Asiaweek logo FEBRUARY 18, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 6

UMNO's Restless Youth
Mahathir's party wants Gen. X back. Good luck
By ROBIN PAUL AJELLO and SANTHA OORJITHAM Kuala Lumpur

Watching Malaysian politics - the recent arrest of oppositionists, the continuing arrogance at the top - one might think that the dominant United Malays National Organization has forgotten the drubbing it took at the last election. Not so. Look closer, and you will see UMNO's crucial youth wing is badly split and hemorrhaging members to the opposition. The dire situation has prompted UMNO Youth acting chief Hishammuddin Tun Hussein to call for a "massive injection of new blood and new ideas" at senior party levels, an all-out attempt to reclaim UMNO's battered credibility.

Hishammuddin and his colleagues have a ways to go. Once upon a time, UMNO Youth was a force to be reckoned with, a fertile proving ground for dynamic, fresh leaders like Anwar Ibrahim, who led the organization in the 1980s. The youth wing played an active part in various crucial national debates, including the furor over Malaysia's affirmative-action New Economic Policy and what language to use in schools.
Then at the party's general assembly in 1998, Youth leaders dared to take on the twin evils of corruption and cronyism, also hobbyhorses of Anwar's. The attack cost the incumbent UMNO Youth leader his job. Since then, says Malaysian academic Nidzam Sulaiman, UMNO Youth has had to "get a blessing from the top on what to say and do."

The perception of the youth wing as a club for aspiring leaders took another body blow with the politically charged ouster of Anwar as deputy PM and finance minister in 1998. Not only did Anwar seem to stand for the same ideals as many UMNO Youth members, he also was a torchbearer for other such organizations as the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), co-founded by the one-time student firebrand. ABIM and UMNO Youth drew members from the same key constituency.

When Anwar was sacked and jailed on corruption charges, young Malays defected in droves to the opposition National Justice Party headed by Anwar's wife, or to the conservative Parti Islam SeMalaysia. Sociologist and oppositionist Rustam Sani says UMNO Youth lost up to 80% of its support among students. During the campaign, he adds, its leaders did not dare participate in campus forums. "They were jeered," says Rustam.

Which brings us to the post-election soul-searching now underway. Zulkifli Alwi, UMNO Youth's assistant secretary, reckons some members were so angry at the party that, besides voting for the opposition, they deliberately spoiled their ballots or did not vote at all. "The electorate, especially the Malay voters, sent us a clear and strong signal," Zulkifli says. "The message is that the younger generation is not with UMNO." He is talking about urban-dwelling professionals, religious experts, activists, student leaders and intellectuals. Some inside the party regard the defections of such voters as a wakeup call. For Zulkifli: "It is a last warning."

That is why UMNO Youth has gone on the offensive with a three-pronged strategy: to get twenty- and thirty-something yuppies onto the party's policy-making supreme council; mount forums in every state in order to hold a frank exchange of views with aspiring leaders; convince young voters that UMNO is still in the business of protecting majority Malay rights. The bait: an opportunity for politicians-in-the-making to leapfrog into lofty party positions. To that end, Zulkifli says, UMNO Youth leaders plan to ask party brass to waive a requirement that one must be a member for three years before being tipped for a national role.

Fast-tracking new leaders is sure to be controversial with the party elite. As Rustam says, UMNO's internal selection process is designed to help incumbents, many of whom are appointed rather than elected. Zulkifli acknowledges that there will be resistance. "Guys already heading UMNO Youth at branch or division level are not too willing to make way and accommodate people of caliber," he says. "[But] the majority realize that UMNO must change and be proactive in infusing new blood - otherwise [the party] will be irrelevant."

The pertinent question, of course, is whether or not young Malays will buy UMNO Youth's claims that it is changing with the times and is willing to incorporate other views - even unpalatable ones. For his part, academic Nidzam reckons it will be hard to lure young intellectuals and professionals. "They're more attracted to the opposition," he says.

To get their attention, says Zulkifli, the youth wing plans to ditch its "we-know-what-is-right-for-the-people attitude" and throw open the floor to the grassroots at the state-level forums that are set to start in April. Finally, in an effort to burnish its Islamic credentials, UMNO Youth leaders are urging members to attend mosque regularly and even give sermons - as long as they are not political.

You can't fault the party of Mahathir Mohamad for trying. But the post-election makeover, whether sincere or not, will be haunted by the political ghost of Anwar Ibrahim - who, despite being behind bars and on trial for sodomy, remains an icon to many Malay youths.