Malaysia’s UMNO turns 77 today. But how long can it last?

Though now in decline, the party was a dominant force for decades thanks to its loyal Malay base. On the anniversary of the founding of the “Grand Old Party”, the Globe caught up with Professor James Chin, a Malaysian politics expert with the University of Tasmania and Sarawak native, for a Q&A on UMNO's past, present and possible future

Written By:
May 11, 2023
Malaysia’s UMNO turns 77 today. But how long can it last?
Malaysia former Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (2nd right) of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) arrives at a nomination centre to hand over election documents in Pahang state on 5 November, 2022. Following UMNO's weak showing in the November election, Ismail would become the country's shortest-serving prime minister. Photo: AFP

James Chin’s Twitter profile starts with a shout-out to Malaysian comfort foods Sarawak laksa and bak kut teh. 

The mention of these traditional local dishes reflects his roots from Malaysian Borneo, which have also fed the inspiration for his academic career. 

“It’s easy for me to write about [Malaysia], having grown up in that society,” he told the Southeast Asia Globe. “Everything is much more familiar.”

James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies at University of Tasmania, shares his views on the significance of the UMNO anniversary. Photo: courtesy of University of Tasmania

As a professor of Asian studies and the inaugural director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, Chin writes mostly about the evolving political landscapes of his home country. His teaching expertise includes modules on religion, ethnicity and conflict in Southeast Asia, and he has spearheaded a lecture series on the 50th anniversary of Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, a sweeping social engineering project that formally ended in 1990.

Today, on the 77th anniversary of the founding of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysia’s oldest and historically most successful national party, Chin drew from his personal experience and political expertise and spoke with Globe about whether UMNO can weather a storm of corruption scandals and if its deep roots are enough to secure its future. 

What is UMNO’s historical significance in Malaysia and why is this anniversary important?

UMNO has traditionally been seen as the only political party for the Malays. 

In Malaysia from day one, from the time it became independent in 1957, there have been two defining features of Malaysia. The first was racial politics. The second is the issue of royalty and religion.

Islam is under the purview of the sultans. So these are the key items and UMNO has always set itself up from day one, as the party that represents the royals and the Malay community. In modern terms, we call it identity politics, and it has been spectacularly successful. 

There are only two parties that have managed to hang onto power for more than 60 years in Southeast Asia. One is UMNO, and the second is Singapore’s [People’s Action Party]. 

The PAP is very afraid now because UMNO has fallen from power. They are the only ones left in the club.

What do you think are some of the main factors that led to UMNO’s political fall from grace?

The argument about UMNO is because they were so successful, they got themselves involved in corruption. If you are too comfortable at the top, you think you can’t be replaced. So you get yourself involved with too much monkey business and of course, the big monkey business was the one 1MDB affair. 

If you look at electoral performance, from 2008 onwards, UMNO has fallen in every election. And the reasons are twofold. One is that the Malay community is slowly abandoning UMNO because of this corruption thing. But more importantly, what’s happened in the Malay community is the rise of political Islam, which UMNO never saw coming. 

They thought they could control it. But in the end, they lost control of political Islam to parties such as [Malaysia Islamic Party] PAS.

What does this anniversary mean to modern Malaysians and the modern UMNO party?

I think for the majority of the Malay population, I think they will see [it] as a historical, significant date. Other than that, I think, is very difficult for UMNO to regain the trust of the Malay community, especially the urban Malay community. 

But UMNO has a chance to regain the trust of the rural Malay community, who are a bit more conservative, who are still buying the UMNO brand of Malay nationalism, and what they call loyalty to the sultans, loyalty to the Malay prince. But increasingly in the urban areas, the Malay community are turning towards political Islam, which is basically PAS.

So it’s quite interesting that on its anniversary UMNO finds itself at a point where it may either regain its strength or self-destruct over the next few years.

How do you think UMNO has shaped Malaysia’s identity?

There is no doubt the Malaysia we see today in the 21st century is very much the creation of UMNO. UMNO from day one wanted to build a Malay state. 

