Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s presidency of Umno can be aptly described as a wild rollercoaster ride that came to an abrupt halt.
As delegates gather at the PWTC for the party’s general assembly in a fortnight, they will no doubt recall the exhilirating, stomach-churning, gravity-defying adventure of his stewardship.
Winning a general election by a margin that eclipsed the performance of his more illustrious predecessors was no mean feat. Yet the fun ride ended in an instant shunt a year ago.
Pity that all the excitement of zipping up and down through the air in all directions had left party members in a daze. And when the real world came into focus again, the party realised that it had inflicted a serious internal injury on itself.
As Abdullah counts his days as party president, he knows that Umno has lost most of its lustre and vitality. It can no longer behave like a grand old party in whose hands the country used to feel safe and self-assured. He knows, when the day arrives, he would be taking away with him the memory of a party that tottered on the verge of failure while under his care.
Ironically, Abdullah and Umno’s problems can be traced to Barisan Nasional’s (BN) landslide electoral victory of 2004.
The victory was the strongest signal yet that the public was willing to restore their goodwill towards Umno, and BN, after so much of it had been eroded under the previous administration.
But Abdullah totally messed up his chance, with the 2008 election results as its proof. And Abdullah, as Umno and BN chief, only has himself to blame for misreading the public mood. It’s sheer arrogance for any elected representative to spurn the people’s goodwill.
The people of this country generally had shown plenty of goodwill towards Umno as the leading political organisation for ethic Malays. It was a sensible and pragmatic thing to do, given that it’s a monumental task to meld a harmonious society of people from varying faiths, ethnicities and cultures.
They had been willing to “give and take” and overlook the minor governance issues for the greater good of the country. Abdullah was seen as the person with the right temperament to harness that goodwill.
For a long time that goodwill kept the BN scale poised in a balanced position, just as the reconstituted Alliance had hoped for after it cast away the coalition’s sailboat emblem.
Now, the feeling on the ground is that Umno may have to trade an arm and a leg to win over the trust of ordinary folk, Malays included.
From interviews in weekend newspapers, it seems that senior Umno politicians know how badly the party needs a “radical” change to revive its fortunes. Or, that Abdullah’s exit would be in vain.
But just what constitutes “radical” is anybody’s guess as there has been no indication what the incoming party president plans to prescribe after he takes over.
Some candidates in the upcoming party polls sounded fatalistic when they spoke about Umno’s travails, while others were more melancholic than constructive.
But here’s the problem. Some of these contestants are veterans well past their due date. When they speak about the old “perjuangan” you wonder whether they are talking in the context of present day Malaysia or of the country in the 1970s.
The “perjuangan” seems to refer to a “covenant” that supposedly bind these chivalrous politicians to their community. Very often though, this abstract concept of community bond degenerates into a simple patronage system.
The trouble with Umno is that it is a party possessed. It doesn’t see its own shortcomings and always thinks the problems lie outside its body. It never wants to have a full body check-up.
The truth is, the party is hemmed on all sides, with the country’s economy also not helping.
But its biggest problems remain internal. Its vital organs are failing on prolonged bad diet (some say due to ingestion of un-halal food). It needs to cleanse itself and get an injection of new blood, plenty of it.
Abdullah’s exit must translate into a meaningful change for the party’s political structure and direction. As long as Umno does not recognise its own weaknesses, it can forget about wanting to win people over again.
This is the last call for Umno leaders to retool the party. Another disappointment for the public will certainly spell the end of the United Malays National Organisation.
Last chance for Umno