KUALA LUMPUR: “What happened was we became delusional; we got drunk on our own Kool-Aid and we got carried away,” United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin said.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia from his office on the 28th floor of the UMNO building in Putra World Trade Centre, the 42-year-old looked remorseful when asked what the party could have possibly done to avoid the May 9 bloodbath that saw the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lose federal power for the first time since the country’s independence more than six decades ago.
"We didn’t want to bell the cat. Nobody, after Muhyiddin was purged, after Shafie was purged … Nobody wanted to acknowledge we have a problem. That was a terrible mistake on our part."
A MISTAKE OF A LIFETIME
Khairy said he wished that he had told the party leader that the grassroots had rejected UMNO and what this meant, after then-prime minister Najib Razak dropped his former deputy Muhyiddin Yassin and vice president Shafie Apdal from his Cabinet after both publicly criticised him over 1MDB, the state fund where billions of dollars went missing.
The former youth and sports minister said the mistake of failing to speak the truth in order to protect Najib is one he will personally have to live with for the rest of his life.
Malaysian authorities have barred Najib and his wife from leaving the country, amid reports that the government was reopening investigations into a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal at 1MDB.
"Was there a signal? Yes, there were clear signals but we became oblivious to the signals," said Khairy.
"This must not happen again, we must not ever allow our leaders in UMNO to be detached from reality and not ask tough questions. If we continue with our feudal mindset of protecting the leader from the truth, UMNO will go extinct”
Now punished by the masses, Khairy narrowly retained his parliamentary seat in Rembau in the general election.
Negeri Sembilan, the state he is from, also fell into the hands of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
SYSTEMIC REJECTION OF BN, UMNO
While he blamed ex-party president Najib’s leadership for BN's disastrous showing in the general election, Khairy said the loss was a collective responsibility.
Both BN and UMNO need to accept that they have been systemically rejected by the people in order not to repeat the same mistake, he added.
In 2008, when BN lost their two-thirds majority, Khairy’s father-in-law and then-prime minister Abdullah Badawi was replaced by Najib.
But the party did not change operationally, Khairy said.
"They thought that by changing the head, everything will sort itself out. We cannot make the same mistake again," he said.
"It’s not just rejection of Najib, but also rejection of UMNO and BN; a systemic rejection of what we stand for. If we can accept that, then we can start to rebuild this party."
A CREDIBLE OPPOSITION
Khairy said there were four things the party would have to do in the next year or two in order to offer itself as a “credible alternative” to the PH government within five years.
For starters, UMNO and BN need to make sure their numbers are preserved, Khairy said. Currently BN has 78 MPs in parliament, of which 54 belong to its main component party UMNO.
Secondly, he said UMNO needs to defend itself against any attempt from the PH government to de-register the party for failing to hold its party elections.
Thirdly, BN needs to learn to be a strong and credible opposition in the parliament by providing checks and balances to the government.
Finally, the party needs to work on structural changes to reflect the changing aspirations of the people, he said.
The party had announced on Monday that it was setting up a task force to oversee its revamp, with Khairy saying that UMNO must take collective responsibility for the colossal losses and come up with an action plan to fix its problems.
UMNO: UNITED MALAYSIANS NATIONAL ORGANISATION?
As the Malay votes shifted away from UMNO and BN, Khairy said it was time for UMNO to re-look its structure, including the possibility of opening its membership to all Malaysians regardless of race or religion.
BN component parties like the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress also fared badly in the elections, while the Sarawak component parties may now be tempted to leave the coalition.
"We should seriously consider all options. What model do we want? United Malays National Organisation or United Malaysian National Organisation? What is our DNA, what is our raison d'être?" said Khairy.
"These questions need to be asked; we should not be fixed in what model we take. Everything is on the table."
With jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim scheduled to be released soon, Khairy said BN, as the opposition now, must get ready to face both Anwar and Mahathir when parliament begins its new sitting.
"We have to be ready: We are up against two giants, two big beasts in the political world. We have to make sure we are ready," he said.
"Malaysians have chosen two giants to lead us; our challenge is to make sure we can play the role of checks and balances against the government.
"I am an ant against the two giants, and I have to make sure I can think quickly and move quickly in next the five years."