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Najib plays the usual cards to secure continued loyalty

Once again, race and religion dominated the recent United Malays National Organisation (Umno) General Assembly last week, as did the Malaysian ruling party’s feudal political culture. Key party leaders extolled the importance of loyalty to the Prime Minister, as a way to fight off various threats to the Malay race and Islam.

Najib plays the usual cards to secure continued loyalty

Umno runs on a patronage system and the logic of this argument is that Malays have the moral responsibility to support Umno as a sign of gratitude for its defence of the community against threats posed by non-Malays. Photo: Reuters

Once again, race and religion dominated the recent United Malays National Organisation (Umno) General Assembly last week, as did the Malaysian ruling party’s feudal political culture. Key party leaders extolled the importance of loyalty to the Prime Minister, as a way to fight off various threats to the Malay race and Islam.

Umno runs on a patronage system where its politicians are feudal lords dispensing favours to their local communities, in this case, the Malays. In return, the Malays are expected to be loyal to the party and support them politically.

The concept of being grateful is deeply ingrained within the Malay psyche, which means that any favour done for person must never be forgotten and must be repaid in the future.

The logic of this argument is that Malays have the moral responsibility to support Umno as a sign of gratitude for its defence of the community against threats posed by non-Malays, namely the Chinese.

In his opening speech to the party assembly last Thursday, Prime Minister Najib Razak reiterated the importance of loyalty at least 18 times.

Mr Najib is mired in a financial scandal related to the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) state development fund and has sacked those within Umno who have raised questions about 1MDB. Those detractors have since joined former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad — himself a vocal critic of Mr Najib and 1MDB — to start a new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

That party is likely to join hands with the opposition in the 14th General Election, due by mid-2018.

Mr Najib reminded party members that it was Umno that has transformed the country’s economy, that it was under his leadership that Malaysia secured major investment deals and that he was himself loyal to Dr Mahathir, whom he now describes as Umno’s greatest betrayer.

In essence, Mr Najib made it clear that dissent will not be tolerated, and loyalty will be rewarded.

He also invoked Islam on numerous occasions during the meeting and spoke favourably of proposed amendments to Article 355 of the Malaysian Constitution, which will see an expansion of the role of Syariah courts in the country and facilitate the implementation of Islamic criminal laws in Kelantan, ruled by the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS). These amendments are opposed by Umno’s coalition partners such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).

Umno Vice-President Hishammuddin Hussein said cooperation with PAS is based on a mutual understanding of an “Islamic agenda”. The employment of Islam as a political tool has become a worrying trend within Umno.

In fact, the term “al-wala” was invoked to explain the importance of loyalty. The concept of al-wala, translated from Arabic as loyalty, focuses on enhancing the solidarity among the individuals of a specific group in line with specific tenets; in this case, it is the solidarity of Muslim Malays in line with the principles of Islamic governance.

This concept, which Mr Najib mentioned in his speech several times, has recently been associated with puritanical and violent extremist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

The Umno leadership is utilising Islam to reinforce feudal politics. Mr Najib specifically mentioned that “true” wala (loyalty), a central norm in the Malay world and culture, is given to the institution of the president or the prime minister.

This is a clear case of the party leader playing to the gallery of a religiously conservative Umno membership that supports a more significant role for Islam within the political system.

Another theme throughout Mr Najib’s speech was race, specifically unity of the Malay race and the importance of championing marginalised Malays.

In addition to historical references to the peripheral role Malays played in both the colonial and post-colonial state, Mr Najib sketched out the central features of Malay-ness, most prominent of which were loyalty and perseverance. In other words, be loyal to the leader, win the next election and save the Malay race.

In his speech, Mr Najib also urged Umno unity and loyalty in the face of alleged threats from the Chinese-based opposition Democratic Action Party.

According to the Prime Minister, “the Malays and Bumiputra and all Malaysians are facing one of the most critical crossroads” because if the country falls into the hands of the DAP, then “the rights and the privileges championed and defended by Umno … will become extinct and disappear”.

Mr Najib’s emphatic notes on race also represent a reaction to Bersatu, the new party backed by Dr Mahathir. The fact that Bersatu is led by former top leaders of Umno and advocates a similar political agenda could make it an appealing alternative for discontented Umno members.

With such threats to Mr Najib from within and without, the Umno General Assembly provided him with the perfect platform from which to call for unconditional loyalty, further reinforcing Umno’s feudal political culture legitimised by Islamic and Malay nationalist themes.

In addition to its Malay-centred raison d’etre, Bersatu’s strong anti-corruption stance is a strong motivation for Umno members to slide towards Dr Mahatir. Yet, the way Mr Najib has been able to not let the 1MDB episode affect his politician position stands testimony of the support Umno members have for him and reflects the importance of the patronage system within the party.

In light of this, it is likely his strategic calls for Islamic righteousness and Malay unity will be successful in securing substantial backing from within Umno for his continuing leadership of the party.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is assistant professor and coordinator of the Malaysia Programme in S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and Aida Arosoaie is a senior analyst at the Malaysia Programme, RSIS.

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