KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 24 — If Umno and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it leads is to win over Malaysia’s middle ground at the next general election, Datuk Seri Najib Razak must remain at the helm, the Malay party’s supreme councillor Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has said.
Najib, a second-term prime minister, was not challenged in his presidency when nominations closed for Umno’s polls on Saturday but his leadership in the party — and by extension the ruling bloc — is seen to be pandering to vocal conservative Malay nationalists, causing a retreat in support from more moderate voices within the country’s biggest race group, as well as other ethnic minorities.
But Saifuddin, a former deputy minister in the Najib administration, said the best person to lead the country is one who understands the concept and importance of practising moderation and Najib, he pointed out, is among Umno’s more moderate captains.
“Najib... he is primarily very progressive. He is a democrat. He is a moderate leader,” Saifuddin said of his boss in a recent interview with The Malay Mail Online ahead of Umno’s polls.
“I can understand that he is also under tremendous pressure from every side you can imagine. He knows that he cannot please everyone.
“But I think he is trying his level best to be as centrist as possible,” the outspoken Umno leader said.
“It would be a big loss,” he said, when considering the future of an Umno without Najib.
He added: “Especially because we lost the middle ground in GE13 and we must regain the middle ground in GE14 and we need Najib.”
Like Election 2008, the 13th national polls were a sore point in BN’s history. The ruling pact, despite feverish planning and radical policy changes, failed to recapture its coveted two-thirds parliamentary majority, despite still winning its place in Putrajaya.
A significant trend in the election results was not just the flight of the Chinese from the ruling bloc but a clear switch in the appetite of Malaysians, particularly the urban class, against race-based politics.
Explaining this, Saifuddin said Malaysia’s middle ground had swelled with more “colour-blind” voters now calling for moderation and a migration from race-based to needs-based policies.
“Thirty per cent of the Malaysian population are actually the middle ground. And the middle ground consist of the young; the university students; the well-educated; the academics; the professionals; the technocrats; the entrepreneurs; and the civil society,” he said.
“I know these people very well. Majority are colour-blind. They do not vote based on race at all.”
Saifuddin noted that it was not an easy task to manage these diverse needs for Najib, who had inherited a struggling ruling party in 2009, but said his boss has done well so far to prove his worth as both the president of the Malay party as well as a prime minister for all races.
This, he said, was based on the results of Election 2013 that saw Umno gain nine more seats in the Dewan Rakyat than the 79 federal seats it drew five years ago in Election 2008.
“We did better in 2013,” the 52-year-old said, and added, “Because of that, there’s no reason for him to be challenged. Unless if someone has other ideas.”
Saifuddin said that no one could tell Umno members not to contest a position in the party election.
“But the general feeling is that Najib has done a good job as far as Umno is concerned,” he said.
Najib was returned to the helm of the country’s largest Malay-based party of 3.4 million members when nominations for the Umno polls closed on Saturday without any contest.
Together with his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the man who was initially touted as a possible challenger to Najib’s presidency, the prime minister finally cemented his seat at the political pinnacle with his walkover victory.
Some observers said the unchallenged contest was an indirect nod towards Najib’s four-year leadership but others reminded that just a week before nominations, the Umno president had doled out pro-Malay and Bumiputera promises in a move some claimed had likely been tailored for the polls.
In a highly-anticipated announcement on September 14, the 60-year-old trotted off a list of over RM31 billion in various loans, contracts and programmes that will be made available to the Bumiputera, with the stated aim of strengthening Bumiputera economic participation and boost their ownership of commercial property.
The decision was a far cry from the 1 Malaysia concept introduced in 2010 — two years after Najib first became prime minister — which championed ethnic harmony, national unity and needs-based instead of race-based assistance.
But the firm commitment towards uplifting the lot of the Malay community — which Najib described as integral in charting the country’s fortunes — follows recent criticism against the Umno president for failing to fully acknowledge the support the group had extended to the ruling BN during the recent general election.
In the May 5 polls, BN had not only failed to recapture its coveted parliamentary supermajority but also lost further ground to the nascent three-party Pakatan Rakyat opposition pact, when it took 133 seats to the opposition pact’s 89.
But Umno did well for itself, successfully increasing its federal representation by a sizeable nine parliamentary seats.
As such, despite BN’s poorer performance, Najib’s contemporaries in Umno agreed to leave the party’s top two positions uncontested in this year’s party election, in order to preserve stability in Umno.