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Monday, November 5, 2007

For Umno, A time for restraint

Today Online (3/11/2007): Observers expecting the fiery rhetoric and sometimes racially-charged atmosphere associated with United Malays National Organisation (Umno) gatherings would do well to avoid next week's general assembly of Malaysia's main ruling party.

Instead, a restrained and moderate tone is expected to dominate proceedings at the annual gathering of Malay leaders, which also serves as a showcase of the community's political dominance.

The reason the delegates are expected to present a more mature face: The General Election is around the corner. That means Umno president and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will not want them to stoke racial fires or make unnecessary demands.

Ahead of the polls, which are widely anticipated to fall within the next three to four months, they will want to project a united Barisan Nasional coalition, led by Umno.

"The delegates will know better than to repeat last year's performance. We do not want the other races to question Umno's leadership of the country with elections so near," a senior Umno leader told Weekend Xtra.

At last year's assembly, the atmosphere was so racially charged that leaders of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Umno's coalition partner, were forced afterwards to conduct a nationwide tour to calm unrest within the Chinese community.

The MCA was almost faced with outright rebellion from within its ranks following the Umno assembly, where some delegates threatened and criticised the Chinese over various contentious issues.

The uneasiness was symbolised infamously by Umno Youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein, who unsheathed a keris (traditional dagger) to roaring applause, followed by some speeches with strong racial overtones.

Mr Hishammuddin has said this year, he will again unsheathe the keris, a major symbol of Malay strength. He thinks it would not be as provocative this time. "Do not take the words of one or two speakers as gospel truth," he said this week, on recalling last year's events. "I feel it is important we continue to do it so that the issue becomes de-sensitised over time."

Indeed, his keris act this year is not likely to arouse the same anger; racial tensions, while still bubbling on the surface, are not being fanned with as much vigour as in previous years. In the past week, Umno and government leaders have taken great pains to show a more conciliatory stance on policies affecting the Chinese.

Last week, the government announced that it would not compel students from Malaysia's more than 1,200 Chinese-medium schools to take their maths and science examinations in English. Instead, Mr Hishammuddin, who is also the Education Minister, said the students will be given a choice of doing so in English or Chinese.

This is a major concession. Chinese educationists have for years been against any attempt to introduce any other language as a medium of instruction in Chinese schools.

Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin, Mr Abdullah's influential son-in-law, who is beginning to be known as a fiery champion of Malay rights, also set the tone for delegates when he said sensitive issues are a no-go area.

Said Mr Khairy: "I hope they will not raise issues that touch on racial and religious sensitivities. We have to consider the sensitivities of other races even while we champion the Malay agenda."

For Mr Abdullah, the assembly will be the first major platform for the party president to address the country ahead of the polls he can call anytime before March 2009.

Weekend Xtra understands he will use the stage to talk about his vision for Malaysia for the next 50 years, with the ongoing launches of various "economic development corridors" such as the Iskandar Development Region (IDR) in Johor as the major catalyst.

One thing Mr Abdullah will not expect to address from the floor is racially sensitive issues. The floor will then serve as a last chance for delegates eager to pitch themselves as potential candidates in the elections.

Delegates would, therefore, want to project an image of responsibility and maturity through their speeches, rather than recklessly playing the race card in demanding projects and other perks from the party leadership.

Statements made by up-and-coming leaders in the Umno-controlled New Straits Times recently appear to suggest a sharp change in attitude on issues dealing with the economic protection of the bumiputera community.

"While we are addressing the issues of competition and meritocracy, we do not want the rights of the Malays to be taken away," said Umno Youth secretary Abdul Rahman Dahlan. He said the mindset of the Malays could be changed but by their own timetable, not one set by outsiders.

Said Terengganu Umno information chief Ahmad Shabery Chik: "We are not ready to open up but the PM's initiative of economic corridors is the right move as it will help lift bumiputeras to be on par with their counterparts."

Similar statements are expected from the majority of delegates given a chance to speak at next week's assembly. However, Umno assemblies, like many political gatherings, can be highly-orchestrated affairs.

As is Umno tradition, the president will address delegates behind closed doors a day before the assembly. Here, Mr Abdullah will tell the delegates what he expects from them. And the tone would be a sober one.

Leslie Lau has been reporting in Malaysia for more than 15 years. He has worked in regional and international newspapers and TV stations.


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