Umno general assembly: Malaysia's most closely watched political event

A worker putting up a poster of Prime Minister Najib Razak for the Umno general assembly meeting at Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) in Kuala Lumpur.
A worker putting up a poster of Prime Minister Najib Razak for the Umno general assembly meeting at Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The annual general assembly of Malaysia's ruling Umno party is taking place from Tuesday (Dec 8) to Saturday (Dec 12).

It is the most closely watched political event in Malaysia every year, except when there is a general election.

This year's general assembly will attract even more interest because of a festering funding scandal facing Prime Minister Najib Razak and the debt-ridden state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Mr Najib is facing questions about the US$680 million (S$967 million) discovered in his personal bank accounts in 2013.

Here's what you should know about the Umno general assembly in Kuala Lumpur:

What is Umno general assembly?

It is a five-day congress attended by thousands of party representatives from all over Malaysia. This year, 2,762 delegates are attending the main assembly.

It is the biggest political event in the country as Umno is the linchpin of the 13-party Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957.

In the past, the general assembly had resulted in new or revised government policies. Key speeches were broadcast live on radio and television, with Umno the only political body to be given this privilege.

How big is Umno?

The party has 3.5 million members and 191 divisions in 12 of 13 Malaysian states, under which there are nearly 22,000 Umno branches.

Umno has 88 seats in the federal Parliament, 40 per cent of the 222 seats in total. The party with the next biggest number of seats is the opposition Democratic Action Party with 38. Nineteen, or half, of Malaysia's 38 full Cabinet ministers are from Umno. They include Mr Najib and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who are appointed by the party.

Why is this year's event significant?

The general assembly is significant for several reasons. First, the public expects Mr Najib to answer questions regarding 1MDB and the US$680 million deposit. Even though he may not use this platform to respond to criticisms, many would expect him to remind the public to avoid any speculation, as investigations are ongoing.

Second, this year's event is the first since the removal of Mr Muhyiddin Yassin and Mr Mohd Shafie Apdal as Malaysia's deputy prime minister and rural and regional development minister. Ironically, they continue to hold leadership positions in the party as deputy president and vice-president respectively.

Third, this assembly is a test of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's influence in the party. In the past months, he has been calling for Mr Najib to resign over the money scandal and 1MDB.

In 2008, Dr Mahathir quit the party, pressuring then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to step down. But this time, his strategy is different. He continues to be a party member, and prefers to speak to disgruntled Umno members, lobbying them to pressure Mr Najib to resign.

Another noteworthy point is that Mr Muhyiddin will not speak at the annual assembly. In the past, the Umno deputy president officiated at the Youth, Women and Puteri (Young Women) wing assemblies. This year, the chiefs of the respective wings will officiate their meetings in three separate halls.

Mr Muhyiddin, who had spoken at the Umno general assembly for the past six years, said he would not be silenced by anyone and vowed to continue speaking for what was right.