Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s reform credentials are second to none. But after his widely-praised political and economic reforms of the past 18 months, he faces a challenge closer to home that is no less daunting – reforming Umno. This, Najib says, is the “final part of the journey.”
On the back of a triumphant Umno General Assembly, Najib has told his party members that Umno has to transform to remain relevant and the stakes are high. “If you don’t change, you will be changed,” he warned. And to commence this process, he needed a mandate in the form of a win at GE13.
Ahead of May 5, he told the Malay Mail during a lengthy interview: “If I want to reform the party, I need a mandate from the people. Without the mandate from the electorate, how can I reform the party?”
In the other 4,500 words of the interview, Najib didn’t delve into what he doesn’t like about his party and what he would change. He is not the kind of President to air Umno dirty linen in public.
But we don’t have to look hard to see what he believes is holding them back. For one thing, Najib is out to “transform” out of the party (and out of BN) aging, non-progressive MPs and leaders. The evidence for this belief – and the cure – is the current candidate selection process going on in the lead-up to GE13. So far, at least 50 nominees from the three major parties of BN have been rejected, including some sitting MPs.
As he told the Malay Mail: “I want candidates who will be able to reflect this transformational journey. My hands are a little bit tied in some cases. But I think by and large we’ll be able to put up a team that will be able to convince the people that we have enough talented and committed people to work with me as a team to deliver the transformation that I’ve promised.”
Then there is the elephant in the room: Umno’s Malay-centric policies. On this issue, Najib is hardly about to jeopardise the Malay heartland, which is now so emphatically back with his party after the crisis of 2008.
“We have never promised to do away with the bumiputera policy,” he said. “Our promise was to be fair with the Malaysian people. And that’s what I’m doing.”
But Najib’s actions tell a different story of bumiputera policies that are being made part of a larger picture of Government care before our eyes. Every single social measure he has introduced under the 1Malaysia banner has been based on need not race. BR1M payments are made to families earning less than RM3000 per month – that is the key criteria.
And what of Umno’s entrenched love of subsidies? Najib didn’t talk about this, but just last week, observers got a clue where he stands when Minister in the Prime Minister’s department Datuk Idris Jala said subsidies for items such as fuel and sugar will be gradually wound down. Budget 2013 started this process by reducing the sugar subsidy.
But perhaps the more general area of reform Najib faces within Umno is changing a party that has been resistant to change. He told the Malay Mail he experienced this first hand when he launched 1Malaysia and it received a lukewarm response among many within his party.
“Anytime you choose something, you introduce something new, there will be a period of acceptance, and that goes with 1Malaysia as well,” he said.
“The concept of 1Malaysia is now clearly understood.”
Najib is cleared to go to the Umno General Assembly this year empowered by the rakyat. With a clear mandate from GE13, despite predictable claims to the contrary from the Opposition, he can look delegates in the eye and say change must come.
Or as he verbalised it to the Malay Mail: “Look, the people have spoken. They believe in the policies that I propounded and therefore those policies need to be really enshrined and Umno and BN must reflect those policies supported by the people.
“That to me is the final part of the journey. With this mandate, then people believe in my policies and BN itself will be totally transformed in the final stage to reflect the wishes and aspirations of the people.”
Changing the party he loves for the good of the nation is a higher ambition than simply beating Pakatan Rakyat at the ballot box.