive and the new candidates were new faces with high educational backgrounds. DAP was also doing the same thing, fielding new faces with good solid qualifications. We knew we had to keep up and so the pressure on UMNO to open up its membership was already there.


Q. In the lead-up to the coming GE, this call for opening up, for internal reform and renovation seems timely I think. But it also suggests that UMNO is coming to grips with the new realities of the new Malaysia we see evolving all around us.

A. Yes, exactly. We, UMNO, and the rest of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, have to realise that this is a new Malaysia we are talking about. Malaysia’s socio-political landscape is changing very fast, as we saw in the last GE in 2008.
I think there are three new challenges that we face as a nation, and we had better come to grips with these 3 new realities quickly.


Q. And what are those three new realities?

A. Well firstly there is the new media. It cannot be denied that Facebook, Twitter, etc have altered the way we conduct our politics in the public domain. To some extent there have already been changes and even among the leaders of UMNO we see that Prime Minister Najib has engaged the public through the internet, through Facebook etc. I hope that the other leaders of UMNO and BN see the need for this sort of engagement, because we cannot run from the need to engage any longer.

In 2008 we (UMNO/BN) almost lost the internet struggle, some would call it the cyber- war. But this is a struggle to win support and to present opinions, and at that time we were lagging behind due to the fact that the opposition were ahead in their use of cyber technology and new media.

Today I think UMNO Youth at least have managed to put their ideas across in cyber- space more effectively, in terms of having a presence there. But I am still worried about whether we can gain an advantage in terms of the content that we put across.


Q. On that note, I have to say that sometimes when I read the pro-UMNO blogs and sites I am somewhat worried that there is more form than substance. Often there are just very personal attacks and perhaps even slander and insults. This doesn’t win hearts and minds does it? If anything, it merely reinforces the image of a discredited UMNO and may be damaging in the long run.

A. Agreed. We need sound, professional and intelligent content that is real and issue- focused. Slander doesn’t get us anywhere, because the Malaysian electorate is now fed up with slander and gossip. It doesn’t even win votes.

But it is precisely because this (virtual) domain is so important that some of the older politicians should not go around and proclaim the death of the internet just yet. Internet is real, it is not going to go away tomorrow. And linked to the new media are our new attitudes to information too. What new media has done is put on the table the demand for information, and access to information. So some of our old attitudes towards state secrets etc have to change as well.

After all, even my researchers are requesting freedom of information, because they need sound and reliable data to do good research. After all, we are trying to help the country become better. How can we do that if my researchers cannot get their hands on facts and statistics, that are kept secret by some stakeholders?

Freedom of information is also vital when we, the government, deal with stakeholders. In development projects, planning, etc the government’s own functionaries need to have reliable data at their fingertips. So with all this new technology, young people are asking: Why cant they get their hands on the data?

This is why I say that the first new challenge we face as a party is dealing with the changing climate as a result of the technological revolution. This is the age of transparency and accountability. The Malaysian public, whose support we need, are asking for that: integrity in governance. We can only demonstrate that when we show we have nothing to hide. And until and unless we adapt to this new media that dominates our society, we will be seen as a misfit, not in synch with the new world we live in.


Q. Talking about the new world, how then would UMNO address the demands of the youth of Malaysia in particular? Especially taking into account the fact that the next GE will witness the coming-of-age of hundreds of thousands of new voters?

A. That is the second change I want to talk about: The new social consciousness that we see around us.

We should not be pessimistic, for I do believe that young Malaysians are not un-patriotic or lazy or apathetic like some of the older generation suggest. We simply have to understand that in this new age we live in, what counts as ‘patriotism’ for the older generation may be different for the younger generation, because there has been a generational gap. The older generation still talk about patriotism in the form of flags and marches, etc; but we need to understand that the symbolism of patriotism has evolved as well.

Just look at the contemporary youth culture of Malaysia: I really think we should recognise that young Malaysians actually love their country as much as the older generation does, but they simply communicate it in a different way. Have you listened to the young rapper Altimet for instance? He has a song called ‘Malaysian boy’, about feeling Malaysian wherever you are; and another song called ‘Selamanya Harimau Malaysia’, about supporting the Malaysian football team. His songs are all about how young Malaysians feel, think and are Malaysian – no matter where they might be. Its just that he expresses his ideas through rap music, and not old fashioned marching tunes. But that doesn’t make him any less patriotic surely?

