An UMNO rally in 2017. The party is gearing up for a comeback at elections that must be held in 2023. Photo: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR –If the resurgent United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has any hope of restoring its traditional position at the apex of national politics, the party must win over ethnic non-Malays and the urban constituencies where they reside.

That’s according to UMNO information chief Shahril Hamdan, 36, who spoke exclusively to Asia Times in a wide-ranging interview.

His view would likely be disputed by party conservatives who advocate a narrower platform championing the rights and state-sanctioned economic privileges of ethnic Malays, the majority population in Malaysia.

But electoral arithmetic, Shahril argues, demands that the country is run “in a way that is relatable not just to the conservative base but to broader Malaysia.”

“UMNO in the past had managed to get support from urban, non-Malay constituencies. For UMNO’s survival, that has to come back because political urbanization is a one-way street and all the maps indicate that if we ever want to go back to some form of majoritarian dominance, we need urban support and non-Malay support, at least a significant minority of it,” he said.

The trouble for UMNO is that few voters, particularly those within urban areas, are actively clamoring to return to a time when the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition governed with a supermajority. But what the electorate would likely agree on is the need for renewed stability after three years of uncharacteristic political dysfunction.

“The stability ingredient is key to Malaysia’s story. Once you don’t have it, you’re reminded how important it is,” said Shahril, elaborating on the pitch UMNO intends to push when it contests the next general election, which must be held by September 2023, and guns for a redemptive victory after voters brought its 61 years of continuous rule to a surprise end in 2018.

“I think the message, it wouldn’t be a surprise, will anchor around stability. But very quickly, we’ll need to move beyond just the first order question of stability and also press on what we will do with that stability. And I think that’s what the party has to work on in the coming weeks and months, to remind people that stability is synonymous with BN,” he told Asia Times.

Shahril Hamdan, UMNO information chief and economic advisor to the prime minister’s office, pictured in April 2022. Photo: Malay Mail / Twitter

While UMNO previously oversaw decades of relative stability characterized by periods of rapid economic growth and long prime ministerial tenures, critics and observers argue that the party’s current leadership is largely responsible for recent political turbulence, during which the country has seen an unprecedented three changes of government in as many years.

After then-premier and UMNO president Najib Razak was implicated in the multi-billion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, the party was relegated to the opposition bench for the first time in its history. But it returned to government after 22 months through parliamentary maneuvers, toppling the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.

In doing so, UMNO became a junior partner in then-premier Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which governed for only 17 months amid the Covid-19 pandemic before being ousted after a faction led by Najib and his ally, current UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, withdrew support for the embattled leader and forced his resignation last August.

Muhyiddin claims the reason the powerful pair withdrew their support was that he refused to interfere in the duo’s separate corruption-linked court cases. UMNO was then returned to power to lead a reconstituted federal government under current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who analysts say faces similar pressure to protect the criminally accused party leaders. 

Ismail’s rise broke with the political tradition of UMNO’s president ascending to the role of prime minister. Due to money laundering, bribery and other charges facing Zahid, Ismail landed the top job despite being number three in the party hierarchy. Ismail and Zahid have since clashed over when to call the next election, with the former resisting pressure from the latter to hold snap polls.

“I think this notion of there being factions and camps in UMNO at times can be overstated. And the conversations and implicit or explicit understanding behind the scenes between the prime minister and the party president can sometimes be understated,” said Shahril, who is also an economic director in the prime minister’s office, when asked about party disunity.    

“Because it’s the first time [that the prime minister does not hold the post of party president] it may appear awkward. But I think after months of this novel arrangement, it is already bearing fruit and an understanding is starting to form between the two individuals. I personally have seen how there is coordination and conversations between the two,” he told Asia Times.   

Shahril added that one of his responsibilities is to ensure that “harmony” is sustained between the party leadership and the premier so that UMNO presents a unified front on the next election’s campaign trail. “The party will benefit as a whole if the government does well under Ismail Sabri and the government also will benefit if UMNO is solidly behind the prime minister.” 

BN’s performance at state polls in Melaka in November and Johor in March has been held up as proof of the coalition’s resurgent popularity, with the UMNO-led alliance clinching supermajorities in both state assemblies. But the coalition only modestly improved on its vote share from 2018, benefiting from a divided opposition and a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Malaysian Prime Ismail Sabri Yaakob is under pressure to call an early election. Photo: Bernama

While Ismail has avoided rushing into early polls amid rising inflation, Zahid and his supporters have argued that now is the time to seize the political momentum. Though BN is well-positioned to lead the next government, analysts believe it may have to rely on support from or even govern with its political rivals if it does not win outright, a view shared by UMNO’s information chief.

“I think any majority from now on from traditional coalitions will be small. I’m happy to be proven wrong, but my sense is the majority, if it does come, will be small,” said Shahril. “And if we want to run on stability, and we want to administer this country with a more comfortable parliamentary majority, UMNO-BN needs to be open to some sort of post-election arrangement.”

