Datuk Seri Najib Razak with youth parliament representatives in August last year. Having weathered a political storm, Najib has many things going in his favour. FILE PIC

WITH an eye on the general election, Umno kicks off its five-day long annual general assembly on Tuesday with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak having a firmer grip on the ruling party.

He will use the caucus to rally the 3.4 million Umno members to gear up for the polls, widely expected to be held in March or April next year, and seek a fresh mandate for his transformation agenda.

Najib’s keynote address on Thursday and his closed-door talk with party division leaders on Tuesday will set the tone for the three-day proceedings and his mission and vision going forward.

He will talk about the survival of the Malays and the need to develop a strong winning mentality to ensure that Barisan Nasional romps home with a comfortable win.

What’s clear is that he has managed to unify the ranks in the party after the sacking of his deputy in 2015.

Having weathered the political storm, Najib has many things going in his favour. Party unity is at its strongest, the opposition remains in disarray and the national economy is roaring and growing beyond market expectations.

A Bloomberg News survey last week showed the Malaysian economy is likely to grow 5.7 per cent this year and 5.2 per cent next year, in contrast to sub-five per cent growth in 2016.

“Umno leaders will drive home the point that the government has successfully steered the country through difficult times and that better times lie ahead,” Saleena Begum Saleem, an associate fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told the South China Morning Post.

The economy grew at 6.2 per cent — its fastest pace in more than three years — in the July-September quarter, and the ringgit is Asia’s second-best performing currency this year.

Najib, who is also the finance minister, had in October unveiled a people-friendly 2018 Budget with a cut in income tax for the middle class and other goodies for the lower- and middle-income groups.

In the prelude to the Umno assembly, the government unveiled in Parliament the findings of
the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Bank Negara’s huge forex losses.

Not surprisingly, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is in the cross hairs after the RCI recommended that the former premier face criminal investigations.

The losses were incurred during Dr Mahathir’s 22-year reign. His lawyer has vowed to seek a court order to block the circulation of the report.

Umno is the bedrock of multi-ethnic BN that has ruled Malaysia since Merdeka.

But Najib and his party are not without any challenges.

For one, he is expected to elaborate at the assembly once and for all on 1MDB, the issue that Dr Mahathir, bent on overthrowing Najib and defeating BN, managed to blow out of proportion.

Dr Mahathir, through his attacks on 1MDB, had derailed plans for the proposed IPO of 1MDB’s power plant unit, and jeopardised 1MDB’s financial revamp.

Then there were other scaremongering tactics employed by opposition leaders to frighten foreign investors, including from Saudi Arabia, from putting their money in Malaysia.

Not unexpectedly, Dr Mahathir and his new-found ally, DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, will be the prime targets at this year’s Umno assembly.

Besides the narratives of economic sabotage, Umno leaders will also point to Kit Siang’s proven track record of pitting the Malays against the Malays, this time using Dr Mahathir for the purpose.

This could be a powerful message as Umno banks on its appeal to the Malay heartland.

In the run-up to the assembly, Najib paid a private visit to Kelantan Umno strongman Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah at the latter’s “White House” in Jalan U-Thant in Kuala Lumpur.

Several other Umno leaders from Kelantan were also there.

As Najib leads the Umno war-cry for GE14, Umno leaders are also taking steps to keep the status quo with a resolution to ensure that Najib will not be challenged as Umno’s No. 1 in party polls next year.

The Padang Rengas Umno division is set to table a motion in the upcoming assembly to make sure that the posts of president and deputy president remain uncontested.

Padang Rengas Umno division chief Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said the motion is aimed at ensuring that unity is maintained in preparation for the 14th General Election.

“We don’t want this (contest) to happen and that’s why we want the top two positions to be decided now, so that when we face the elections, we are one,” he said.

As the party faithful gather at the headquarters in PWTC, Umno leaders must also contend with other policy issues that affect all Malaysians and ensure that the party remains relevant.

Like everything else, society is being disrupted by technology, digital media, better education, changing demographics and rapid urbanisation.

How Umno and BN adapt to these changes while making themselves more appealing to the more educated and younger voters is key.

Obviously, Umno must face the reality that a sizeable number of voters this time around will be new and first-time voters.

The party has to raise its game in order to reach out to them.

jalil@nst.com.my

The writer feels in a digital world, the winner does not always take all

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