With the emergence of this new public consciousness we need to recognise that the worldview of the younger generation is different from their elders. Some older politicians keep saying things like ‘if the opposition parties win power, the country will slip into chaos’, etc. But the young don’t believe that. They are not driven by fear or paranoia anymore.

And linked to this are the new social networks built by new actors and agents in politics. In the 1950s, a teacher was just a teacher, a doctor was just a doctor. But now we have artistes who become activists too, etc. In short identities have become multiple and complex. And as a result Malaysians have become a complex society and UMNO has to recognise this. This is the new social fusion that is coming about, with people taking on many, multiple roles simultaneously.


Q. And with these new complex subjectivities, I suppose the form of Malaysian politics and UMNO’s politics has to adapt as well?

A. Very much so. The forms are different now. In the past, if one wanted to bring about societal change one would have to formally create a political party, get it registered with the Registrar of Societies, etc. That era of neatly-defined and clearly compartmentalised social activism is over.

Today, young people just network: Through the internet, anyone of us can simply join or support any cause anywhere, just by pressing the ‘Like’ button. This means that our reliance on formalised organisational structures is slowly being by-passed by a new sense of networking that is virtual and simultaneous. Parties have not become irrelevant, but there are other modes of organisation and mobilisation as well now.

A good example would be the Bersih 2.0 mass rally calling for clean and fair elections. Some of the authorities were against it, and wanted to ban it. But how? Bersih 2.0 was not a party. It was not a formal entity. It was an instance of mass networking that was decentred and without a solid organisational structure to it. It was a mass movement, networked by individuals and based on ideas.

The modern state has to deal with these new social realities in a realistic and pragmatic way. With the internet and new media, no political party can insulate itself anymore. Governments all over the world remain very formal, very structured and very bureaucratic. But rapid development means that these official structures can be by-passed now, so we have to address this new challenge to make our voice heard too.


Q. Do you see these developments as taking Malaysia towards a new form of democracy that we have never seen? I ask this because all over the world we see governments struggling with trying to remain visible and relevant, and I don’t think Malaysia is an exception to the rule.

A. Democracy, in terms of its practice, has certainly changed. I think we in Malaysia have reached the third stage of democracy. In the first stage the original struggle was to win our independence and to gain control of our own country from the colonialists. In the second stage it was all about management, nation-building and creating a modern Malaysia. We are still at that second stage of routine governance and nation-building, but I feel the third stage is already here as well.

The third stage of democracy I am talking about is participatory democracy. It is when we – the government and the ruling parties – need to engage with the public and to listen to them too. The Malaysian public has become an educated public, so we cannot just give slogans all the time. In participatory democracies, people want to be consulted; they demand to be consulted. Look at the reforms that Prime Minister Najib have made: The Public Assembly bill for instance was a radical opening up of Malaysian society and the public space. But even then some groups complained, because they felt they were not consulted. So that is why we need to engage with these groups because they are real constituencies whose support we need.


Q. It looks like Malaysia, like many capital-driven democracies, is now heading to what some call a ‘hyper-democracy’, where the new media means that governments and parties like UMNO will be under scrutiny all the time. So in a sense, elections have been superseded too, for the public are demanding accountability every day.

A. Right. Elections are no longer once every four or five years. Now in the new society we live in, elections are every day. Every single day the government faces a referendum on every single policy we make, every bill we pass, every project we undertake. The common denominator to all this is the new media, and the new communicative infrastructure that we ourselves have created thanks to successful development.


Q. So how does UMNO hope to stay ahead in this race for the public’s support and to remain relevant?

A. Well, its like being in a fast moving train. If we are slow, then we simply become passengers on the train, and the train may take us to wherever. If we are to lead this development process, and to show that UMNO does have a role as the nation’s leading party, then we must lead. But to do that we must move fast, on the fast-moving train: We must go to the driver’s locomotive and we must remain in the driving seat. We need to set the agendas, introduce the new ideas, be ahead of the learning curve. But for this to happen we need to know and accept that the new social realities of Malaysia are here to stay.

The one thing we should not try to do is stop the train, for that would not be possible. Worse still, it would be political suicide, for any party in any modern democracy today.


Q. Back to the question of the Youth vote and the need for change, why do you think that so many political leaders still harbour this negative view of the young? After all, even in Western Europe and North America there seem to be politicians who think that all young people are trouble-makers and rabble-rousers?