Though Shahril was clear to rule out any pre-election coordination with rival coalitions PH and PN, saying his party had no appetite to “compromise” on electoral strategy, he voiced hope that post-election cooperation would “deliver stability and at the same time democratize the whole process, such that the losers don’t lose everything, and winners don’t take all.”

“I think there’s a recognition from across the political class, PH included, that arrangements ought to be considered, whether that means governing together, or more likely some sort of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) type situation like today, with policymaking input from the opposition. I think that can be a good thing for the country,” said UMNO’s information chief.

Ismail’s government already relies on the opposition for political stability, having signed an MoU with opposition leader and PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim last September in exchange for agreeing to pass into law several institutional reforms sought by the opposition. The agreement, which expires on July 31, has vocal proponents and detractors on both sides of the aisle.

When asked to respond to critics that say UMNO has failed to meaningfully reform since losing power over four years ago, Shahril disputed the notion, pointing to the party’s compliance with the MoU and its support for new regulations to raise transparency for political financing contributions and curtail “party hopping” or lawmaker defections, among other measures.

Shahril, who is also the deputy chief of UMNO’s youth wing, also pointed to examples of the party leadership’s “willingness to put young people in places that were traditionally more for senior experienced folks,” citing new faces fielded in the Melaka and Johor state elections who won seats and younger figures appointed to the party’s supreme council decision-making body.

BN is expected to push more youth candidates after a constitutional amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 last year, adding about four million voters to the electoral roll. While all parties are broadly expected to campaign on cost of living issues, Shahril believes BN offers “a bit more credibility” than its opponents when it comes to cash assistance and welfare programs.

He pointed to PH “failing to deliver on their many promises” around purchasing power, minimum wage and student loan payments after unseating BN in 2018. “There was also a reduction in the kind of welfare cash aid that was synonymous with our administration before the election,” Shahril said, referring to the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) handouts introduced under Najib’s tenure.

While seen by the opposition as thinly veiled vote-buying, BR1M was Malaysia’s first welfare scheme to provide for lower-income groups regardless of their race, part of a new economic model pushed by the then-premier that, according to Shahril, “contained the idea that a race-based approach needs to be complemented with a needs-based approach.”

“I don’t think it’s alien from within UMNO to speak in those terms,” he added. “I will say I’m one of the people who want to make UMNO return to that more sophisticated and moderate path where the notion of a Malay struggle and Malay advancement is done in conjunction with the Malaysian narrative and not in a zero-sum, belligerent or necessarily oppositional way.”

UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left) and former Malaysian premier Najib Razak. Photo: Twitter

“The question is how we manage the more reactionary and conservative elements within the party,” said the 36-year-old. “Because of various issues, that kind of imperative has taken a backseat,” he said while conceding that repositioning the party to take a “nuanced view on welfare politics and affirmative action” would be a challenge because “it’s always easier to sell a right-wing message.”  

Preferential rules aimed at empowering bumiputra, a term for ethnic Malays, were initially introduced in 1971 to offset economic inequality that then favored the ethnic Chinese minority and remain firmly entrenched, providing the community favored access to public universities and scholarships, government contracts and procurement, business licenses and loans, as well as employment in the civil service.

Bumiputras today account for nearly 70% of multi-ethnic Malaysia’s population, while combined minorities including Chinese and Indians represent around 30%. Critics have long argued that race-based policies amount to institutionalized discrimination and have fuelled a “brain drain” in which highly trained or qualified non-Malays seek better opportunities overseas.  

“If the aim is bumiputra economic advancement, we need to adjust the methods with the times. And it should not be controversial for someone from UMNO to say that surely many of the methods of the 1970s won’t apply in 2022,” said Shahril, suggesting that the measures make Malaysia less competitive as an investment destination relative to its regional neighbors.

“We have to return to a moderate path because the world requires it of Malaysia. Top of mind among investors, apart from stability, is how willing Malaysia is to reform its economic structures, how willing are we to revisit certain sacred cows around the ease of doing business. We have to ask what’s the right thing to do for the Malays, for us and for the Malaysian story,” he added.

As the nation continues to reel from rising food and living costs, analysts say BN’s electoral pitch will likely draw populist inspiration from Najib’s handouts and needs-based distribution of subsidized goods. The still-influential ex-premier, meanwhile, will have the final appeal of his corruption conviction and 12-year jail sentence heard by Malaysia’s highest court next month.

“Hopefully whatever the decision, both the public and party membership will respect it, and whatever personal hopes one has about either outcome, the court’s decision has to be respected,” Shahril told Asia Times. “If it’s an acquittal, then it’s respected. If it’s a confirmation of his conviction, that also has to be respected.”

Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie