The Barisan Nasional (National Front) has led Malaysia since independence in 1957. As the Alliance Party – which included the Malayan Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association, it governed the Federation of Malaya (then only constituting Peninsular Malaya) from 1957 to 1963.
Then, in 1963, with the support of local political parties (e.g. People’s Action Party in Singapore) and the British Government and its allies such as Australia, the Federation of Malaya grew to include the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and Singapore, and became the Federation of Malaysia. However, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia, after the Singapore state government, continued to demand for a “Malaysia – Malaysia” instead of the Malay First Policy which was promoted by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). In expelling Singapore (more explicitly, Lee Kuan Yew and his party), UMNO continued to be the dominant part of the Alliance.
In 1969, the Barisan Nasional was given a terrible shock when its coalition partners were nearly wiped out, while UMNO itself was badly damaged. This was followed by a race riot —Malaysia’s worst on May 13, 1969 which many argue was engineered by factions within UMNO and later used by Alliance leaders to consolidate control over the country.
The Alliance, led by UMNO, reconstituted itself as Barisan Nasional and co-opted all the opposition except the Democratic Action Party. This is one of the amazing abilities of UMNO and Barisan Nasional — the ability to co-opt all forms of challenge both at the party level or at the level of the coalition.
There are numerous examples of this ability: the split in 1969 of the Alliance was quickly restored, the split in UMNO in 1987 (Tengku Razaleigh challenging Dr. Mahathir) and 1998 (Dr. Mahathir sacking Anwar Ibrahim) and now, after the resounding victory of the opposition in the 2008 election.
Hence, the question — is UMNO at its death bed or is it alive and kicking? Will UMNO (and the politics it practises) go the way of the LDP in Japan or will it reconstitute itself and live another 50 years?
If UMNO reconstitutes (often through violent means as in May 13, 1969, Operasi Lalang in 1988, crackdown on Reformasi in 1998, and increasingly since the latest election defeats), will Malaysia suffer from rising ethno-nationalism or will UMNO become more benign?
And will there ever be a Malaysia without UMNO?