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UNITED MALAYS NATIONAL ORGANIZATION. An ethnic Malay party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has been the dominant political force in multi ethnic Malaya/Malaysia since the party’s inception. UMNO’s raison d’etre has always been to protect and promote Malay political, Socio-Cultural, religious, and economic interests. Its early goals as a secular political party led by westernized aristocrats were directed to unifying and channeling Malay nationalism and to gaining independence from the British, and later to maintaining political dominance while making compromises necessary in a multiethnic coalition.

Since the ethnic riots of 1969 and their political aftermath, the UMNO-led Malays have asserted their political hegemony, as can be seen in the party’s economic policies, which are designed to uplift the Malays through extensive ethnic preferences. With hegemony and increasing cultural security, and with the Malay language no longer an effective ethnic marker, the one remaining significant cultural symbol of Malay ethnic distinctiveness is Islam.

The global Islamic resurgence that swept through Malaysia coincided with the coming to power inside UMNO in 1981 of a new type of UMNO Malay leadership under Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed; this was non aristocratic, locally educated, and somewhat anti-West, and it has been more comfortable than the previous leadership with mixing Islam and politics in a multiethnic and multi religious setting. As a result, the UMNO-dominated government has responded to the Malay opposition Islamic challenge posed by Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) by promoting an islamization program that, while it has rather alarmed non-Muslims, has so far enabled UMNO to “out-Islam” PAS [see Partai Islam Se-Malaysia].

Origins and History. Shortly before World War II, there was a limited and conservative awakening of Malay nationalism, concerned mainly with increasing Malay educational and economic opportunities. There was some mention of creating a national organization, but the war intervened.

After the war, the British inadvertently provided a catalyst to Malay nationalism by announcing a new political arrangement, the Malayan Union, that stripped away most of the powers of the Malay rulers of the various states and offered liberal citizenship regulations for non-Malays. Two months after a White Paper on the Malayan Union was made public, in March 1946, three hundred delegates from forty-one Malay associations from all parts of the peninsula met as a congress in Kuala Lumpur to discuss forming a national organization to ward off “the ignominy of racial extinction.” The congress agreed to form a United Malays National Organization, and a committee was set up to draft a constitution. In May 1946 in Johor Bahru, UMNO was formally inaugurated, and Dato Onn bin Ja’afar was elected its first president.

After some Malay mass demonstrations, noncooperation in the bureaucracy, and a boycott of the Malayan Union inaugural ceremonies, the British quickly capitulated. It was announced in July 1946 that the Malayan Union would be replaced, and UMNO was invited to draft formal proposals for an alternative system of government. The alternative was the Federation of Malaya, which was promulgated in February 1948. The new constitutional arrangement represented a phenomenal victory for UNMO and the Malays. The powers of the Malay rulers were restored, special rights for Malays were instituted, and citizenship for non-Malays was tightly restricted. The party remained a rather loose alliance of diverse groups in its early years; it was not until 1949 that direct, rather than organizational, membership was instituted.

Having successfully accomplished its first major goal and having emerged as the dominant indigenous political force in the country, UMNO came almost naturally into its role in promoting independence, although its leaders stressed that the process should be slow and gradual. The British, for their part, made it abundantly clear to the leaders of the respective ethnic communities that they would only be granted independence when it was demonstrated that the various communities could live together peacefully. To this end, Dato Onn came to believe that independence required multiethnic cooperation and that the obvious vehicle for this would be a multiethnic party. In 1951, however, he resigned when the UMNO rankand-file flatly refused to accept his proposal to open the party’s membership to all ethnic groups.

Ironically, the electoral challenge posed by Dato Onn’s newly formed multi ethnic party in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur Municipal Election led to an informal alliance between the local chapters of UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association. The success of the ad hoc alliance in this election and subsequent local elections led to the establishment of a formal Alliance party, also including the Malayan Indian Congress, which swept fifty-one of fifty-two seats in the first Legislative Council elections in 1955. The elites of the three ethnic parties comprising the Alliance then worked out and sold to the British and their respective communities a set of constitutional compromises and unwritten understandings known as “the Bargain.” The essence of this understanding was that Malays would dominate politically, but the economic interests of non-Malays would be unhindered. The 1957 independence constitution gave the non-Malays revisions in citizenship regulations and the provision of jus soli in return for accepting Malay special rights, Islam as the state religion (but with freedom of religion guaranteed), Malay as the sole official language in ten years’ time (if parliament approved), and the maintenance of the position of the state rulers. With independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, a prince of the

Kedah royal house and a Cambridge graduate, became the first prime minister. Although publicly UMNO proclaimed that it was merely “first among equals” in the Alliance, it was clearly understood by the partners that UMNO was to dominate.

Despite the saliency of ethnicity and the problems it posed, this arrangement of elite agreement within the Alliance worked well for more than a decade, through the creation of Malaysia in 1963 (by adding Singapore and the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak to Malaya), several years of armed confrontation instigated by Indonesia, and the expulsion of Singapore in 1965. because of ethnic conflict. During the 1969 election campaign, however, conflicting ethnic demands escalated. In an atmosphere of heightened ethnic antagonism, riots broke out, mayhem ensued, and a state of emergency was declared.

