Umno presidential hopefuls face off in live TV debate

(From far left) Umno's outgoing youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, acting president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah taking part in last night's debate. Datuk Seri Zahid was participating from Bagan Datuk in Perak.
(From far left) Umno's outgoing youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, acting president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah taking part in last night's debate. Datuk Seri Zahid was participating from Bagan Datuk in Perak.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Umno's top three presidential candidates agreed in a live televised debate yesterday evening that the grand old party needs to reform itself after losing its six-decade grip on power in a shock electoral loss last month, but they differed widely on the degree of change.

The unprecedented Umno presidential debate took place on the eve of the first leadership contest the party has seen since 1986, with the winner facing the unenviable task of turning the long-ruling party into a credible opposition outfit.

Acting president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 65, said that the country's largest party must listen to the public to offer Malaysians a "new deal", but insisted that continuity was important.

"It is not necessary that those in the line of succession cannot make drastic changes," the former deputy premier said from his constituency of Bagan Datuk in Perak.

Datuk Seri Zahid insisted Umno's "performance was good" in the May election with 54 MPs - the most from any single party - but it was let down by component partners, which added just three parliamentary seats in Peninsular Malaysia.

The outgoing vice-president was made Datuk Seri Najib Razak's No. 2 after the then Prime Minister culled those who criticised him over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal from government. Mr Zahid has run the party since the latter resigned as president following the May 9 polls defeat.

But the 1MDB saga was seized on by surprise candidate Khairy Jamaluddin, 42, as the reason the party needs fresh leadership.

"Umno is not at fault as a party, but the leadership. I admit my mistake as a leader in Umno for keeping the truth from the top leadership about public sentiment," the outgoing youth chief said in the debate broadcast by national pay-TV channel Astro Awani.

The hour-long debate, with the contenders answering questions posed by the moderator, was also shown live on its Internet page.

"I want to be a president that faces members who will tell me the truth. Our members are not corrupt, they have no scandals, so we must return power to members," added the former youth and sports minister, who will be Umno's youngest ever chief if he wins.

Mr Khairy promised that he would remove the party president's unwritten immunity and bar no-contest resolutions as well as delays to the triennial internal elections.

Veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a hugely influential figure in the 1970s and 1980s who is still a respected elder, took a middle path, saying Umno needs to restore its credibility and integrity.

"We have to ensure that our party is strong and free from corruption," said the 81-year-old former finance minister. "We have to get rid of money politics. It is more than a cancer - it has become our culture."

He reminded viewers that Umno has been successful in the past, but to ensure that it remains relevant, we "must ensure the party continues with a vision for the next 50 or 100 years".

According to a study by political think-tank Ilham Centre, Mr Zahid is the favourite to win today's race, with Tan Sri Razaleigh gaining on him since nominations were closed two weeks ago.

Apart from the three men, two other hopefuls for the Umno president's post are two low-ranking party members.

Some 150,000 delegates from the party's 191 divisions will vote for their new president, deputy president, three vice-presidents, 25 supreme council members and other divisional posts this weekend.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2018, with the headline 'Umno presidential hopefuls face off in live TV debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe