UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), the political party that leads the government in Malaysia, has in the recent years been facing numerous accusations and allegations of corruption.
One of the highest profile scandals is the world-famous 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy that many have tied to Prime Minister Najib Razak and his family.
Several international authorities have already kicked off investigations into the scandal because it involves the misappropriation of funds in the banks of multiple countries. The biggest of these in the headlines right now is the one being conducted by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). In Malaysia, however, the attorney-general has already absolved Najib of any criminal wrongdoing in the matter.
Umno, which Najib heads, still appears to have strong support from the Malaysian grassroots. Earlier this month, the party held their annual meeting of delegates across the country and since I’ve never once missed a meeting in over a decade, I did not want this year’s event to be any different. I also had a burning desire to find out if any of Umno’s grassroots members really believed that corruption wasn’t happening right below their very noses.
So I went. And there, I spoke to several assembly delegates and observers, all of whom had come to listen to their leaders discuss issues involving the party and the nation. It also needs to be said that the party is a Malay race-based party. So their main mission, really, is to protect the rights and interests of the Malays, who form the bulk of the Malaysian electorate.
A full disclosure on my part: I went in expecting that those I spoke to would vehemently defend their leaders and say they are clean and that corruption doesn’t exist. After all, with so much negative news in the media about Umno and its leaders, you would think that only the blind faithful would remain supporters of the party, right? But I was proven wrong.
Watch my conversations with the Umno delegates on video below.
“It is impossible that there is no corruption in Umno. But we can’t change it with a snap of a finger. It takes a very long time,” says Zaitun Yahya, who hails from Larut, a constituency in Perak, a state nearly two hours north of Kuala Lumpur.
Initially, it took me a while to get Zaitun to answer my question on whether she thought her party leaders were corrupt. She kept trying to evade the question, saying that leaders were elected to their posts for a reason. She even said that God had given them the right characteristics and intelligence to be leaders of the party.
Eventually, however, she relented and said it would be naive not to believe that corruption happens. But what struck me as funny was that while she disagreed with corrupt practices and said it was “impossible” to say the party was not in some way corrupted, she didn’t seem to believe that this could be changed. Or at least she felt it wasn’t something she could change. It’s not like she wanted it to continue. It was just that she felt she wasn’t in the position to take any action and that others were.
I spoke to another delegate from Bagan Serai, also in Perak, named Wan Jaafar Wan Ngah. Like Zaitun, Wan Jaafar’s expressed sentiments were similar. He said corruption was part and parcel of politics, and that he accepted it as that. It’s as if nothing can or should be done about it.
“I can’t say much about it. It’s all up to the leaders to explain the corruption allegations to us at the grassroots. It’s confusing for us but we do understand that is just how politics is,” he said.
From these brief interviews, it shows that many of these Umno grassroots leaders from cities, townships and villages outside the capital aren’t actually as ignorant or as naive as I had come to believe.
The only – and biggest – problem is that they aren’t taking any action about it and it doesn’t look like they plan to. Or it could be that they have no idea what they should or can do.
And if I’m right and that’s really the case, then the concept of democracy isn’t as clear as it should be in the country. At least not to these delegates. Delegates who, after the annual meeting, would have gone home to the far-flung corners of the country to spread their party message and agenda, whose followers and supporters are largely the Malays, who form the bulk of the Malaysian electorate.
When deciding who should run the country, the opinion of every single eligible voter counts. One person, one vote, right? So even if these delegates want to continue supporting their party, they need to realise that their opinions matter and that regardless how helpless they feel in any situation, they can do something about the things they don’t like.
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