Grinning from ear to ear and cracking jokes often, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was nothing like the grim figure at last year's Umno congress as he called on his ruling party to close ranks to defend his government, which he promised would boost the wealth of the Malay-Muslim majority and the nation.
His hour-long speech to close the annual general assembly yesterday showed a leader in full control of Malaysia's dominant political party, a stark contrast from last year's meeting when he had to defend himself from a revolt led by his then deputy Muhyiddin Yassin over a financial scandal linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Instead of sitting awkwardly next to Tan Sri Muhyiddin on stage as he did last year, Datuk Seri Najib this year enjoyed the accolades of his subordinates before launching into a laundry list of current and future policies designed to win the hearts of the Malay-Muslim majority.
"We are all ready. I see the fighting spirit. I see you delegates have the strong commitment today to solve our internal problems," he said. "So where do we head to? To the 14th general election."
Mr Muhyiddin was sacked from Umno in June along with another prominent critic, former Kedah Menteri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir. Two others critics, former premier Mahathir Mohamad and former Umno vice-president Shafie Apdal, resigned from the party.
ALL SET TO GO
We are all ready. I see the fighting spirit. I see you delegates have the strong commitment today to solve our internal problems. So where do we head to? To the 14th general election.
MR NAJIB RAZAK
Citing major projects such as the High Speed Rail to Singapore and an oil and gas hub in Pengerang in southern Johor, Mr Najib said that in seven years Malaysia's economy could grow by 50 per cent to RM2 trillion (S$639 billion).
"Government revenue will also increase from RM210 billion today to RM340 billion. It means if you come to me, I can close my eyes and sign off on your request. Today, if you give me a letter, I have to think first," he told the 2,700 party delegates.
The Umno president, who had last Thursday signalled that national polls would be held soon, said that at least 50 per cent of all retail space at the three Mass Rapid Transit lines planned for Greater Kuala Lumpur would be reserved for bumiputera traders, referring to Malays and indigenous tribes.
"We don't settle for just 30 per cent," he said of the usual bumiputera quota that has been part of government policy since 1970. "We don't call the package a 'New Deal' for Malays, but we have done it."
In his opening speech last Thursday, Mr Najib alleged that the opposition is now led by the Chinese- dominated Democratic Action Party and named 10 bumiputera and Islamic bodies which would be under threat should the Umno-led ruling coalition be defeated.
Analysts say Mr Najib's moves were aimed at Malay voters, who form the majority in 70 per cent of constituencies.
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said the long history of disbursement of resources to Malays by the government was the crucial element in the government strategy. "Najib and his Umno already won even before the ballot, as Umno and only Umno is in a position to disburse resources especially to the rural and urban poor," he said.
Mr Najib yesterday told his Malay nationalist party that he has not sold out the country to China, following his visit there last month that saw RM144 billion worth of deals being signed in Beijing.
He said he had agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping that territorial disputes would be separate from economic ties and that China was encouraged to buy more palm oil - a major Malaysian export - resulting in prices rising from RM2,300 to RM3,100 a tonne. "Who benefits? The 550,000 smallholders and Felda," he said, referring to the government's plantation development agency for Malays.