Umno, in first annual meeting as opposition party, sticks to theme of Malay, Islam rights

United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party president Zahid Hamidi (Centre) with his deputy Mohamad Hasan (Left) and secretary-general Annuar Musa (Right) sing as they raise the party flag during the opening ceremony of UMNO General Assembly in
United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party president Zahid Hamidi (Centre) with his deputy Mohamad Hasan (Left) and secretary-general Annuar Musa (Right) sing as they raise the party flag during the opening ceremony of UMNO General Assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sept 29, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - Umno's new president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi stuck to familiar themes of defending Malay rights and protecting Islam on Saturday evening (Sept 29), at the party's first annual assembly as an opposition party.

In a two-hour long speech, he said Malaysia's biggest party - with more than three million members - will not open up to other races, and launched attacks on the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and those who had left Umno after the shocking electoral defeat in May.

He twice praised his predecessor Najib Razak, who was given a standing ovation from the 5,700 party delegates when the latter's name was first announced in the cavernous hall in Umno headquarters. Najib attended as an ordinary party member.

And Datuk Seri Zahid, 65, said he supported the call by enemy-turned-ally Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), that "Islam should lead" the country.

In short, while outsiders are keen to see whether Umno will move in a major, new direction to regain the trust of voters, Mr Zahid and his party leaders seemed unlikely to shift away from holding on to the race and religion card.

"Umno is not a racist party, or prejudiced, or a threat to other races. Malays have never sidelined any other races," he told the delegates.

"The fact is that today it is the Malays who are most vulnerable to the bias and prejudice by other races towards them. Malays are accused of being stupid and said to be lazy, too dependent on subsidies and government aid," he added.

"When we are challenged with Malaysian Malaysia, we will rise to defend our rights as stated in the Constitution," he said, referring to a slogan often linked to the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party.

Mr Zahid also spent a significant portion of his speech to attacking five MPs and several state lawmakers who had left the party to become independents or switched to PH parties.

"They no longer have the moral basis to remain as elected representatives. The seats belong to Umno. The seats belong to Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters," he said, to loud cheers from the crowd. Mr Zahid said the party had served writs of summons to these lawmakers.

"We demand them to return the money involving costs and they should also vacate the seats that they won under the Umno and BN ticket," he said.

Under Malaysian electoral laws, lawmakers are allowed to become independents or join other parties without giving up their wards.

Umno-led BN caused the Perak state government under then-Pakatan Rakyat alliance to collapse in 2009, by luring away three lawmakers.

Mr Zahid in his speech did make a small move forward, by proposing a term limit of two terms for the Umno president. He wants members to deliberate on this.

And he wants a "rebranded" BN, consisting of five parties, by allowing direct membership into the coalition.

"The main core parties will consist of Umno, MCA, MIC, MyPPP, and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS), followed by the parties of other coalitions who understand the aspirations and ideals of struggling together," he said.

BN shrunk to just Umno, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) after the May polls defeat. His speech showed that MyPPP, formerly People's Progressive Party which has no seats in Parliament, and PBRS with one MP, have rejoined BN.