‘We’re not rebels’: Young leaders form ‘progressive’ caucus to push for reforms in Malay-dominated Umno

Danial Dzulkifly
·5-min read
The Umno logo is pictured at Menara Dato’ Onn in Kuala Lumpur October 26, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
The Umno logo is pictured at Menara Dato’ Onn in Kuala Lumpur October 26, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 18 — Hoping for a “return” of Umno to its more centrist and people-centric roots, several like-minded young leaders in the party have banded together in a “progressive” caucus as a platform for those who share their ideals.

Seeking to uphold the ideals of democracy, sustainable equity policies, and ultimately advancing Malay politics through progressive ideas, these mostly professional Umno members have formed the group calling itself ‘’Progresif Umno".

Speaking to Malay Mail, one of the movement’s founding members, Muhammad Shaqib Shahrilnizam, said the creation of the caucus was meant to provide a voice for what he deemed as “the silent majority” within the party who lack an avenue to express their ideas or concerns.

“The idea of the caucus is to bring a new narrative that is more friendly towards the people. We need to find a new narrative so that people would appreciate Umno and they feel Umno is one of the places where they can express their ideas, concerns, and even a place where they can fight for,” said the Pulai Umno Youth information chief.

“At the moment, Umno is perceived to be so conservative, an Islamist party, a party that propagates propaganda, this is what is clouding the party now but Umno is not like that.

“There are a lot of professionals within the party but they feel there is a lack of a caucus or a platform for them to be empowered. By establishing a caucus, it is like a beacon for all these silent progressives within the party to come together,’’ the 24-year-old said.

So who are the ‘progressives’ in Umno?

The group said that members of the progressive caucus include those from the Barisan Nasional Youth Volunteers group, overseas Umno supporters clubs, and local university students.

“These people believe in the progressive value of Umno. So we are not a small group,” Shaqib said.

Another founding member, Ariff Zaky Zolkafly, who is also a committee member of Sg Siput Umno Youth, said the party has yet to possess a new “recipe” in accepting progressive members within their ranks.

He recalled that Umno during its early years comprised many teachers, working professionals and pertinent members of their respective communities.

“In the past, it's true that Umno used to consist of teachers, who were deemed as professionals as many of them had graduated with diploma and degrees and what's more is that they understand the problems at their respective locality.

“As time progress, we see engineers, doctors and other professionals joining the party, that in itself is progressive. But looking at the dynamic of politics right now, Umno have to accept these people but we have to find a new recipe to accept them being progressive within the party,’’ he said.

Making Malay politics progressive

So what exactly counts as “progressive” ideas espoused by the caucus, considering the party by the virtue of its constitution will continue to be an ethnocentric one?

The group said these include ideas and policies that are directed towards advancing Malay politics, while at the same time pushing for equity and moving away from racial politics — the last particularly associated with Umno, an exclusively Malay nationalist party.

“We need to go back to our roots. The true fundamentals of Umno. Umno’s ways of politics that focus on the people’s wellbeing, not emphasising on hate speeches, or struggling for power.

“We do this for the people, not asking for people to listen to Umno, but that Umno should listen to people, change the voice and demand of the people, into a better collective policy-driven approach,” Shaqib said.

Both Shaqib and Ariff also claimed that progressive ideas are hardly new in the party, citing the names of its four influential pioneers: Datuk Onn Jaafar, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.

Onn was the founder and first president of Umno; Tunku Abdul Rahman was the country’s first prime minister and Abdul Razak his immediate successor; while Dr Ismail was the latter’s deputy.

“Progressive ideas are not new, nor unappealing within Umno. From Tunku's brotherhood spirit, the policy framework brought by both Tun Dr Ismail and Tun Abdul Razak, the value of Datuk Onn's unification. There’s a deep progressive tradition in Umno,’’ said Shaqib.

“Progressive means the way we carry this party forward, strongly with the idea of Umno’strue principle and ideologies.

“We are pro-welfare, we want to advance Malay politics, we emphasise on equitable distribution of wealth, without leaving anyone behind. It won’t be a stumbling block, progressive is a caucus, not just a rebellious group,’’ said Shaqib.

Reforming Umno from the inside

Since its inception, Umno has identified itself as a centre-right party, with an emphasis on nationalism, communal politics, and pro-Malay-Muslim policies.

However following the historic 2018 general elections which saw them fall from power for the first time in six decades, political observers have cautioned of the rise of more right-wing politics as Umno and their once political enemy PAS, banded together.

Political experts have stated the cooperation of the two parties dubbed as Muafakat Nasional has adopted a populist stance reinforced by communal and religious politics, a move to appeal to some within the Malay community.

While attracting like-minded progressive to Umno may prove to be challenging on itself, Ariff said the faction itself needs to be active in participating within their own respective party branches and divisions.

“We want them to learn the party’s system and along the way, we will support them and teach them on how to position themselves within the party,” he told Malay Mail.

“Some were reluctant to voice their concerns before but now through this movement, we can help them and from work towards changing Umno from within.”

Ariff also stressed that the progressive caucus is not a platform for any popular figures within the party, saying they are only intending for genuine work towards change within the party for the good of all.

“We are working independently as we do not want to be labelled as anyone’s platform but rather a genuine means of getting likeminded people together and working towards a goal,’’ he said.

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