Cometh Friday, cometh the date – the future of UMNO is up for debate.
Seldom – have Malaysians seen no holds barred political debates. Being the placid and polite people we are, perhaps we never will.
But Astro AWANI is the channel to tune to on Friday, June 30 at 9.30pm, where one would bear witness to the first ever televised presidential debate in specially-revived 60-minutes long Debat Awani (Awani Debate) featuring contenders for the UMNO presidency.
Indeed, these are trying times if you are one of the supposedly 3.5 million card-carrying UMNO members – less one, discounting Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz (more of whom later).
UMNO the party, finds itself in the throes of its own epochal internal elections
Not only is it in the throes of gut-wrenching, hair-tearing and soul-searching fight for its very existence, UMNO the party, finds itself in the throes of its own epochal internal elections.
Perhaps fired by the fear of winding action by the new broom at the Registrar of Societies (ROS), the ship abandoned by its erstwhile captain – Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak – finally responded to the urgency to conduct its long-suspended party elections.
It was Rafidah who pointed out in an interview that while as President, Najib had indicated that the party elections suspended in 2016 had to be held within 18 months.
Indeed, the last party elections were held way back on October 19, 2013 with office bearers supposed to stand again after a two-year term.
(In her day, Rafidah was a stalwart of the party’s Wanita wing and Supreme Council member but has long since given up her membership. Her support for the Pakatan opposition in GE14 led to her sacking but in typically feisty style, she hit back by saying how could she be expelled when technically she had long since not paid any party dues nor attended any party meetings.)
Further extension stretched their term and when GE14 intervened, the time bar was breached again. With a compliant ROS, there was no danger of forced dissolution despite the best attempts of some renegade party members who sought to declare the party was in breach of its own rules.
So it was then that the party – hounded into the opposition ranks after GE14 on May 9 – set the plan to get its house in order by ordering party elections, with divisional posts and the top positions contested and decided nationwide on June 30.
Had Barisan Nasional – and therefore UMNO– retained the status quo at the polls in May; the party would have had until April 2019 to elect its Supreme Council members as well as fill the posts of the coveted party president and deputy presidents.
It is these three plum posts that, on the one hand, would be considered plum prizes worth fighting for but on the other hand, could perhaps be seen as poison chalice for a party still smarting from the pain of defeat.
Amongst the rank and file would be the hordes of pak ciks bussed in from Pendang in their best batik from Bandung. The Wanita or Puteri contingent, replete in red sarongs would be sashaying their way from the nearest three-star hotel in nearby Jalan Pahang
In the bad, good ole’ days; these biennial jamboree would be the time of year when the true face of the party comes to the fore. Party headquarters at the Putra World Trade Centre (which perhaps remains its one big real estate, revenue-generating asset) would be crawling with long queues of double-parked Vellfires and Alphards.
Pot-bellied middle-aged party apparatchiks in tall songkoks and shiny songket sashes would be seen rushing about looking busy. Many would be puffing on expensive cigars and swig copious amounts of teh tarik at the decrepit collection of warongs and cafes perched precariously on the banks of the Gombak River.
Amongst the rank and file would be the hordes of pak ciks bussed in from Pendang in their best batik from Bandung. The Wanita or Puteri contingent, replete in red sarongs would be sashaying their way from the nearest three-star hotel in nearby Jalan Pahang.
All would be happy just to be able to spread themselves on plastic mats spread in front of giant closed-circuit LED screens to follow speeches and the assembly proceedings in the PWTC lobby.
These are dyed in the wool party members who with great nonchalance refer to their party by the original English acronym spelt U-M-N-O while from time to time agitating to exert the sanctity of the Malay language.
The media fraternity? That’s another story all its own. Sections of the UMNO-friendly press would camp en masse, well-fed and well-looked after with faithful reports of the week-long shebang – for some, no more than mere regurgitation of prepared speeches in standard rousing rah-rah template.
So what of the candidates this time round – five presidential aspirants in all but seemingly only three with the sliver of a chance at winning. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah at 82 representing the patrician elite of the party, Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi at 56 carrying the torch of the old guard while Khairy Jamaluddin, all of 42 seemingly reflecting the aspirations of the party’s youth.
So where is the jaw-jaw in this jostling for the ultimate prize in the party? World War II historians would know it was Nazi-basher Churchill who said meeting jaw to jaw was better than going to war. It was later liberally revised to the version of jaw-jaw is better than war-war by others – a sentiment that now applies to this UMNO elections.
So what of the candidates this time round – five presidential aspirants in all but seemingly only three with the sliver of a chance at winning
Astro AWANI finds itself fortuitously placed to play a facilitating role in this process – playing as we are, host to the presidential debate. Having organized `controlled debates’ in the past while other stations demurred, it was only natural that the main 'combatants’ were persuaded to accept the challenge with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
While AWANI quickly secured the participation of KJ and Ku Li to agree to the debate scheduled to take place on the eve of the divisional elections, Zahid required a little more persuading.
True to his politician pedigree, the wily Bagan Datuk MP extracted a concession, agreeing to join the debate provided he could do so from the safe cocoon of his home constituency. Whether this will pan out to his advantage on Friday remains to be seen.
All three main contenders have already appeared on AWANI's post GE14 talk show programs hosted by anchor Kamarul Bahrin Haron. So far, all have shown some degree of contrition for their role in failing to `bell the 1MDB cat’, all the while careful not to air too much dirty linen in public.
Being the canny politicians that they are, no doubt they have not revealed all – choosing to keep their powder dry for the debate showdown.
When Churchill suggested jaw-jaw, he meant verbal jousting was far more preferable compared to physical confrontation leading to mortal combat in the settling of international territorial disputes.
So, like the Manny Pacquaio – Lucas Matthysse welterweight boxing match scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur in July, it appears that Zahid has scored some early points in this pre-match shadow boxing.
But, a pugilistic bout is 15 rounds long – who knows who amongst the other candidates might slip a sneaky punch in.
A pacifist Churchill would not have approved!