Last edited: September 06, 2004

A Return to Umno?

The Straits Times, September 4, 2004

By Joseph Liow Chin Yong

THE release of former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim from jail has sparked speculation as to the role he intends to play in Malaysian politics.

This speculation has been further fed by Datuk Seri Anwar’s own announcement that he intends to continue his struggle for political reform.

Given that he completed an earlier sentence for corruption last year, he will be eligible to contest the next general election scheduled for 2009.

In terms of political parties, the options for Datuk Seri Anwar will be Parti Keadilan Nasional, the party formed by his wife, Datin Seri Wan Azizah Ismail, and which he supported during his incarceration; Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which tried to entice him into its fold in 1982; and Umno, the party which embraced him that same year, and subsequently expelled him in 1998.

While Anwar the ‘reformasi man’ may be emotionally pulled towards Keadilan, Anwar the ‘renaissance Islamist’ may be lured to join the ranks of a more progressive PAS if the professionals in the Islamist party get their way.

At the end of the day, however, it may well be the politician in Anwar that dominates and decides that his political future is best served by a return to the Umno fold.


DATUK Seri Anwar may have been expelled from Umno but the possibility of a return to Umno is far from remote.

Two reasons underlie this.

First, Umno under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is, on the surface at least, not the Umno of the Mahathir era. Datuk Seri Abdullah has injected the spirit of reform in a party bogged down by problems of money politics, and this would gel nicely with Datuk Seri Anwar’s current persona as a champion of political reform.

More striking however, is the fact that a return to Umno may well be facilitated by the party’s own culture of political resurrections.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad was expelled from Umno in 1969 when, as an Umno supreme council member, he openly criticised the administration of Tunku Abdul Rahman. His subsequent return to the party was facilitated by Tun Abdul Razak and former Selangor Mentri Besar Harun Idris, who himself was cast out of the party in 1976 and jailed for corruption charges, only to receive a royal pardon in 1982—at the behest of Dr Mahathir himself.

Even Datuk Seri Abdullah found himself in the political wilderness when he was forced to pay the price for supporting Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s breakaway faction in 1987 and was marginalised to the peripheries of party politics.

Tengku Razaleigh too would find himself returning to the Umno fray along with legions of Umno members who followed him to form Semangat 46 in 1988.

What would be the terms of Umno’s acceptance of Datuk Seri Anwar should the former party deputy president indeed decide to return to Umno?

Contrary to suggestions that Datuk Seri Anwar’s return to politics may be a threat to Datuk Seri Abdullah, the fact of the matter is that by supporting the Federal Court’s decision to overturn the former’s previous conviction, the latter has strengthened his own hand even further. It accentuates his already- burgeoning reputation as a leader with integrity.

While it is unlikely that Datuk Seri Anwar’s return will pose any threat to Datuk Seri Abdullah’s leadership position in the party, particularly if the latter manages to sustain the positive momentum that has come to define his current tenure, less certain would be the threat posed to the vice-presidencies or even deputy presidency.

There is little doubt that party support for Datuk Seri Anwar has waned since 1998. However, he still has four years to build a support base within the party, and four years in Umno party politics is a long time.

Moreover, the Federal Court will be reviewing its own decision to reject his appeal against his corruption conviction soon. Should the review prove successful, he would be able to return to politics immediately.

If this materialises, it would be a matter of concern for existing power centres in the party, even if Datuk Seri Abdullah’s position remains secure.


AS DATUK Seri Abdullah himself has articulated on many occasions, one of the key missions of his government will be to reform the civil service sector and, in particular, the police and legal services.

The appointments of Datuk Mohamed Bakri Omar and Justice Abdul Malek Ahmad—both popularly seen as incorruptible men with integrity—to the powerful positions of Inspector-General of Police and President of the Court of Appeals respectively, were already seen to be a concrete step in the right direction.

Together with the reform of the police and the release of several political personalities detained under the Internal Security Act a few months ago, international and domestic opinion will certainly see the release of Datuk Seri Anwar as yet another clear demonstration of Datuk Seri Abdullah’s commitment to reform the Malaysian juridical and legal system that until now has been seen to be subservient to the executive.

Furthermore, given that Datuk Seri Anwar has firmly nailed his colours to the mast of reform, Datuk Seri Abdullah may well find in him a useful ally further down the road as he continues to pursue his ongoing efforts to reform the Umno juggernaut.

All things being equal then, come 2009, and barring ill health, the former will most likely return to Malaysia’s political front line to contest in the general election.

And who would bet against him doing it on an Umno ticket?

The writer is an assistant professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are his own.

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