In his keynote address, party chairman and Malaysian prime minister, Abdullah Ahmed Badawi, was keen to restate his desire to fight corruption and clean up Malaysian politics. Indeed, that was a topic that caused some ripples within UMNO and throughout the country as a whole this month.
“The presence of former UMNO leaders holds great significance for us,” explained Abdullah, “They are loyal, sincere and continue to serve UMNO in body and soul, although they do not hold posts in the government and party.”
One former UMNO leader who was definitely not there and now holds no posts in the government or party was its recently departed vice-president, Isa Abdul Samad. Suspended from the party at the start of July, Isa was also asked to resign from his cabinet position of federal territories minister.
According to reports, he was found guilty on five out of nine charges, including vote-buying, which is tantamount to “money politics” – an often cited phrase used to describe the bribery and political corruption that Abdullah has promised to curb.
Isa was the highest ranking and most severely punished among a number of UMNO officials that were suspended; others included his private secretary. The move, whilst widely welcomed, left some stunned and surprised at the resolve with which the leadership showed in dealing with such an issue at the highest levels of UMNO.
After Isa’s election to the post of vice-president in September 2004, many observers were sceptical of the significant margin the relative newcomer to the party hierarchy had commanded. Indeed, he had the highest number of votes among the three elected vice-presidents, which effectively put him in the third-highest position in the party after the prime minister and deputy prime minister.
Some were not pleased with the results of the polls – most of all those who lost their seats. Disgust was apparent from the information minister, Abdul Sheikh Fadzir, who dubbed the situation “the worst case of money politics in 34 years” when speaking to local press at the time.
With Isa gone the announcement soon came that there were no more “big fish to fry”, and that the purge at the top would end there. However this left some dissatisfied, whilst simultaneously sparking concerns about party unity, with claims that Isa was merely the victim of a conspiracy among his political enemies at either the federal or state level.
Abdullah came to power with a promise to tackle corruption and money politics head-on. In March 2004, he won the first general election since the iconic figure of Mahathir Mohamad stepped down from the top spot in 2002.
He had begun his fight against graft just before the election with the announcement that some senior appointees were to be charged with corruption; however, with expectations stoked before going to the polls in 2004, some grumbles were heard in early 2005 that he had not got on with the job since.
In late May this year a memorandum was submitted to Abdullah from a group of former senior UMNO leaders complaining about the incidence of money politics leading to “the erosion of democracy”.
The ruling against Isa and the others, which came from the disciplinary committee of the party, came less than two months later, but according to some comes as an isolated incident and not part of an ongoing campaign.
“If this came as the result of factional interests and not as part of plans to tackle corruption then we would be unlikely to see many more senior offenders punished,” explained one political commentator when speaking to OBG recently, “At that level there are all sorts of rivalries.”
Indeed, many commentators in the local press have even pointed out that in terms of natural justice the singling out of Isa is hardly fair, especially given that corruption is allegedly so widespread.
Further allegations of money politics have since been made, but some party officials have even cautioned that care should be taken when taking some of them seriously; the accusations could be being used as a tool in factional feuds.
Formal motions on the topic of corruption and money politics are not expected to be among the topics that grace debates of the UMNO General Assembly, but many will have been watching events and gauging the members’ responses to Abdullah’s corruption drive.
Opposition party leaders have been quoted in the Malaysian press pointing out that a lukewarm response from UMNO members on the issue could be interpreted as a lack of solid support for further investigation and disciplinary action against other alleged perpetrators.
The assembly will most certainly be closely monitored in Malaysia and abroad as the discussions of UMNO’s policy generally form the basis of government policy for the coming year. With the all-important 9th Malaysian Plan scheduled to start in 2006, Abdullah will be looking to stamp his own brand of economic success on Malaysia’s future.
Tackling corruption at all levels, not just within UMNO, will make policy more credible and effective; the hope is that entrenched interests won’t stand in the way.