Side Views

Winning by popularity: Can Umno rely on the prime minister’s personal standing? — Clive Kessler

January 13, 2013

JAN 13 — “BN needs to milk Najib’s popularity harder, say analysts” reads a recent headline (The Malaysian Insider, 12 January 2013).

Sorry, but this is just delusional.

A strategy that seeks to use Najib’s supposed popularity to save Umno/BN, to pull its chestnuts from the fire at the last moment, will fail miserably.

Umno has been around, and in charge (though in recent times unconvincingly), for over half a century.

Najib has been PM for less than five years.

So, with reason, he is less unpopular than his now increasingly unpopular party.

He has not had a sufficient chance yet to make himself as unpopular as Umno itself, by its own doing over recent years, has become.

And because he is widely seen as weak and vacillating, many people tend to be indifferent to him, unmoved by him, rather than to hate him.

They just don’t feel strongly about him in any way: love, admire, sympathise or hate.

He does not inspire political passions of any kind.

Rather, he comes across politically as simply a “cold fish.”

Nothing blood-stirring there about him.

And when he tries, such as at the conclusion of Umno General Assemblies, to display political passion, it tends to fall flat, embarrassingly.

That lack of powerful personal feeling or emotional “valence”, positive or negative, towards the prime minister shows up in the polls as “popularity.”

Where what you are being measured against — here a suddenly and surprisingly quite unpopular party — is a negative, mere indifference comes over as a plus, a positive.

Or that is how some people see things, how many people feel about what the government is now offering.

But any notion that PM Najib’s supposed personal popularity can possibly rescue Umno/BN is just fantasy.

How might Umno/BN win the election?

It’s pretty late in the day now to try to work out a compelling strategy.

But it would have to go beyond personalities, including Najib’s.

All else aside, that is the only way to neutralize the “negative” side of popular feelings about Najib.

It would require Umno/BN to devise and promote a positive, coherent and principled agenda.


Principled in the sense that it was unifying, that it united people and massed popular support from all directions.

By practising the politics of convergence, and seeking to draw in its supporters and allies on all sides, from all quarters.

Not a strategy, in other words, that divided, that sought to prevail at the polls by building up a numerical majority amassed from one side of the field only.

Not a strategy that seeks “traction” by appealing to, by driving and even frightening together in an anxious and fearful huddle, the majority — or as many of them as can possibly be made to feel beleaguered — against all the various minorities.

Can Umno/BN do that?

Can it rise above the politics — well-known for its tactical popularity among the cattle rustlers in old cowboy Western movies — of the stampede, the politics of unleashing and seeking to control panic?

The politics of seeking to control by means of managed panic?

What panic?

A dual panic.

The panic that Islam is in danger, and that only Malays acting together as Malays can save it.

The panic that Malays and their place in the country are imperilled, and that only by coming and acting together in the name and on the basis of Islam can their stake in the nation be safeguarded.

Can Umno now turn around, change its recent direction, and do that?

I doubt it.

I doubt that Umno any longer has the ability, with all its internal conflicts and the insatiable interests that drive them, to imagine, produce and articulate such a unifying agenda.

And do Umno people any more have the good sense and ability to be able to commit themselves to such an agenda?

And then to promote it, even in the face of internal resistance from the exclusivist “us against them all” voices in the “grand old Malay party”.

That seems unlikely.

But that still seems the only “way forward”.

Otherwise, there are tough times ahead in this land for “the old ruling firm” and its management team.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.