Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi yesterday pulled off a political coup by getting Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang to sit on stage at Umno's annual assembly. The two Malay-Muslim parties have joined forces to strengthen opposition to the government under the Muafakat Nasional (national consensus) umbrella.
This was the first time Datuk Seri Hadi, 72, had attended Umno's annual meeting, a sharp U-turn for the arch-conservative cleric who notoriously labelled Umno members "infidels" in 1981, causing a deep split for more than 40 years among Malaysian Muslims.
About a dozen top leaders of PAS, including deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man and secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan, were yesterday seated in the front row of the Umno meeting hall filled with nearly 3,000 delegates.
The move by Mr Hadi is seen as boosting political bonds between Malaysia's two largest Malay parties after more than 40 years of bitter enmity, with many in the hall clapping loudly when the PAS delegates entered.
PAS joined the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by Umno in 1973, following the deadly 1969 race riots, but left two years later, after a spat over Islamic issues.
Umno and PAS in September this year formalised the Muafakat Nasional pact, with the aim of promoting Malay-Muslim issues which the parties felt had been sidelined by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
Also on stage yesterday with the Umno leaders were two chiefs of the Umno-led BN coalition - Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) president Wee Ka Siong and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) president S. Vigneswaran. It was the first time representatives of the component parties appeared on stage at an Umno assembly.
Two Malay leaders who are popular in Umno also sat on stage - former premier Najib Razak and respected veteran MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Mr Zahid, 66, said the presence of these leaders "quashed the perception that cooperation between the two largest Malay-based parties is racist and thus labelled Taleban".
He spent a major portion of his speech attacking what he said were disastrous PH policies, including the bringing back of the ashes of Chin Peng, the late Communist Party of Malaya leader, who is widely described by Malays as a "communist terrorist".
Umno and PAS came together informally from early this year, allowing Umno and BN to avoid three-cornered fights in four by-elections, to beat PH in straight fights.
The three Umno wings - women, youth and puteri (young women) - are pushing for Muafakat Nasional to be formalised as a new coalition, comprising Umno, PAS, MCA, MIC and Friends of BN - a group of small political parties and non-governmental organisations.
Mr Zahid indicated he is not against the idea, especially after the recent Tanjung Piai by-election in Johor, where the MCA candidate won by a huge margin. "The victory showed that Muafakat Nasional is more acceptable to the people as an umbrella and seen as a new political narrative," he said.