Umno upbeat as it opens annual assembly

Pact with PAS expected to focus on race and religion to win favour from Malay voters

Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan (in blue) arriving at the opening of the party's Women, Youth and Puteri (Young Women) wings yesterday. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK Women delegates singing Umno's anthem during the launch of the party's four
Women delegates singing Umno's anthem during the launch of the party's four-day general assembly at the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. Umno beat its current arch enemy, Pakatan Harapan, in four by-elections this year, even as it welcomes former arch enemy Parti Islam SeMalaysia into its meeting hall this time. PHOTO: BERNAMA
Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan (in blue) arriving at the opening of the party's Women, Youth and Puteri (Young Women) wings yesterday. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK Women delegates singing Umno's anthem during the launch of the party's four
Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan (in blue) arriving at the opening of the party's Women, Youth and Puteri (Young Women) wings yesterday. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Malaysia's biggest opposition party, Umno, raised the curtain on its annual assembly yesterday with a spring in its step.

The four-day event was launched with the simultaneous openings of the Women, Youth and Puteri (Young Women) wings by deputy president Mohamad Hasan.

The main assembly will be opened tomorrow by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Unlike last year's sad assembly after its shocking ejection from power, Umno leaders can breathe a big sigh of relief this year.

The party beat its current arch enemy, the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH), in four by-elections, even as it welcomes former arch enemy Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) into its meeting hall this time.

Madam Ari Basir, 57, women's wing vice-chief at Umno Bukit Bintang division, told The Straits Times yesterday: "We feel new confidence within us as we have learnt from past mistakes.

"We hope Barisan Nasional will work well with PAS, as together we feel we can recapture power."

The Umno-PAS formal cooperation pact Muafakat Nasional will see the parties zeroing in on what they see as the main weakness of the 18-month-old PH government: poor handling of Malay/Muslim issues.

With more than 100 of the 222 parliamentary constituencies being Malay-majority seats, the two parties have a large audience to sell their story.

Umno currently has only 37 of these federal seats and PAS, 18.

The danger is the possibility of a louder drumbeat on race and religion issues, as both the opposition and PH try to win favour from the Malays.

A hot-button issue now is the ashes of the late Chin Peng that were brought into the country by several individuals.

It gained widespread support from Chinese Malaysians but angered many Malays.

Chin Peng, the former leader of the Communist Party of Malaya, was to the Malays the "terrorist" who killed and maimed many Malay security forces until his party laid down its arms in 1989.

Umno member and retired soldier Husin Yusoh, 69, told ST: "He is the father of communism and the communists never stopped fighting. They only laid down their arms."

Ironically, another issue that could help the opposition is the non-stop bickering in one of the four coalition members of PH - Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

PKR president Anwar Ibrahim and his deputy, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, are fighting for control of the party, which has 50 MPs, the biggest group in Parliament under one banner.

Despite the emerging rays of hope, thick dark clouds remain on the Umno horizon.

Former Umno president Najib Razak - tainted by the 1MDB state investment fund scandal and a key reason Umno was ousted from power - is still very influential. And current president Zahid, while showing gusto in an hour-long speech to party members yesterday, is on trial for corruption.

Their overarching presence raises the question: Why is Umno still associating itself with the two men?

Madam Mariah Jantan, 67, vice-chief of the women's wing at Umno Cheras division, told ST: "They have been charged but not yet found guilty. It is not as if we are the only side who is like this."

She was referring to Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, who had faced charges over a Penang land and bungalow deal that were dropped when PH came to power.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2019, with the headline Umno upbeat as it opens annual assembly. Subscribe