But sometime in the mid-80s, they lost control of that narrative and political Islam became more important. They lost control of the narrative because the other thing that was happening in UMNO was money politics. Once corruption steeped in, people then turned towards religion, because PAS was selling the message that “Islam is the way, Islam can’t be corrupted, Islam is holy, pious, clean”. 

You got a very clear contrast between Malay nationalism on one hand, being sold by UMNO, and the other side selling the purity of Islam. 

Do you think, in this regard, the political ideologies of UMNO and PAS are at odds with each other? 

They’re not at odds with each other. But my point is that at the end of the day, you gain power by people who are voting, and they only vote for one side, right? 

For the ordinary Malay voters, the contrast was quite clear – if you believe in Malay nationalism, and Malay supremacy, that sort of stuff, you vote for UMNO.  But if you believe in a clean government, a more religious way of life, a more conservative Malaysia, a more Islamic Malaysia, you can only vote for PAS.

Do you think that that gap between urban and rural voters is getting larger?

The gap is getting larger. But one of the interesting things that has also happened in the past 50 years is that urbanisation in Malaysia has now reached almost 80%. 

Basically, a lot of people have moved to the urban areas. So that’s the reason why if you travel in rural areas, even places like Ipoh, you’ll see the populations are getting smaller.

This means all the action will increasingly take place in urban areas, where you’ll find a sizable number of Malays who believe in multiracial politics. So those people are also inclined to abandon UMNO.

UMNO  have been petitioning for a royal pardon for their jailed former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his embroilment in the 1MDB scandal. How does this reflect on the party and its future?

I think it’s fairly straightforward. If UMNO keeps pursuing this pardon for Najib and Najib does eventually get a pardon, I think it’s quite clear that not only for the Malay population, but for the entire Malaysian population, UMNO [is] a party that has not learned from its corrupt ways. 

It is still supporting a leader who’s obviously has been found guilty, not only by the Malaysian courts, but many other jurisdictions where people are involved in 1MDB are all being found guilty. So this is an interesting test that’s coming up, whether UMNO is capable of reforming and pursuing this royal pardon is a clear signal that they are incapable of reforming.

What are the main ways you think that the party has changed or evolved since its founding in 1946?

I think the party you see today is very much a party in the main mirror of Mahathir Mohamad. He has been the party leader for more than half of UMNO’s existence, basically about 25 years, so you can’t subtract UMNO politics from Mahathir politics. 

Now, the interesting thing about Mahathir is that he has never shied away from his strong belief in racial politics. His argument has always been that we need racial politics in Malaysia, because the Chinese went too far once – if we have equality, then the Malays will be overrun by the Chinese, because they’re the ones with the capital with the education, they are far more advanced than Malays. 

If you look at it from that perspective, the sort of Malaysia we see today, segmented by race, religion or that sort of thing, this very much reflects the views of Mahathir. Which is interesting, because it also means that he’s also reflecting the views of the 1957 generation, and people keep forgetting Mahathir is almost 100 years old. He was actually around at the time of independence. So it’s quite interesting that all this has not evolved since independence. The PAP has not evolved since independence as well. It’s never been able to get away from the Lee Kuan Yew shadow.

Do you see parallels between the PAP journey and the UMNO journey?

No, they’re totally different. Because one of the very one of the things that is very clear in Singapore’s case is that Lee Kuan Yew was very, very strict about corruption. He did not tolerate corruption – he tolerated influence peddling, which is different. He was very clear that one of the successful ingredients in Singapore was that you had to make sure at the very least a public service was corruption free. And that is something the Malaysians never adopted.

How has the overall landscape of Malaysia changed since UMNO was last in power?

Now, the divisions are a bit more complicated. It was previously Malays versus non-Malays, but now you have the added layer of political Islam – it’s mostly versus non-Muslims. 

You can blame all this on UMNO because UMNO is the one who started playing the game. Once you bring religion into politics, it is very difficult – in fact, I would argue impossible – to get rid of it.

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