Joceline Tan

Najib heeds call of the grassroots

Mr Najib Razak has defused the concerns of Umno members by deciding not only to keep, but also to boost the Sedition Act.
Mr Najib Razak has defused the concerns of Umno members by deciding not only to keep, but also to boost the Sedition Act.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Najib Razak's presidential address at the Umno general assembly was not exactly everybody's idea of a policy speech.

First there was the rather sensational video footage that accompanied his speech, the over-the-top style of putting across some of his points and finally, there was that undeniable playing to the gallery. It was also one of his shortest policy speeches.

But it was what the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) delegates were waiting for and they soaked it up as though drinking water after a drought.

This was all too clear from the way the entire hall jumped to their feet and erupted in cheers and applause when Prime Minister Najib announced that the Sedition Act stays.

The cheers grew louder when he said that the Act would be further tightened to go after those who insult Islam and other religions as well as those who attempt to take Sabah and Sarawak out of Malaysia.

Defending the Sedition Act has been like some sort of cause celebre for the party this year, with Umno's women's wing at the forefront.

And that was what the video footage was about. It showed the Reformasi street protests, chaotic scenes at the Bersih rally where some protesters took the law into their hands and even what the 1969 race clashes were about.

It was to illustrate why Umno wants the Sedition Act to stay.

The delegates were also reminded of some of the racial and religious insults against Muslims and Malays that have inflamed political discussion on social media. It was the raw side of the new political landscape and the ugly face of the Internet.

The Sedition Act has been like some sort of last line of defence for many Malays. Many of them were angry with the government for abolishing the Internal Security Act - they believed it had opened the floodgates to seditious commentary and acts.

There was no way Mr Najib could have ignored the Umno grassroots call to retain the Sedition Act, given how strongly they felt about it. Ignoring it could have spelt the beginning of the end for his leadership.

He was also at pains to explain why Umno has not failed the Malays, the efforts made towards the Malay economy and the Malay success stories.

"Any popularly elected leader who moves too far ahead of his base of core constituents risks losing the legitimacy and may be eventually removed. Strengthening the Sedition Act and the bumiputera economic agenda was a direct response to grassroots concerns," said a Najib insider.

The other key thrust of Mr Najib's speech was rejuvenation, the rallying cry for Umno to allow easier access for new talent and fresh faces. The new online membership policy was a real breakthrough. Recruiting members online is about connecting to those under 30 years of age. It is an idea that should have happened yesterday instead of only now.

"Keeping the sedition law and rejuvenation goes together. If you dilute the law, the country could go haywire. If the country is not in good shape, there is no point talking about rejuvenation.

"At the same time, the young people who come in have to respect the laws of the country or else it will be like what the PM showed in the slides - anarchy," said Teluk Kemang Umno Youth chief Najib Mohd Isa.

Mr Najib had set the tone for the general assembly at the closed-door presidential briefing where he had spoken at length about the need for new blood without being blocked by ageing warlords. He had also quashed all those funny notions about closing down vernacular schools if Barisan Nasional wished to regain its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

His rallying cry of "Solidarity" or, as he put it, "So-Li-Da-Ri-Ti" is about getting Umno to come together to rejuvenate the party and to avoid infighting.

"Najib is a pragmatic and professional leader, he's not held hostage to ideology and emotions. Malaysia is in his heart but Umno is in his blood. You need blood for the heart to pump," said the Najib insider.

The reality is that Mr Najib cannot be effective as prime minister without the party's full support of him as president of Umno. Politically speaking, said the above insider, it makes sense for Mr Najib to listen to the 47 per cent of Malaysians who voted for him, rather than the 51 per cent who wanted someone else as Prime Minister.

Mr Najib has defused the simmering concerns on the party of Umno members by deciding on the Sedition Act right at the start of the general election. That way, the debates can now go the way of other pertinent issues.

The presence of Tun Mahathir Mohamad at the opening event showed that his heart is still very much with Umno although the ties between him and Mr Najib will probably get worse before they get better. Dr Mahathir seemed in a hurry to go home. He said he was not well and declined to share his thoughts about Mr Najib's speech. We will probably get to read about it on his blog.

But many thought that Mr Najib was referring to Dr Mahathir when he expressed frustration at the way he had been attacked from within the party. In fact, some joked that Mr Najib was probably asking the former prime minister for some "So-Li-Da-Ri-Ti".

All said and done, Thursday was a rather good day for Mr Najib, apart from the less than complete solidarity with his predecessor.