Reform in Malaysian Party Politics: Reasons for Slow Change in UMNO

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Memo #197

By Muhamad Takiyuddin Ismail – taki_prk [at] yahoo.com and Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid – afauzi [at] usm.my

Trying to reform a dominant political party by changing the status quo can precipitate conflict and instability, particularly if conservatism has become ingrained in its political practices. One such dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has been beleaguered by vociferous calls for reform since its uncharacteristically mediocre performance in Malaysia’s general elections of March 2008. As the commanding group in the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled Malaysia continuously since 1957, the UMNO has not been confronted with any serious challenge to its uninterrupted hold on power, particularly during the twenty-two-year rule of political strongman Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003).

Abdullah Badawi, Mahathir’s successor, attempted substantive political reform by distancing his administration from his predecessor’s excesses. But Abdullah’s reform efforts provoked a reactionary backlash from UMNO party stalwarts. In a system permeated with inertia and vested interests, many of his initiatives failed or were implemented only in diluted form. Ironically, at times support for reform seemed to come more from the opposition than from UMNO.

Two factors contributed to the failure of reform. Firstly, inheriting centralized power from Mahathir, Abdullah devolved considerable authority for the implementation of his policies to young advisors and others peripheral to internal UMNO politics, but institutional hostility to these over-zealous outsiders accelerated the erosion of Abdullah’s less than powerful support within UMNO. Secondly, following his 2004 election triumph, the failure to strengthen his cabinet with reform-inclined politicians, instead giving places to pro-Mahathir conservatives, further weakened his position. When Mahathir began criticizing Abdullah’s administration the stage was set for internal revolt. Mahathir’s reprimands reinforced the conservative reaction against Abdullah’s leadership team.

Current Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to reform UMNO when he took over the leadership in April 2009. However, the past dynamics of conservatism and reform in UMNO call his ability to deliver on such promises into question, particularly given the resurgence of conservatism beyond the party. This resurgence includes opposition and resistance from Malay-Muslim NGOs  and media organs linked to UMNO, such as PERKASA and Utusan Malaysia, from former Prime Minister Mahathir and from government bureaucrats.

Muhamad Takiyuddin Ismail is a Senior Lecturer at the School of History, Politics and Strategy, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia.

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid  is Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Distance Education, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.

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This 2011 protest outside Kuala Lumpur against a gay rights festival is a symbol of wider conservative trends in Malaysian society. (Source: The Guardian, Nov. 2011)

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