THE Umno general assembly this time will be the last before the general election. I'm saying it because analysts said the same thing of the party general assembly last year. But there was no general election.
This assembly is therefore crucial. Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak has already made it clear ahead of the assembly that Umno has to show not only to the Malays but the rest of the country that it is stronger and more solid now to face the general election.
"What is this general assembly about? Simple, it is about the general election and it is about making sure Umno remains in power," a senior Umno leader told this blogger...
Najib has been in full gear the past three years touring the country, going to the ground to meet the people and at the same time implementing the government and economic transformation programmes. Besides fulfilling his international engagements, including buttressing relations with the US in 2010.
This is the final home stretch for Umno. Now it is up to Umno delegates to take it up from there.
Some Umno leaders this blogger spoke to said they hoped the Umno president will be forthright in his address which will set the tone for the assembly,
"I think his forthrightness will be appreciated", said former Wanita Umno chief Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz.
"It is a bitter medicine that we have to swallow. At this time, he has to be cruel to be kind. For Umno, it is make or break. We have to regain our lost ground", she added.
In previous assemblies, the party president had always called for the party to close ranks, to be united, to put party interst above self and so forth.
After 1999, when the party faced losses in the general election, a recurring message had been reform reinvention, re-engineering, renewal, rejuvenation and revival.
Political observers and analysts had a field day making their assessments -- protest against Anwar Ibrahim's sacking, rejection of Umno by Malays and so forth.
But in 2004, Umno and the BN swept the general election with a landslide victory and increased popular votes.
This was after Tun (then Datuk Seri) Dr Mahathir passed the premiership to Tun (then Datuk Seri) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Again analyses abound -- feel good factor, Pak Lah being the benign face of Umno, rejection of PAS Islam, endorsement of Umno's moderate brand of Islam, Pak Lah's promises to fight corruption and so forth,
BN won 198 of the 219 seats in parliamnent with Umno 109, increasing its number from the last elections. MCA and MIC too gained a few more seats.
PAS won only seven (Opposition leader Hadi Awang lost his parliamentary seat), DAP got 12 and Keadilan lost four of the five seats contested (Dr Wan Azizah Ismail was the sole Keadilan MP in parliament).
Then, four years on, it was a drastic change, a shocking scenario.
In 2008 general election which everyone calls a political tsunami, the BN lost five states. It won 140 of 222 parliamentary seats - (Umno 79, MCA 15, MIC 3 and Gerakan 2). Keadilan won 31, PAS 23 and DAP 28. With a total number of 82, they quickly cobbled up a "pakatan".
So many factors conspired to bring down the BN. Many said the oppositon won by default because the BN was arrogant, because of the son-in-law (Khairy Jamaluddin who is Pak Lah's son-in-law), Hindraf and so forth.
It is no different this time. Najib's message is for Umno to be stronger and more united. But circumstances are not the same.
After the devastation in 2008, it is not, and cannot be, business as usual for Umno although Umno, pointed out an observer, had always delivered. It is clearly the strongest component in the coalition.
"We are facing a different Malaysia. Umno cannot be rallying for the Malays only. It should appeal to the non-Malays as well. More so now, with MCA and MIC in a weakened position," said a senior Umno leader.
Najib has set the tone since he took over as PM and party president.
"He is the face of Umno and he is the face of the BN. He is a popular leader. Anywhere he goes, people support him. He has convinced people that he is the leader and the champion of Malays and non-Malays. If this were a prime ministerial race, he will win. But I cannot say the same about Umno," said a senior MCA leader.
The rest of the country will be keenly following -- as always -- proceedings in the Umno general assembly which begins on Thursday at the Putra World Trade centre in KL.
Malays and non-Malays will want to know what Umno is made up of, Has it reformed? Is it sensitive to changes in the country.
For one thing, Umno has got to convince the Malays-- who are so divided that it is the only party that can represent and protect their interests. And we're not talking just about rural Malays but also those in ubran areas.
For another, Umno has got to strike a balance -- promoting Malay interest but at the same time convincing non-Malays that it is also there for them. That is a just party for all.
"The history of Umno is one of inclusiveness, as evident since we achived independence when the Malay leaders invited the non-Malays to be part of the Malayan government in power-sharing and guaranteed their rights and interests.
"People have forgotten this and the opposition has exploited this and have kept smearing Umno with a racist label, relentlessly pushing that perception.
"This is the time for Umno to remind Malaysians that the party looks out not just for the Malays but everyone else, that proposals and propositions in the assembly translate to national policies for everyone's interest," said an Umno veteran.
Umno should be reminded of the 2006 general assembly when it for the first time it was telecast live.
Passionate debates on driving the Malay agenda spooked non-Malays who perceived them to be extremist.
All said and done, post assembly, Umno leaders and members have got to work hard for Umno to be returned to power and for the mandate from the rakyat.
They have to reach out to the people because that was how PAS, DAP and PKR did it in 2008.