A. There are three things that are happening here: Firstly, there is this tendency to equate youth with problems. This is a mistake and its simply not true. While some young people face problems like unemployment, poverty, etc it cannot be said that they are all trouble- makers. I’m not saying that we need to sweep the Youth issue under the carpet, but we need to stop equating them with chaos and social ills instead. Often we hear leaders saying again and again that youth are just beneficiaries of development; but we need to remember that youth are also contributors to development, if we give them the chance to do so.

The second thing is that we – governments – need to empower the youth of today. This empowerment, however, entails having to learn to trust youth. That element of trust is missing in some countries, because some conservative politicians simply think that if young people are allowed to think for themselves, mobilise themselves, then they will be up to no good. But how can you win support if you don’t show trust?

We need to give the young our trust and give them the space they need to address their issues themselves, on their own terms. After all, they are living in a very different world from their elders, and so they have a right to decide for themselves too. Too often we see some leaders talking down to the young, speaking in a condescending way that belittles them. But if you want support, you have to win and earn that support with trust.

Q. Can I interrupt you a second here: Ive always felt that one misperception has been that conservative elites assume that all young people are potential revolutionaries. I don’t see why they cannot recognise that when young people as for jobs, accountability, transparency, etc they are actually asking to have a stake in society; to become active and contributing stake-holders.

A. Exactly. They have middle-class aspirations too. We cannot stereotype our younger generation because for a start the Youth are not homogeneous. There are those who are political, there are those who are non-political, etc. But the one thing that they have in common is that they want to be trusted by the government, and be allowed to decide their future. Whats the point of telling students that they should concentrate on their studies? They are students, they know they have to study! But they also want to have a say in the sort of society they will be part of later.

The third thing that we need to understand is the need for youth representation. And by this I don’t mean simply appointing representatives to speak for youth. As a minister in the Ministry of Higher Education, for instance, I need to know what the students are thinking, how they feel, what they think are their priorities in life. This means I need to engage with them in a real, meaningful way. I cannot appoint some students to speak for the rest; it is the students themselves who have to elect their own representatives whom they think can speak on their behalf. Youth representation therefore means allowing young people to represent themselves, and to select their representatives too.


Q. The question of Youth representation will of course rise as we get closer to the General Elections. How important will the Youth vote be for UMNO and BN by extension?

A. Very important indeed. Youth, along with the non-Malay votes and the non-partisan fence-sitters, will be one of the three factors that can lead to victory or loss for us. The numbers themselves will show how important the young voters are by now: Voters below the age of 35 will amount to around 50 per cent of the voters this time. And if we look at first time voters, they make up around 16 per cent. That is an enormous block of voters, and young people know that their votes can play a decisive role this time.


Q. So has UMNO/BN done enough to secure the Youth vote?

A. I think so. Barisan Youth has been very active in courting the young and they have been holding many, many consultations and Youth discussion labs; isolating key issues of concern, identifying priorities, etc. Since 2008 Barisan has made an active effort to re- connect with the Youth. Many of the findings of the BN Youth teams have been passed up to the government and the Prime Minister has taken them on board. Note that Prime Minister Najib was one of the first to engage with the youth, and he has initiated some of the radical new policies to address their concerns. Two examples come to mind: The ‘My First House’ scheme that was designed to help young, first-time house buyers to secure property; and the ‘Dana 1 Belia 1Malaysia’ scheme that was meant to help young entrepreneurs with their start-up schemes. All of this shows that the government has begun to address the real concerns of youth, not with rhetoric but with some real structural and financial aid.

Then there are the job fairs organised by BN Youth too. These job fairs attract hundreds of thousands of young people to want to work, and again it shows what I said earlier: Young people are not trouble-makers, they are potential contributors to development.


Q. And what of the future of politics in Malaysia? What sort of normative politics do you think is evolving here?

A. Well, the PM has said that at this coming elections we need to field winnable candidates. What I think he means by that is a package of candidates who reflect the realities and demography of Malaysia, and that demography is changing as we speak. That’s how I interpret it at least. So for me, there has to be more young and professional candidates, who can speak with and to the youth, and who come from that strata of society. The other groups in society, the older professionals, the minorities, the middle- class etc will have to be represented too. So in the final batch of 222 candidates (total number of Parliamentary seats) that the BN will field, I hope that we will have a truly representative line-up that reflects the social and demographic realities of Malaysia as a plural society. That means representative politics and representative democracy; a sort of politics that reflects and mirrors the reality of the times we live in.







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