At the end of 2000, Malaysia’s dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), recognizing that its electoral support had weakened, introduced a number of measures aimed at bringing new blood into the organization. The most successful was the launch of a new branch of the party aimed at young Malay women.
UMNO already had a women’s wing, called Wanita UMNO, but, widely seen as a rather staid organization dominated by older women, it had little appeal for Malaysia’s rapidly burgeoning population of young, well-educated working women. It was just this element that, it was hoped, the new organization would attract.
It got off to a rocky start, however. Party higher-ups did not seem to have sought out the views of their target group before the launch, with the result that it had a few features that made some potential members wince: it was to be called “Puteri UMNO” (UMNO Princesses) and its representative color was to be pink: even its headquarters were painted pink throughout. Some Wanita UMNO members were suspicious of the new group, which they thought would undermine Wanita UMNO’s status, and argued that it should only be allowed to recruit women under 30. Party leaders originally had proposed that it be open to under-40s, but a compromise of 35 eventually was agreed upon.
Puteri UMNO claimed to have won a membership of over 80,000 in a matter of a few months. Some high-profile women joined, including the queen of Malaysian pop music, Siti Nurhaliza, and singer, actor and beauty products poster woman Erra Fazira. Much of the credit for the organization’s success belongs to its dynamic and hard-working leader, Azalina Othman Said.
Azalina qualified as a lawyer, but only caught the eye of UMNO leaders when she hosted a television talk show that tackled controversial issues and went in for a more robust interviewing style than Malaysians usually see at home. Backed by UMNO head and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other influential figures, she shot up the party hierarchy.
Unfortunately for Azalina, however, her rapid rise and the success of Puteri UMNO attracted not only admiration, but jealousy and resentment as well. A number of unsigned poison pen letters were circulated to political leaders and the press: one that ran to nine pages accused her of favoritism and imposing her own wishes on the Puteri UMNO committee. The windows of her car were smashed by unknown attackers last year.
Despite all the sensationalism surrounding Azalina, the fundamental question is whether UMNO is committed to welcoming new blood, or whether some old members who have personal vested interests in maintaining the status quo will have their way. That there are people in the party who would indeed put themselves before UMNO’s long-term viability was confirmed in May, when it was discovered that membership application forms from young Malays had gone missing—not dozens, or even a couple of hundred, but thousands.
Mahathir reportedly hit the roof when he heard this news and was angry for days after. Not only had he argued the need for UMNO to recruit young educated people in order to repel the opposition’s advance, but he knew that the saboteurs of the membership drive could only be people inside his own party.