KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's former ruling party Umno has invited the president of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, to sit on stage at the opening of its annual assembly on Friday (Dec 6), in a major departure from tradition at past meetings of the Malay nationalist party.
In the past, only members of its top-rung Supreme Council, consisting of some 50 men and women, took centre stage at its annual meetings in a cavernous hall at Umno headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
Announcing this new arrangement on Wednesday, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the presidents of Umno's allies in Barisan Nasional (BN) - the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) - will also share the stage, another first for Umno.
Also invited on stage is former premier and ex-Umno president Najib Razak, who is chairman of BN's advisory board, a new post recently created by the coalition.
Zahid said popular Umno veteran and MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah will also be on the stage, in a sign of raproachement between the Kelantan prince and the current Umno leadership.
Zahid said these moves aim to show that Umno, which led BN to its first defeat in the general election last year, is willing to make major changes in its bid to recapture political power in South-east Asia's third-biggest economy.
Until last year's election loss, BN has been in power for 61 years, since Malaysia's independence in 1957.
"We must make extraordinary changes when we face extraordinary circumstances," Zahid said in a speech at a party function on the first day of its four-day assembly.
He described the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government as a "kerajaan sepenggal" - one-term government - and asked for his party to unite behind him.
"For 61 years we had ruled, but there were among us those who fought as if we would be government till the end of time," he said.
Umno and PAS in September this year signed a formal cooperation pact called Muafakat Nasional to work together against PH.
The MCA, which has two seats in Parliament, and the MIC, which has none, have recently agreed to having PAS as a political partner, overcoming decades of suspicions regarding the Islamist party's agenda.
Umno and PAS have fought bitterly for control of the Malay vote for decades, with Mr Abdul Hadi even labelling Umno "infidels" for not agreeing to implement strict Islamic laws in Malaysia. For about a decade in the 1980s, PAS banned its supporters from marrying or even praying with any Umno members.
But the former foes have agreed to work together to consolidate the Malay vote, now that Umno only has 37 MPs and PAS 18 MPs in Malaysia's 222-seat Parliament.
In contrast, the four PH parties and their Sabah allies control a total of 139 seats.