By the time parliamentary rule was reconvened in 1971, the political system had been altered to entrench certain sensitive ethnic provisions in the constitution and to make the questioning of these provisions illegal. Further, a coalition-building strategy was undertaken by the new prime minister, Tun Razak, to broaden the government’s base of support, and in 1974 a nine-party Barisan Nasional coalition replaced the Alliance. It was made bluntly clear in the new coalition that while some ethnic compromises were still possible, and certain protections would continue to be afforded to the non-Malay community, UMNO intended on the whole to exercise its dominance to uplift the Malay community.

Technically, UMNO no longer exists. Following very closely contested UMNO party elections in April 1987, in which Dr. Mahathir and his deputy were barely reelected, an appeal was made to the High Court to nullify the party elections because unregistered branches had illegally participated in the voting. In February 1988, the High Court judge stunned the nation by declaring that because unregistered branches had participated, in accordance with the law under the Societies Act, UMNO was an illegal organization that must be deregistered. Subsequently Dr. Mahathir registered a new party called UMNO Baru (New UMNO). After the Supreme Court eventually dismissed an appeal in August 1988 to relegalize the old UMNO, the government and press began dropping the “new” from the party name, and the party claimed not only the old UMNO’s assets but also its history. Today the party exists, albeit considerably more authoritarian in its structure, for all intents and purposes as if it were the original party.

Ideological Foundations. UMNO was formed by a number of diverse Malay associations and organizations; however, the first leaders were uniformly westernized aristocrats, and the model they adopted for the party was that of a fully secular Western-style party. But because the aim was to unite all Malays, an effort was made to made to create an umbrella organization under which all Malays could fit. Hence, in 195o a religious wing (or department) was created, known as Persatuan Ulama-ulama Sa-Malaya (Pan-Malayan Union of the Religiously Learned), under the leadership of Haji Ahmad Fuad. When this organization broke away in 1951 and helped form UMNO’s archrival, PAS, no new Islamic wing was contemplated.

Before the Islamic wing left the party, the religious department successfully sponsored a number of rather conservative resolutions, such as fixing a date for the commencement of the fasting month, setting up Islamic studies scholarships for Malays wishing to study abroad, and fully implementing Islamic laws against prostitution and related evils. The department also urged the establishment of Islamic councils in states that were without them and urged that work be undertaken to establish nationally uniform Islamic laws and forms of administration.

UMNO’s leaders wanted to retain the support of Islamic leaders, and certainly UMNO’s policy was to propagate, enhance, and uplift “the excellence of the Religion of Islam.” To this end, the UMNO/Alliance government was willing to channel money to build and repair mosques and suraus (prayer houses), to sponsor national and international Islamic conferences and Qur’an-reading competitions, and to support Islamic education. UMNO also stressed Islamic moral virtues and took pains to convince followers that it was not “unIslamic” for the government to run lotteries, for banks to allow interest on savings, or for peasants to use their zakat (tithes) contribution for economic investment.

Nonetheless, UMNO’s specific commitment to Islam was limited. Constitutionally, Islam was primarily the prerogative of the rulers of each state, who jealously protected this power. The rulers in turn were guided by Islamic Councils of `ulama’. Hence, the apex of the formal structure of authority and administration of Islamic affairs was (and largely remains) at the state level, where the UMNO leaders were happy to leave it. Further, UMNO’s leaders did not believe that the establishment of an Islamic state in Malaysia was either practical or desirable. They were interested in creating a modern,

developed secular state adhering to the principles of parliamentary democracy. As Funston points out (1980, p. 146), their outlook was neither traditional nor modernist. They were practicing Muslims but also dedicated political secularists, and they believed that most religious decisions should be left to the individual. To this end, an Islamic state (especially if theocratic) was not seen as a suitable model. Indeed, many of the top UMNO leaders shared a concern that some of the traditional rural Islamic practices and observances might actually retard efforts to achieve economic development. The UMNO rank-and-file seemed to agree with the leaders, which was not too surprising given the feudal nature of Malay society at that time. In 1951 they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal by the Singapore Malay Union that UMNO should have as a goal the establishment of an Islamic state. The first noticeable change in this consistent attitude of keeping Islam at arm’s length occurred in 1968, when the Tunku finally relented under pressure from Islamic activists and allowed the formation of a National Council for Islamic Affairs to guide the king-the symbolic leader of Islam at the federal level-in administering national Islamic affairs.

In the 1970s, Islamic affairs assumed a much more prominent role in UMNO, partly because of the Islamic revival and competition against PAS, partly because of different personalities leading UMNO and rank-and-file pressure, and partly because after May 1969 UMNO no longer felt that it needed to muzzle sectarian sentiments. In general, however, the change was symbolic in nature. UMNO leaders started wearing the songkok (an Indonesian-style Islamic cap) and attending more conscientiously, at least publicly, to the devotional duties of Islam, such as being seen regularly at Friday prayers. Rock concerts and X-rated movies were banned and other movies noticeably censored as a more puritanical official policy was implemented. Symbolically, the name of the Red Cross was changed to the Red Crescent.

