News analysis: Umno General Assembly

Umno's Barisan allies under pressure

Frustrated with the ebbing support from non-Malays, Umno leaders, at their annual general assembly, have chided their coalition partners in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) for not pulling their weight.

The Malay-dominant Umno, which alone represents more than half of BN's strength in Parliament, has gone from questioning whether the Chinese - the largest minority ethnic group - are trying to usurp Malay political power, to now asking whether it is worth keeping the minority parties around at all.

Umno Youth vice-chief Khairul Azwan Harun said: "If, in the future, Chinese voters still subscribe to the (opposition) DAP narrative, then, I think, there needs to be the courage to revisit the BN partnership. Do not be surprised if political parties that have the same wavelength as us, and want this country to be led by those who want the Islamic syariah to be strengthened, will be the ones united with us."

The veiled threat has raised the hackles of BN component parties charged with corralling the non-Malay vote for the coalition.

Many argue that non-Malays have turned their backs on BN due to Umno's increasing control of government and its focus on pro-Malay and Islamic policies.


Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian said Umno has been increasingly unable to meet the expectations of non-Malays "and, by association, the non-Malay component parties are largely distrusted by the communities they were meant to serve".

Since losing its long-held two-thirds parliamentary majority as well as the control of five state governments in an unprecedented electoral loss in 2008, BN has clawed back support from the Malay-Muslim majority, but seen its popularity dive among the other races in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

This shock setback had led the late Mr Lim Keng Yaik, a stalwart of component party Gerakan, to say that Umno's coalition partners were reduced to being "beggars".

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Oh Ei Sun puts the blame for their waning power on the component parties themselves because they do not dare to stand up to BN's "big brother" or are unwilling to do so.

He said: "They grumble a bit but, at the end of the day, they always oblige Umno, so their constituents see them as not performing."

Such a state of affairs has been a long time coming.

In the years since the Alliance - a forerunner of the BN - won independence for Malaysia in 1957, Umno's dominance has grown, and now all other peninsula-based partners have become largely insignificant. In 1964, there were nine Umno ministers, and they were joined by four Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and two Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) ministers in the Cabinet.

After the traumatic race riots of 1969, MCA lost the crucial finance portfolio, which has been controlled by Umno since the 1974 elections. Today, 21 Cabinet ministers are from Umno, while MCA has three, and MIC, just one.

Analysts said the messaging at the Umno assembly is a play for the party to exert even more control over the coalition and government, beginning with candidates at an election that is expected as early as next year. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has even said BN may abolish established seat allocations, according to a recent New Sunday Times report.

Mr Ibrahim said: "Umno may feel that there is greater pressure to win more Malay support, given that it's harder to get non-Malays.

"This tack dovetails with the move to redelineate more Malay seats so that Umno has a better chance. It's a vicious circle - the more Umno seeks to cater to the Malay market, the less credible its non-Malay coalition partners will be."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Umno's Barisan allies under pressure'. Print Edition | Subscribe