What Hamidi’s election as UMNO leader means for a ‘new Malaysia’

Special What Hamidi’s election as UMNO leader means for a ‘new Malaysia’
In this file photo, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi of Malaysia speaks during a high-level meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants at the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York on September 19, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 01 July 2018

What Hamidi’s election as UMNO leader means for a ‘new Malaysia’

What Hamidi’s election as UMNO leader means for a ‘new Malaysia’
  • A trusted ally to former leader Najib Razak, Hamidi was a leadership favorite among members of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO)
  • Hamidi won due to the “warlord culture” in UMNO, according to analysts

KUALA LUMPUR: Zahid Hamidi, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, has triumphed in the Malay-based party’s presidential election.

Hamidi, 65, a trusted ally to former leader Najib Razak, was seen as a favorite among members of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) to lead the party, despite the tight race between Khairy Jamaluddin, 42, and the veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 81.

The UMNO elections witnessed Hamidi leading the pool with 78 divisions, while Jamaluddin and Hamzah trailed behind with 53 and 28 divisional votes, respectively. More than 160,000 UMNO members voted in the first-past-the-post pol.

Hamidi won because of a “warlord culture” in UMNO, according to analysts. “Jamaluddin is too ‘intellectual’ for UMNO,” said Professor James Chin, a Malaysian expert and director at the Asia Institute, based in Australia.

The call for change has yet to penetrate the core leadership in the Malay-based party, even though Malaysia has moved forward since the new government led by Mahathir Muhamad took power in early May.

Jamaluddin is popular among millennials and is a darling on social media. The young UMNO politician took to Twitter, saying that most in UMNO want the party “to change.” He also declined Hamidi’s invitation to be the next UMNO secretary-general, instead choosing to serve as an ordinary MP.

“Political warlords” within the party were halting change, he said.

“I want UMNO to change and be free from feudalistic mentality,” Jamaluddin said on Twitter.

The “cults of personality” has disconnected the leadership from the grassroot members within UMNO.

Hamzah was vying for the top job for the second time since his political party Semangat 46, or the Spirit of 46, lost to Mahathir in 1987. Despite being a political heavyweight, his political hiatus and advanced age left him out of favor with young Malays.

Hamidi’s election as the new UMNO president signals that the party is still trapped in the status quo. Moreover, he may move the party’s ideological leaning toward the right-wing as he believes UMNO can recover the “Malay ground,” Chin said.

The 1MDB corruption scandal by the outgoing Najib Razak administration had tarnished UMNO’s reputation, especially with the opulent lifestyle displayed by the former prime minister’s family. The UMNO party, which was once seen as a Malay grassroot power base that fought for Malaya during pre-independence are but a distant memory.

Hamidi’s widespread unpopularity and a disenfranchised opposition mean that the future of Malaysian politics is no longer a clear two-party coalition system. Instead, political parties need to constantly form and negotiate alliances, much like Germany’s political landscape.

“Malaysia already has a two-coalition system, which means no single party can capture power,” said Chin. Political parties must create alliances or uneasy partnerships to push their agenda.