UMNO’s dilemma in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition government – Part 1

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi on the 24th of April, 2020 

It has been more than one month since Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan National (PN) cabinet was sworn in on the 10th of March 2020. Each political party within this uneasy coalition faces their unique political challenges in operating as part of the government. But no party faces bigger questions and challenges than UMNO as it grapples with the question of how it wants to work with BERSATU. This is UMNO’s biggest dilemma within the PN government. 

From the outset, let me be clear on this point – UMNO leaders and members would much prefer to be in government together with BERSATU than to be in the opposition. In government, UMNO would have access to the privileges of power including access to positions in Ministries, Government Agencies and GLCs. But there is NOTHING about the arrangement in the current PN government which UMNO would find acceptable in the longer term. Most importantly, from a political strategy perspective, UMNO leaders must realize that BERSATU’s ultimate goal is to replace UMNO in the political arena as the dominant Malay party in government. This is the only way that BERSATU can survive post GE15 and UMNO knows this. 

After ruling the country for over 60 years, UMNO is not used to playing the role of No.2 in government. And yet, this is the position they find themselves in today. With 41 elected Members of Parliament (MPs), they have more MPs than BERSATU, who only have 29 MPs (this includes the 10 MPs from PKR but does not include the 5 MPs who are supporting Tun Mahathir1). And yet, BERSATU have more Ministers (11 including the Prime Minister versus 9 for UMNO) and Deputy Ministers (15 versus 8 for UMNO) than UMNO. Most of the key Ministries are also being helmed by BERSATU MPs (Education, Home Affairs, Economy, Rural Development, Trade and Industry) or individuals aligned to the Prime Minister (Finance) with UMNO having perhaps only one relatively ‘senior’ ministry, namely Defence. Two out of the Four Senior Ministers are also from BERSATU with UMNO having only one Senior Minister.

UMNO is also facing the unprecedented experience of its President, Deputy President and two of its Vice Presidents (VP) not having any government positions. 3 Ismail Sabri, the Minister for Defence and one of the four Senior Ministers is the only UMNO VP in the cabinet. Furthermore, UMNO MPs who are elected members of the UMNO Supreme Council were not given any government positions 4 while UMNO MPs who are not part of the top leadership of the party were made Ministers5. UMNO Sabah was also completely left out of the cabinet in favour of BERSATU MPs who had left UMNO6 and PKR7

This situation is not one which must sit comfortably with UMNO’s leadership. This is why the statement that was issued by the UMNO president on the 12th of March 2020, after an UMNO Supreme Council meeting, put so many caveats in its support for Muhyiddin Yassin’s government.8 There was no mention of any efforts to strengthen Perikatan Nasional (PN) as a ruling coalition. Instead, the UMNO president went out of his way to mention efforts to strengthen its partnership with PAS via Muafakat Nasional (MN) and to build up the strength of Barisan Nasional (BN). Most importantly, the statement ended with a commitment to support the new government only until the next general election (GE15). 

Any form of cooperation between BERSATU and UMNO will likely cease once parliament is dissolved, whenever this happens. It is hard to see how UMNO and BERSATU can agree to any seat allocation formula. UMNO and PAS will have their hands full in allocating the 100 parliament seats in Peninsular Malaysia where both parties contested in GE14 under a Muafakat Nasional (MN) formula in GE15. UMNO, PAS and BERSATU competed in 47 parliament seats in Peninsular Malaysia in GE14. These include seats like Titiwangsa (where BERSATU’s Rina Harun, the current Minister of Women, Family and Community Development defeated Johari Abdul Ghani, former Minister of Finance II and who is still the chair of UMNO in the Federal Territories) and Ketereh (where current Federal Territories Minister, Annuar Musa from UMNO defeated current Education Minister, Mohd Radzi bin Jidin from BERSATU who was subsequently appointed a Senator). 

The 47 parliament seats also includes seats which feature UMNO MPs who subsequently joined BERSATU post GE14 such as Jeli (Mustapha Mohamed, currently a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office), Larut (Hamzah bin Zainuddin, current Home Minister), Mersing (Abdul Latiff bin Ahmad, current Minister of Rural Development) and Masjid Tanah (Mas Ermieyati binti Samsudin, the current Deputy Minister of Tourism). It is hard to imagine UMNO having many positive feelings about these defectors much less negotiating with BERSATU to allow these incumbent BERSATU MPs to continue to contest in these seats with UMNO and PAS’ support. 

In addition, the current cabinet also features former PKR MPs who joined BERSATU and whose seats were contested by both UMNO and PAS in GE14 including Gombak (Azmin Ali), Indera Mahkota (Saifuddin Abdullah), Bandar Tun Razak (Kamaruddin Jaafar), Batu Pahat (Mohd Rashid bin Hasnon) and Nibong Tebal (Mansor bin Othman). Again, it is hard to see UMNO or PAS both giving way to these BERSATU MPs in GE15. 

UMNO has shown that it can defeat BERSATU even while it was in opposition at the state and federal levels in the Tanjung Piai and Kimanis parliamentary by-elections in Johor and Sabah respectively. With its grassroots support intact and with the continued nurturing of its relationship with PAS, there is no need for UMNO (and PAS) to make concessions or to work with BERSATU in GE15. 

Knowing this, what is BERSATU’s likely response in the short term (over the next year) and closer to GE15? And what is UMNO’s likely strategy? This will be covered in Part 2.

1. These 5 are the MPs for Langkawi (Dr. Mahathir himself), Muar (Syed Saddiq), Jerlun (Mukhriz Mahathir), Kubang Pasu (Amiruddin Hamzah) and Simpang Renggam (Dr Maszlee Malik) (at the time of writing)

2. They are Azmin Ali (MITI Minister) and Senator Radzi Jidin (Minister of Education)

3. They are Zahid Hamidi (president), Mohd Hasan (Deputy President), Khaled Nordin (Vice President) and Mahadzir Khalid (Vice President)

4. Azalina Othman (Pengerang), Bung Moktar (Kinabatang), Azeez Abdul Rahim (Baling), Noh Omar (Tanjong Karang) and Ahmad Maslan (Pontian)

5. Khairy Jamaluddin (Rembau), Hishamuddin Hussein (Sembrong), Halimah Sadique (Kota Tinggi) and Dr Adham Baba (Tenggara)

6. Dr Ronald Kiandee (Beluran) was made Minister of Agriculture and Abdul Rahim Bakeri (Kudat) was made Deputy Minister of Finance. Both of them left UMNO to join BERSATU in February 2019.

7. Jonathan Yassin (Ranau) was made Deputy Minister of Home Affairs. He left PKR to join BERSATU.