COMMENT | Nearly four months after a truly historic general election, the battle for the Malay soul continues without the fanfare of election posters and midnight ceramah.
Just last weekend, the Pakatan Harapan government held what is presumably the inaugural congress on the “Future of the bumiputera and the nation” in Kuala Lumpur.
Opposition party Umno (I have yet to get used to this description), coincidentally held its own gathering in Pasir Salak, Perak.
The approaches by these two adversaries on their respective platforms could not have been starkly different; Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad used the carrot and stick approach to cajole and motivate the bumiputera in order to change their culture and values and wean off the crutch of government assistance.
Mahathir also said that government contracts set aside for bumiputera businessmen would be cancelled if they try to sell or transfer to third parties, a common practice in Malaysia, even, as he claimed, at the cost of losing votes.
Bumiputera businessmen must work hard. Malaysians have now come to expect such ramrod statements from the 93-year-old prime minister after almost a decade of politically expedient statements meant to cater to the Umno base.
Umno on the other hand, again demonstrated at Pasir Salak that it is in no mood to move away from its staple talking points – that of race and religion and the supremacy of the Malay rulers - talking points which were used liberally by the Najib (Abdul Razak) regime in the run-up to GE14.
Umno is no doubt comforted by the fact that, together with PAS, they collectively captured the majority of Malay votes in GE14 and in their political calculations, remain poised - if somewhat fantastical - to sneak back into power before the next general election, as declared by some Umno supreme council members.
Repeating your key messages consistently is key to effective communication but words meant to create fear and uncertainty always have a short shelf life as opposed to words of hope and the promise of a better life.
The results of GE14 proved that “It is the economy, stupid” as brilliantly summed up by Bill Clinton’s political strategist James Carville in 1992 when Clinton stormed to the US presidency and ended the 12-year reign of the Republican Party.
Enough bodies of voters at the ballot box, together with a substantial number of Malay voters, wanted Umno, led by a scandal-ridden prime minister out and no amount of fear-mongering saved Umno-BN from its worst defeat in the nation’s history.
Despite a massive disadvantage in terms of resources and facing the might of state-controlled institutions, Harapan ran a campaign that cleverly tapped into voter anxiety of a daily existence which was squeezing their pockets a little bit more every day.
The picture of a “Christian” Malaysia or a “Chinese prime minister” did not do enough to scare Malay voters from picking Harapan and Umno ended up with just two states in the peninsula.
The recent Malay-majority Sungai Kandis by-election loss suffered by Umno is another reminder about a political landscape which may have changed forever.
Umno must learn to be a proper opposition first if it wants to get back into government one day. This means Umno cannot abdicate its responsibility for the litany of mind-blowing, numbing financial scandals under the Najib years.
For Umno, there is no simple reset. Umno, in its current form, will not appeal to the middle-of-the-road voters and the all-important Sarawak and Sabah voters.
It is, however, unlikely that the current set of leaders in Umno will take anything resembling collective responsibility in order to chart a new path as many of them were in the previous cabinet and allied to Najib.
It is also likely that Umno will not see a whiff of federal power in the next two general elections but it can be prepared for the possibility of sharing power one day.
And so, what does Umno want to be?
An ultra-conservative Arabist-inspired entity more in common with PAS or something akin to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Umno, more inclusive to all Malaysians?
Right now, party leaders seem to be more concerned about the fate of Mahathir’s predecessor and clinging to old talking points than charting a new way forward in a Malaysia Baru, which seems to be in no mood for kleptocrats, insults and bombast.
SREEJIT PILLAI is in public relations.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.