It is everything we have come to expect of an Umno general assembly: the shrill voices, the diversionary topics, the silence on critical issues facing the country, the play on race and religion to shore up support.
But what’s going on beneath the surface?
The late Philip Khoo’s brilliant and perceptive article, published by Aliran after the 2005 Umno Baru assembly, still has more than a ring of truth to it to this day. It is one of the most memorable articles I have read on Umno Baru politics and what drives it.
Let me reproduce an extract:
But, really, talk of bumiputera interests at the assembly was all eye-wash.
Why? Because only a very small proportion of people can hope to hold any large amount of shares in public listed companies in any market economy.
Malaysia is no exception. Here, information on the distribution of share ownership at the individual level is not easily available because of an obsession with size distribution by race. But when we say Malays own 19 per cent of the shares of public listed companies, we don’t mean all, or even most, Malays own those shares. Indeed, a majority of Malays don’t own any share, and the majority of those who hold shares own miniscule quantities.
In particular, pay close attention to the accompanying tables to his piece showing share and unit trust distribution. (The figures may be from 2000, but has there been any substantial change in percentages since then?)
Those tables should tell you a lot about what you would need to know about intra-ethnic wealth disparities in the country, often hidden by just a single overall Gini coefficient statistic.
So the assembly proceedings should be viewed in this context. And Najib’s decision to retain the Sedition Act appears aimed at entrenching Umno’s grip on power and appeasing some of the elites – who are casting a wary eye at an increasingly vocal public, struggling to cope with rising costs and household debt and now awakening to the inequality that has persisted for so long.