The main focus of the annual meeting of Malaysia’s main ruling party United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) this year is the upcoming elections.
With an eye on the elections, the mood is therefore unlikely to be as racially charged as previous years.
Two years ago, Umno Youth chief, Hishammuddin Hussein (who is also the Education Minister) raised the keris (a Malay dagger) at the assembly, igniting fears of rising Malay chauvinism. Last year, some of the polemical speeches were broadcasted, making the annual meeting look extremist. Hishammuddin himself, however, maintained that he would carry on the tradition of “raising the keris” and he believed that the symbolic act was blown out of proportion
This year, the priority of the UMNO leaders is to tone down the rhetoric and stress reconciliation. UMNO vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin reiterated that the goal of the party was national unity, saying, “It is important that members of the party understand this. As much as we fought for the struggle of our own race, we must appreciate the problems of the others. So that will create the basis for national unity.” He also called for “better understanding” between UMNO and the other ethnic parties in the coalition “to face the general elections which we believe will be very soon.”
In a pre-UMNO meeting interview, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said, “Umno is the backbone of Barisan Nasional...We are not just about one race, we have a role to play for the country and its people.”
The moderation of mood is essential if UMNO is not to cost votes from the other constituent parties in the ruling coalition- Barisan Nasional. Up to 20 Chinese-majority parliamentary seats are vulnerable. A political analyst noted, “If they tone it down, at least they won’t lose the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and Gerakan additional votes.”
Furthermore, the Barisan Nasional is facing intra-coalition problems. Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Najib Razak has, earlier on another occasion, warned the other two constituent parties of the ruling coalition, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the People's Progressive Party—to ‘avoid challenging each other or openly trading insults.’
While the general election seems to be the central focus, many other issues such as the rising cost of living, rising crime, teaching of science and maths in English, are likely to be raised. The recurring theme of Malay rights - which appears at every assembly, and issues related to Islam will crop up despite the need to assure the non-Malay minorities of their economic and religious rights.
An article in the New Straits Times sums up the objectives to be achieved at this year’s UMNO annual meeting as “Achieving this delicate balance - between the interests of the nation and the various races - while at the same time consolidating the party and coalition ahead of the polls, is what this Umno general assembly will essentially seek to achieve.” (6 November 2007)
Youth chief is ready to raise the keris again (Straits Times, 6 November 2007)
UMNO preparing for elections: UMNO vice president (Today, 6 November 2007)
Malaysian ruling party promotes national unity (Agence France Presse, 5 November 2007)
Recharging BN the main challenge (New Straits Times, 5 November 2007)
Najib tells MIC, PPP to stop it (New Straits Times, 5 November 2007)
Abdullah urges Umno delegates to cool rhetoric (Straits Times, 5 November 2007)
High stakes for Abdullah at Umno assembly (Straits Times, 5 November 2007)