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Umno warlords deny they are the power within party

SINGAPORE - United Malays National Organisation (Umno) division chiefs have denied that they control their members with an iron fist after they come under the spotlight following revelations from former youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin that they held sway during the recent party polls.

Umno warlords deny they are the power within party

United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party flags flutter in Kuala Lumpur. Analysts and some party members say warlords have been part of the Malay party for decades.

SINGAPORE — United Malays National Organisation (Umno) division chiefs have denied that they control their members with an iron fist after they come under the spotlight following revelations from former youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin that they held sway during the recent party polls.

However, analysts and some party members told TODAY that most of the 191 division chiefs nationwide — warlords who keep a tight rein over the party's grassroots machinery by dishing out cash or political favours — have been part and parcel of Umno for decades and warned that if this practice continues, the party's efforts to revive itself following a crushing electoral defeat will be stymied.

Kinabatangan division chief Bung Moktar Radin denied that there are any warlords in the Malay party, or that delegates were "instructed" to vote for certain candidates in the recent party polls.

"No such thing, I didn't hear of any threats or instructions on who to vote for. It's hard to control who members are voting for anyway," said Mr Bung, who has been heading his division in Sarawak since 1994.

He said about half of his 1,200 division members voted for Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as Umno president because of his leadership qualities, especially after he stepped up to the plate following former president Najib Razak's resignation a day after Umno was ousted from government.

The same sentiment was echoed by Mr Hasan Malek, a former deputy chairman for the Kuala Pilah division.

"Delegates have come up to me and asked who they should vote for, and I will give them my advice but at the end of the day, they are free to decide who they want," he said.

The role of the divisional chiefs was thrust into the limelight when Mr Khairy — who lost in his bid for the party presidency — claimed that the majority of Umno members wanted change but “warlords” had threatened them to support their choice of candidates.

"Popular vote statistics show that majority of Umno members want change. But the ballot system is in favour of warlords who have a strong grip on their divisions," he tweeted on July 1, a day after the polls which saw Dr Zahid elected president.

"Many were ordered, threatened, and forced to support the choices of the warlords. The majority of members want change, but the warlords are still deaf to the voice of the people."

Mr Tengku Putra Haron Aminurrashid Tengku Hamid Jumat, an immediate past Johor state assemblyman with Umno, claimed warlords are “created” by top party leaders who provide them cash in exchange for political support.

“They control their divisions and members and in turn, top leaders control the warlords by providing projects and funds so that they are service-bound to serve the top brass," he said.

These division leaders, many whom have been at their posts for years, also control the party machinery — essentially the backbone of the party — deploying rank-and-file members to canvass for votes during general and party elections and maintaining its support among the Malay community through numerous community programmes.

These programmes range from aid for the poor and needy to Quran recitation sessions, baking tutorials and tips on how to set up micro-businesses.

These grassroot networks helmed by the warloads had helped Umno to stay in power for over six decades, only for them to be up-ended in the May general election due to voters' unhappiness with the rising cost of living as well as alleged corruption scandals in the Najib administration.

Analysts like Mr Hisomuddin Bakar, the executive director of think-tank Ilham Centre, said the practice of using money and other forms of inducement has become a political culture within the nationalist party.

"It is slowly bringing Umno down... it is a form of cancer that is difficult to cure," he said.

In fact, Dr Zahid himself has said last month that trust among party members and the public will be restored in Umno only if money politics and its culture of warlords are eradicated.

In an interview with Astro Awani on June 22, he admitted that such elements were alive in the party, with money politics being present in Umno since 40 years ago.

"Warlords who are at all levels have to let go of their responsibilities and open up to let youngsters take over their positions,” he said. “These two problems (money politics and warlords) have become a culture in Umno.”

Still, some members like Mr Ahmad Marzuki Shariat, the Langkawi division youth chief, downplayed the severity of the problem, saying that only "some divisions" are under the control of warlords.

He did not provide any numbers but was quick to add that there are divisions — like his for example — where the chiefs did not dictate who members should vote for.

"Some members however, prefer their chairman to tell them what to do because it's just easier that way," he said.

Despite denials from party leaders, analysts are pessimistic that things will change for the better for Umno if the current entrenched feudalism continues.

By opting for Dr Zahid to lead the party, Umno has made it clear that it preferred continuity rather than change, said Mr Rashaad Ali, a research analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"Patronage has been part and parcel of Umno for so long it's hard to imagine the party without that in place. To change all that you would probably need new leaders and a few more elections cycles where Umno again fails to win," he said.

"Perhaps when politics becomes less financially beneficial to the warlords, these elements will slowly be weeded out."

Ultimately, feudalism and the system of patronage will impact how the party moves forward and rejuvenate itself in the new political landscape.

"If the party continues to move to the right then the party could risk sidelining itself from national mainstream politics," said Mr Asrul Hadi Abdullah, an analyst with political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia.

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