The approach that UMNO, and especially UMNO Youth must take, is organizing events and initiatives that fill the void for young Malay professionals and students who are politically aware but have few opportunities from which to get involved directly with political parties’ programs.
For the longest of times, UMNO Youth – at all levels – has been almost exclusively reliant on traditional programs and events to account for its activities. Chief amongst these are sports events – the mainstays are sepak takraw, football, and more recently futsal. You would be hard pressed to find a single week in the year where there isn’t an UMNO Youth division somewhere in this country hosting a football tournament. Then of course, the ‘compulsory’ programs – the two Hari Raya celebrations, break of fast sessions, and all manner of events marking religious holidays – tend to make up the rest of the agenda calendar. Whilst turnout can often be impressive – especially if a senior party figure attends the program – often the same people are seen at these functions. Needless to say, this does not bode well with the effort of winning over new voters – nevermind the fact that even those ‘retained’ as a result of this phenomenon are UMNO members, active followers or hangers-ons who were always going to vote Barisan anyway.
Seminars, workshops or even assistance to flood victims are great ways to fulfil the community service requirement within UMNO’s political handbook. And they shall always be regarded as bread and butter initiatives so long as the respective issues remain existent in the Malay community – lack of education, absence of entrepreneurial culture, and monsoon seasons continue to haunt Malays. In areas like these, UMNO Youth shows great commitment and boasts a good track record, especially in rural areas where opportunities are few and far between.
However, these efforts, essential as they are, hardly contribute towards making UMNO more attractive to the sections of society which have made it a habit to shut the party out. Amongst young professionals and students, there is an inertia to swallow much of what UMNO, says or does – analogous of the barriers to entry faced by cigarette and alcohol brands – which makes it impossible to engage them through UMNO’s conventional political language and action. UMNO is suffering from a perception-deficit, and, contrary to popular belief amongst UMNO circles, it is not merely down to perceived corruption, excesses and arrogance. Instead, the image problem that UMNO suffers also has much to do with the fact that many young people simply cannot identify with its activities, collective peculiar mannerisms and exclusivist styles. A comprehensive re-look at its image is called for.
As such, taking a leaf from the business world where similar challenges are faced, UMNO Youth – charged with winning over young voters – must be creative in introducing more unconventional programs under the UMNO banner to show that it is much more than a party of linen-clad middle aged men who walk with an almost uniform swagger. Instead of shoving ideology down young professional’s throats, UMNO Youth must be clever enough to use the back door approach by holding programs with content that appeal to this group as a means to ‘advertise’ what UMNO is all about. Traditional programs that glorify UMNO and its history simply do not work anymore. Brave and interesting forums that bring together world leaders, or even entertainment events which can guarantee crowds in the thousands – these are but examples of programs that can be couched as part of the new UMNO Youth approach. This may sound like an oxymoron, but it wouldn’t be politics if we just did politics.
More than plain backdoor approach towards engaging young people, UMNO Youth must also assist in engineering new ideas on matters relating to nation-building which exist aplenty amongst the younger population. Activities, public pronouncements and policy proposals traditionally made by non-political youth movements need to make a comeback, and here, too, UMNO Youth can contribute. On one end of the spectrum, Belia 4B has a vast network which, however, caters to a similar constituency as UMNO Youth. On the other rests various decidedly pro-Opposition youth movements which speak the same language that Pakatan Rakyat leaders do. Therefore, the onus is on UMNO Youth to populate the space that currently exists – of undecided youths who want a say in the direction this country takes. The wing should cultivate a network of professionals and bright graduates, giving them the room to voice opinions and discuss all manner of issues pertaining to national development.
To have any chance of capturing support of the new generation from the Opposition, UMNO Youth must teach itself to excite voters, and not expect the latter to come to accept its ways. What better way to undergo a makeover than coming up with exciting programs which challenge limitations to positive effect, at once redrawing the boundaries of what UMNO Youth supposedly represents.
Results may not be instantaneous, but at the very least, people will appreciate the fact that for all of its flaws, UMNO Youth can straddle different worlds without being hypocritical – it can be fiercely committed to its political struggle to advance the Malays, yet still be relevant to the wants of its constituents.