Since mid-1981, when Dr. Mahathir became prime minister, the UMNO-led government has sought to contain the resurgence with its own islamization program and simultaneously to assert more direct leadership and control over Islamic affairs, which can be seen in a number of actions. In 1982 it wooed and coopted Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (known as ABIM), the most important politicized fundamentalist organization in the country [see ABIM];. It established a larger federal bureaucratic Islamic infrastructure and increased the powers of the National Council for Islamic Affairs; it tightened the Societies Act governing associations and amended the penal code in 1983 to give the federal government the absolute right to interpret the Qur’an, syariah (Ar., shari`ah) law, and Islamic teachings (so that those responsible for “deviant” teachings and “incorrect” interpretations could be held liable to prosecution); and it sponsored da’wah (missionary) programs and conferences. Further, in 1982 Dr. Mahathir claimed that Malaysia was already an Islamic state, though not a theocracy, and UMNO started describing itself as the “the world’s oldest and third largest Muslim political party” (an admitted guess by a minister that is now stated as fact).

The islamization process also is evident in the establishment of a number of new institutions: an Islamic bank (Bank Islam Malaysia), followed by Islamic insurance companies and pawnshops; an International Islamic University; a Malaysian Islamic Development Foundation; and an Islamic Teachers Training College. Further, the government decided to upgrade the position of kadis (Ar., qadi; Islamic judges) and syariah courts to the level of magistrates and civil courts. More symbolically, bans were placed on the importation of non-halal beef (beef not slaughtered in accordance with Islamic ritual), and on smoking in all government offices; the government introduced increased instruction in and use of Jawi (Arabic script); the traditional moon-sighting method for determining Ramadan was reestablished; and the supplementary meal program in all national primary schools was ordered suspended during the fasting month, even for non-Muslim students. The tone of the islamization program has been to show that Islam is dynamic and adaptable to present-day needs, and that a disciplined and morally upright society can modernize without sacrificing Islamic values.

The steps taken by Dr. Mahathir have served to upgrade UMNO’s credentials as an Islamic party and have helped UMNO electorally to “out-Islam” its rival, PAS. However, it is not clear that the extensive islamization that has taken place so far has lessened the determination of the fundamentalists to see the constitution altered to allow the imposition of Islamic laws and administration federally. If UMNO feels it must-or chooses to-proceed further with islamization, this may present problems. Inevitably the rights of non-Muslims will be impinged on if Islamic morality laws are implemented and replace civil law, as was suggested briefly at one point, or if Islamic laws in the PAS-controlled state of

Kelantan are allowed to apply to non-Muslims, as the prime minister in 1992 stated he would allow them to be.

[See also Malaysia.]


Fan Yew Teng. The UMNO Drama: Power Struggles in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, 1989. Chronicles the events surrounding the major UMNO split in 1987.

Funston, N. J. Malay Politics in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, (1980, Detailed study of the origins and development of the two major Malay political parties.

Mauzy, Diane K. Barisan Nasional. Kuala Lumpur, 1983. Account of Tun Razak’s coalition-building strategy that led to the creation of the ruling nine-party Barisan Nasional under UMNO’s domination.

Mauzy, Diane K., and R. S. Milne. “The Mahathir Administration in Malaysia: Discipline Through Islam.” Pacific Affairs 56.4 (Winter 1983-1984): 617-648. Concerned with early Mahathir policies, particularly his policy of islamization.

Means, Gordon P. Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation. Singapore, 1991. Comprehensive and well-done modern political history. Milne, R. S., and Diane K. Mauzy. Politics and Government in Malaysia. 2d ed., rev. Singapore and Vancouver, B.C., 198o. Includes detailed discussion of postindependence party politics and the political process.

Pillay, Chandrasekaran. “Protection of the Malay Community: A Study of UMNO’s Position and Opposition Attitudes.” Master’s Thesis, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 1974. Perceptive study by one of Malaysia’s leading intellectuals and social reformers (now known since his conversion to Islam as Chandra Muzaffar).

Ratnam, K. J. Communalism and the Political Process in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur, 1965. Indispensable reading for the ethnic agreements worked out at the time of independence; a classic. Stockwell, A. J. “The Formation and First Years of the United Malays National Organization (U.M.N.O.), 1946-1948.” Modern Asian Studies 2.4 (October 1977): 481-513. Solid account of the origins of UMNO.

Von der Mehden, Fred R. “Malaysia: Islam and Multiethnic Politics.” In Islam in Asia: Religion, Politics, and Society, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 177-201. New York and Oxford, 1987. Sophisticated discussion of the political impact of Islam by a leading expert on the subject.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/united-malays-national-organization/

  • writerPosted On: June 25, 2017
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