Sunday, March 15, 2009


NST, March 16 2009

Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal is the second person from Sabah to make a bid for one of the three vice-presidents’ posts in Umno. He tells how he wants to rejuvenate the party and why Umno is not doing as badly as everyone says it is.

Q: How would you strengthen the party if you are elected as vice-president?

A: I look at the challenges to Umno and the Barisan Nasional. We have to rejuvenate the party so that it can be a platform not just for the Malay community and Islam but also a platform to engage the young generation who will determine the outcome of the next general election.

Umno must be accepted not just by Malays in Umno but by Malays outside Umno and also by the Chinese, Indians, non-members and the public as a whole.

I am confident after serving in the supreme council for several terms and after being in the government for more than 20 years I can help Umno achieve these goals.

Q: You've asked the delegates to consider you because you represent Sabah Umno and feel that that region of the party needs a voice.

A: I am contesting not to represent Sabah. I have sat on the supreme council for five terms and though my voice is coloured by the Sabah perspective, I am not running to become vice-president for Sabah Umno. If I win, I am going to be a vice-president of Umno Malaysia.

There are grievances from Sabah especially about development and infrastructure needs that were voiced in Parliament. But at the policy-making stage such as the Umno management committee where the vice-presidents sit, there is space to bring in the Sabah perspective.

Q: You along with the top three aspirants for the vice-president's posts all seem to be from the same generation. Do you feel that a generational shift is coming to Umno?

A: The reality is there. If you look at the division leaders, in Kedah alone 60 per cent of the division chiefs are new. In Sabah, we have the youngest division chiefs. This is happening on the ground.

I do not deny that veterans have the strength to contribute. I am not suggesting a total regeneration but we should get a good combination.

Q: What kind of changes do you want to bring for Umno if you win?

A: We want a sense of belonging where the young feel that Umno's struggle is also about them. We have seen how the young rejected Umno in the 12th general election. So we have to show that Umno is also their struggle, not a struggle for the elite.

Umno is a grassroots party, that's how we managed to gain independence. We have to also make leaders accessible to the rakyat and the voters. There also needs to be a more formal structure to the organisation of the BN so that the friction that occurs between the component parties does not become a spectacle in the media.

We also need to make Umno and BN relevant to the rakyat so that it becomes an umbrella for the people to take refuge. The party also needs to strengthen its ties to Sabah and Sarawak, for example by cultivating a relationship with government officers in these states.

Q: Umno seems to be faced not only with external challenges but an internal crisis that threatens to rip it apart.

A: It is not a crisis that can weaken us but we must find ways in which we can address our shortcomings.
For instance, the Permatang Pauh by-election, going by the number of members we have, we should not have lost as we have 20,000 members but only 12,000 of them cast their votes. So what happened to the 8,000?

Q: Some say that Umno has lost its original struggle. That it is no more the party that fought for the people and brought independence.

A: Umno has not forgotten, only its members have forgotten. Maybe members now have different priorities.

In the past it was about freeing the nation from colonialism, after that it was about development and helping our children become professionals.

Now everyone is educated and are computer-literate and can read blogs. So now it's about ensuring that these people are not misled by lies. So this is what we have to work on. If we look at foreign parties such as in the United States, for example, where Barrack Obama, a non-white, was elected president.

In the US, it can happen but not in Malaysia, because in the Federal Constitution it is clear that priority is given to Malays, to Islam and the Malay rulers. We cannot duplicate what happens in the US, here but what we can do is look at regenerating the leadership in the party.

Q: You talk about making Umno more inclusive where it is not just for Malays but also for Malaysians. What non-Umno Malaysians are seeing is that while senior Umno leaders preach this, the reality is that the Umno grassroots are Malay-centric. We can see this in how ex-Bukit Bendera division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail un-ashamedly said in a ceramah to all and sundry that non-Malays are second-class citizens.

A: Fundamentally, Umno fights for the Malays and the Muslims but in doing so it does not mean that it dismisses the interests of other communities. Umno's struggle will also benefit other communities.

When Umno is strong, other components (in BN) will be strong. So the question is how we can strengthen Umno's struggle without creating fear in others. We need clarity and focus so that it does not seem to be a racist struggle. It is not a racist struggle.

Q: Is the slide in support for Umno alarming?

A: Not by much, if you look at the track record and the seats contested by Umno in the last general election we were able to secure more than 80 per cent, the exceptions are in the component members' performance.

In fact we have had to look after our components and we had to give some of the seats where the majority are our voters and Umno members and they did not secure the seat. These are the structures that we have to look at to strengthen the BN struggle.

Q: But component parties like MCA and Gerakan are saying they lost their seats in the election because of their association with Umno.

A: If that were true, then how come we won a lot of the Umno seats in Sabah and the peninsula? We won more than 80 seats of the 191 that we contested. Perception is one thing but the reality is another. We have to look at the truth.

I don't deny that there was a loss of support for Umno but to say that it is alarming, that is another thing. We are still there but we should not be complacent.

Q: It seems that the seats that you mentioned were seats in Malay-majority areas but in mixed seats Umno and BN component parties lost. So is there a split in the sense that only Malays are voting Umno but non-Malays are not?

A: That is not necessarily true and we have to look at the sentiments on the ground. The choice of candidate plays a role and it's not just about the party.

Q: A lot in Umno revolves around personality cult of leaders who have their string of followers. With the leadership change, we are starting to see the birth of a Najib (Datuk Seri Najib Razak) personality cult. Do you think that because you were his deputy in the Defence Ministry, this perception that you are one of his people will help you in the vice-presidential race?

A: I was a deputy to Tok Mat (former information minister Tan Sri Mohamad Rahmat), a deputy to Ting Chew Peh (former Local Government and Housing minister Tan Sri Dr Ting Chew Peh). I was a deputy to many ministers (laughs).


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